The James Omura centenary: 1912-2012

James Omura - Broadway High School photo
James Omura at Broadway High School, Seattle

One hundred years ago today, November 27, 1912, Utaka Matsumoto was born to a sawmill worker and his wife on Bainbridge Island, Washington. At age 6 his mother returned ill to Japan and he never saw her again. At age 13 he would take the name James Omura and leave home to work in the Alaskan salmon canneries. In this centenary year we recognize Omura as the Japanese American journalist most willing to take a stand — demanding of the Tolan Committee “Has the Gestapo come to America?,” editorializing against the draft resistance at Heart Mountain in “Let Us Not Be Rash,” and testifying decades later to the Bernstein Commission for redress.

Jimmie would always tell me that he didn’t expect to be remembered or recognized for his accomplishments until 50 years after his death. Then he would go on to complain about the lack of guts among the third-generation Sansei journalists, including, one had to assume, myself. But he seemed genuinely pleased to be awarded the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the then-fledgling Asian American Journalists Association, and we were fortunate to have recovered and told his story in our PBS film Conscience and the Constitution.

In this centenary year we may get word of publication of Jimmie’s memoirs, a work left incomplete by his passing in 1994 and painstakingly edited ever since by Professor Art Hansen under the working title, Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura.

We were saddened to recently hear from Art of the passing of Jimmie’s second wife, Haruko Karen Omura, on September 4th at the age of 85, but we have been in touch with the two sons of Karen and Jimmie. The younger son Wayne is a writer, author of the book Movies and The Meaning of Life: The Most Profound Films in Cinematic History, available on Amazon. We asked Wayne for his reflections on this date:

On the Hundredth Anniversary of My Father’s Birth

Many fathers tell stories about their lives, and it is hard to know how much is true and how much is tall-tales.  It was only after my father retired that he became involved, once again, in politics, history, and journalism.  It was then that I began to suspect that those “tall-tales” might be true.

After his death, after seeing all that was written about him, all the many books in which his name appeared, I realized that those tall-tales were really “true-tales.”  I should have listened better and taken more interest as I was growing up.  But like all kids, we had our own lives to live, our own problems in the here and now. The past was history.  The words went in one ear and out the other.

A personal anecdote may be in order which displays my Dad’s character, as well as the most important principle he taught me.

While working after college as night-manager in a small grocery store, I had numerous physical confrontations with shoplifters.  My Mom (being a mother) thought it was reckless and stupid.  “Why risk your life and physical injury for a candy bar?” On a practical level she was right, but on an ethical level she was wrong.  My Dad’s response was an unusual outburst of anger. (He had mellowed a lot in his later years.)

“He should do what he thinks is right!” he shouted.

Whether an action is dangerous, unpopular, destroys your career and reputation, makes you an outcast in your own community and to your own people: You should always do what you think is right!  (Not just when the world is at peace and you are relatively safe.)

Wayne Omura
written on Thanksgiving Day 2012

If you knew Jimmie, or just share our admiration of him, consider this an open thread and please leave a comment below.

For this occasion here is a part of the extended interview with James Omura in which he describes his trial for conspiracy, as featured on Disc Two of our new DVD. Happy birthday, Jimmie. Your fighting spirit is deeply missed.

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