by Wayne Maeda
Nichi Bei Times contributor
Friday, December 15, 2000
“Conscience and the Constitution,” a documentary produced by former Bay Area activist Frank Abe and funded, in part, by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, brings to national audience, “the rest of the story,” of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II.
This documentary challenges the long held and invented images that Japanese Americans” only responses to incarceration were quiet resignation, volunteering into an all segregated unit to fight in Africa and Europe, or serve admirably with the MIS in the Pacific theater. This documentary shown on national PBS presented those responses and added “the rest of the story.”
Abe deftly allows the Heart Mountain resisters to tell their own stories and captures the essence of their organized resistance to the draft — with their conscience and constitutional issues at stake.
Heart Mountain turned out to be the site of the only real organized protest and resistance to the draft among the 10 internment camps. There, the Fair Play Committee, led by Kiyoshi Okamoto, Frank Emi and others, dedicated their activities to defending their constitutional rights.
They staked out their issues of restoration of their civil rights and removal of their families from camps: they then would gladly fight for their country.
Of particular interest is James Omura (now deceased), who as a journalist, supported and lent his voice to their cause even when so-called civil rights organizations (national ACLU/Japanese American Citizens League) actively turned against the resisters.
The Heart Mountain”s 63 resisters (ultimately the figure rose to 85) were tried in what was to become the largest single mass trial for draft resistance in United States history. The leaders of the Fair Play Committee were tried separately and convicted. Later, on appeal, their convictions were thrown out but not before serving two years of hard time in federal prison.
These 63, along with several hundred other Japanese American resisters from the other camps, were given a full pardon by President Truman. This story, however, does not end with a presidential pardon for while the resisters may been recognized for their principled stand by the president of the United States, some of the JACL leaders began a campaign of ostracism against the resisters and journalist James Omura.
If there is a short coming in this documentary, it is the fact there were other resisters in other camps, albeit, unorganized that needed to be given voices. Especially when one considers that other resisters had the courage to resist the draft singly without an organization like the Fair Play Committee to guide, encourage and support them.
The JACL, as an organization, finally apologized this year to the resisters and recognized them for their principled stand. It has taken some 55 years for the national JACL to do something that the JACL demanded the United States government do for its role in the incarceration: recognition of wrong doing and an official apology to the Nikkei community.
This program reminds all of us that courage and protest can take many forms. This is also a story about standing for something and paying the price. Perhaps equally important, is that this program also forces the Nikkei community to confront and hopefully look beyond the false dichotomies (loyal or disloyal, war hero or coward, or worse who was more American) created by those interested in reinventing the Japanese Americans as passive and quiet Americans.
If the Nikkei community can look beyond these false dichotomies that have divided us for over half a century, then this story can be one of reconciliation. Mits Koshiyama, one of the resisters said so simply and yet eloquently that, “the veterans did what they thought was right and we did what we thought was right.”