by Frank Abe
April 2, 1990
Published in the Rafu Shimpo and Hokubei Mainichi
Copyright 1990 by Frank Abe. All rights reserved.
SAN FRANCISCO — Soon after beginning research into the wartime role of the Japanese American Citizens League, attorney Deborah Lim felt a conflict of her own. She couldn’t figure out whether she’d been hired to be the JACL’s prosecutor, or its defense attorney.
She decided to stay neutral, but what she found corroborates the findings of other, unbiased historians — that the JACL cooperated with U.S. intelligence by identifying community leaders before Pearl Harbor; that the JACL collaborated in the segregation of internees who opposed its policies; and that the JACL both urged the prosecution of those who resisted the JACL-sponsored military draft and later suppressed mention of them in postwar histories.
“The amount of participation by some members within the JACL with intelligence agencies, both before Pearl Harbor and during the pre-evacuation period, was very disturbing to me,” Lim says. “The whole notion of informing on people where there really wasn’t any basis to … there was a lot more of that kind of activity than I was expecting to find.”
Lim’s original 94-page draft is being reviewed by a JACL committee chaired by president Cressey Nakagawa, which is expected to add findings and conclusions prior to its scheduled release later this month. The entire package will be formally presented to the JACL biennial convention in San Diego in June. The study was requested by delegates to the group’s 1988 convention in Seattle, who balked at resolutions seeking an acknowledgment of the JACL’s harsh treatment of wartime dissidents, and a reconciliation with those who suffered what one resolution called the “injuries, pain and injustice” at the hands of those acting in the name of JACL.
Lim’s report summarizes 6-months of research into the archives of the JACL and U.S. government, library special collections, and oral histories. After submitting her initial report, the JACL directed her to fly to Washington, D.C., for a 4-hour interview with the JACL’s wartime field secretary, Mike Masaoka.
Lim, 33, realized the volatility of the issues she was getting into soon after her hiring last June, but she says no one has tried to influence her, either from the community or from JACL itself. “The sense that I got from the staff was that they were very reluctant for me to work out of the (JACL) office because they didn’t want the appearance that they were looking over my shoulder,” she says. “In fact, I felt like a pariah because nobody wanted to talk to me!”
Lim admits that as an attorney she’s more accustomed to acting as an advocate on behalf of a client, having worked as a staff lawyer for the Asian Law Caucus in the Bay Area. Without daily guidance from the JACL, Lim worked from a 10-point outline directing her to focus on such questions as the decision to cooperate with expulsion, the presumption of disloyalty among those who answered -no-no” to the Loyalty Oath, and the JACL’s actions towards the draft resisters who were later pardoned by the government. She was told to produce a narrative with selected extracts “so that’s what I did. I decided I am the grunt. I am the distillation process. I am just the fact presenter.” Her own report is devoid of any findings or conclusions. “It just says, here is this document, here’s what it says, here’s this other document. I decided to just set the stage and let the historical material speak for itself.”
Lim’s contract as a researcher stipulates that she cannot publish independently until September of this year, well after the convention for which her work is intended. But Lim remains protective of the integrity of her research. “The community has a number of advocates, they’re doing fine, they don’t need any help from me. I don’t want any charges leveled at me that the research was tampered with or biased in any way,” she says. Likewise, she says if the JACL committee overseeing her research tried to take something out, “then I would say, you’ve just terminated me as a researcher, and I refuse to do that.” She says she would then feel free to make that information available to the public.
Lim has taught the history of the evacuation test cases to her students in Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley and SF State, but she says this project revived memories of family discussions around the dinner table. “They had heard the rumors that the JACL had been paid money to turn people in to the FBI,” she says. “I just thought it was family ranting and raving. We’re Chinese American, but they lived in the part of Sacramento that had a fairly large Japanese American population. My mom s-aid after the internment order, there were only three people left in her class.”
Now having studied the issue for herself, Lim has a more philosophical understanding. “I’ve learned how under times of crisis, people who are very similar in culture and background and education can react drastically differently to outside stimuli.
“It says a great deal about an organization that it’s willing to confront criticism about itself and undergo a process of self-examination. That’s a difficult thing for people, and it’s even more difficult for organizations that have been in existence for 60-years now.”
Lim says it’s never too late to be examining the JACL’s wartime role, especially after Congress and the President have acknowledged their own actions through redress legislation.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” she says. “If the standards we hold the U.S. government to are one thing, why can’t we hold organizations that represent a significant constituency like JACL to those same standards?”
At the time of publication, Frank Abe was the senior reporter at KIRO Newsradio 71, the CBS News affiliate in Seattle, Washington, and a national board director of the Asian American Journalists Association.
See the follow-up article: “The Lim Report: Wartime JACL leaders collaborated,” June 7, 1990.