by Robin Washington
The Boston Herald
Wednesday, November 29, 2000
“Conscience and the Constitution” WGBH-TV (Ch. 2), Friday at 2 a.m.
Count on WGBH (Ch. 2) to put making money before broadcasting quality programs. Because of its pledge drive, the station will excuse itself from tomorrow night’s national airing of a fine documentary, “Conscience and the Constitution,” bumping the program to 2 o’clock Friday morning.
Those who set their VCRs to catch it will most likely learn something they didn’t know. That’s the story of a handful of Japanese Americans who took a stand against injustice while interned in the United States’ shameful “relocation” camps during World War II.
Their only crime was their Japanese ancestry, and about two-thirds of the 120,000 shipped off in 1942 to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself called concentration camps were American citizens.
Once in the camps, they encountered military police “with the guns pointed in, not out,” says narrator George Takei (of “Star Trek” fame). They also found they had virtually none of the rights afforded to full-fledged Americans, including the opportunity to join the armed forces.
That changed as the war dragged on and the military reclassified the camps’ Nisei, or American-born children of Japanese immigrants, as 1-A draft fodder fit for service. While hundreds volunteered or complied with induction, a number did not, vowing not to serve a country that deprived them of their rights and held them as untried prisoners in their own land.
Among leaders of the effort was Jimmie Omura, a journalist who escaped relocation by taking up residence in Colorado, outside the Pacific coast states subject to the relocation order.
The just cause of their efforts notwithstanding, the reward for the 63 draft resisters and their organizers was hard time at Leavenworth and other prisons. The only one acquitted was Omura, protected by First Amendment rights, though he never again worked as a journalist.
Perhaps more painful than prison was the ostracism in the community led by the Japanese American Citizens League, a group that collaborated with the government in identifying and branding the resisters as traitors.
They were also sold down the river by the American Civil Liberties Union, though this fascinating betrayal and contradiction of the venerable rights group’s raison d’etre could have been examined more fully in the documentary.
So, too, should have any connection between the camp resisters and other organized conscientious objection efforts, such as those by War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, whose own wartime program for Japanese American rights is left unexplored in the program.
Producer Frank Abe’s work on the program spanned 10 years, during which many of the principals died. Abe said he was drawn to the story after questioning what his parents had done to stand up for their rights when they were interned. Not until production was well under way did his father admit he had donated $2 to the Fair Play Committee, testament of the outcast status of the resisters and their supporters that still endures in the Japanese American community today.
That community is beginning to come to grips with the issue, a move made easier bythe federal government’s apology to Japanese Americans in 1988. But this enlightened view of history isn’t helped by ‘GBH’s decision to keep it buried in the wee hours, where it may as well not exist.