“Historic Apology Marks First Step in Reconciliation Between JACL and Resisters of Conscience”

Pacific Citizen, May 17- June 6, 2002

Assistant Editor

SAN FRANCISCO.  An apology was made and a challenge posed.

After more than a decade of bitter internal debate, the JACL held a public ceremony on May 11 to apologize to the Nisei resisters of conscience, a group of men who refused to serve in the U.S. military during World War II until the civil rights of Japanese Americans were restored and their families released from U.S. concentration camps. Because this stand defied JACL’s wartime policy of proving loyalty through military service, JACL’s wartime leaders actively opposed the resisters and often vilified them in the pages of the Pacific Citizen.

The May 11 event, which was held at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Northern California, attracted an estimated 350 people.

“Today’s ceremony is a clear recognition that JACL neglected to support the resisters of conscience in their protest against injustice,” said National JACL President Floyd Mori, who at one point became emotional. “In passing this resolution at our last convention, JACL offers a sincere apology for the painful experiences and memories caused by this neglect. I know that words cannot sufficiently restore that which was lost nor erase the suffering that has occurred. But it is my hope that we can all share in a sense of pride and honor for having been here today. May all of us remember these events as a lesson that will improve our understanding and increase our resolve to forgive and move to the next stage in our lives.”

Mori, who lost an older brother during WWII, experienced first hand the sorrows of war, but he also took issue with those who continue to accuse the resisters as being “cowards, troublemakers and hooligans” who evaded the draft.

“We recognize those who were guided by the moral dictates of their conscience to protest injustice,” he said. “We do not condone any of the physical and mental harassment that was perpetrated by some who called themselves resisters nor does today’s ceremony apply to them.”

At the same time, Mori did not forget the contributions of the Nisei soldiers. “For those who served in the Armed Forces, we are proud of the legacy that they left us. We honor them today as we have in many local and national events in the past. Their service and valor is in large measure responsible for the positive image that we in the Japanese American community are blessed with today.”

Drawing parallels to the terrorist acts of today, Mori exhorted Japanese America to mend the rifts from more than six decades ago, saying that the consequences of not reconciling were too great.

“May we as individuals and as an organization strive to develop understanding and its accompanying virtue of compassion. The terrorists of today cannot find it within themselves to express compassion in any form. The legacy of wrongs in the past have festered into the horrible blisters of terrorism that we witness today. May we learn from their folly in reasoning. Let us leave any wrongs that have occurred in the past where they belong and from where we can learn. Then let us bring in the future looking through a more selfless set of eyes that seek for understanding and a heart that has the capacity for expressing compassion to our fellow men and women.”

The Challenge

The May 11 event fulfilled the mandate of a resolution passed at the 2000 JACL biennium national convention, which called for JACL to offer “an apology for not acknowledging the resisters’ stand of protesting the denial of constitutional rights, and for the pain and bitterness this caused.” But the resolution not only called for a public ceremony but also for the initiation of a public education effort.

It was on this point of public education that the two speakers representing the resisters challenged the JACL to take the next step by discussing more openly JACL’s WWII policies not only towards the resisters but towards all camp dissidents in general.

Frank Emi, one of the leaders of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, a group that initiated the only organized draft resistance movement within the 10 War Relocation Authority camps, thanked the JACL for passing the resolution but also challenged the organization to confront its wartime activities, particularly that which had been uncovered in what is now referred to as the Lim Report. The Lim Report was compiled by attorney Deborah Lim, who had been hired by JACL to research the organization’s wartime history at the time the debate to apologize to the resisters had begun.

“I wish to extend my appreciation to the JACL for sponsoring this ceremony,” said Emi, who was welcomed with a standing ovation. “As a civil rights organization, I believe it is a step in the right direction. Having said that I think it would be entirely appropriate for JACL to go one step further and hold a similar program directed towards the Japanese American community for the excesses committed by wartime JACL leaders such as acting as informants for the government, causing many innocent people to suffer as recorded in the Lim Report. I believe such action would finally put to rest JACL’s unholy ghosts of the past and would be a worthy way to start the 21st century. The United States government apologized for their wartime excesses. Can JACL do less?”

Emi also refuted the errors and misinformation being printed recently as commentaries and letters to the editor in various Nikkei newspapers.

“They keep repeating the same old tale that the resisters intimidated, harassed and beat up men who volunteered or responded to the draft,” said Emi. “I can assure you that nothing like that took place at Heart Mountain where the only organized draft resistance took place. They also continue to accuse the draft resisters of beating JACL leaders in some camps in 1943. The fallacy of that statement is there was no draft for internees in operation at that time so there were no draft resisters. Selective Service applicable to Nisei in camps was not implemented until January 1944.”

Yosh Kuromiya, another Heart Mountain FPC member, voiced similar sentiment saying that this ceremony should be viewed as an opportunity for JACL to discuss the many ways that Nikkei camp dissidents expressed loyalty and love of country other than through military service.

“What occurred in the past that is yet to be addressed is the further victimization of Japanese America by a certain faction within the community, itself, who joined errant government agencies to persecute those who actively opposed its accomodationist policies,” said Kuromiya. “Hopefully this ceremony will mark the first step in resolving this second great injustice perpetrated on Japanese America. Only a clear and honest understanding of the true essence of loyalty and patriotism and acknowledgement of the unfortunate distortion of those terms, no matter how well intentioned, can rid Japanese America of this cancerous blight which victimizes the victim and has divided our community for over half a century. Only then can JACL hope to proceed on a clear and unencumbered path as a bonafide civil rights organization.”

Whether JACL will take up the challenge as brought forth by the two Heart Mountain FPC speakers or whether the organization will view this as a closed chapter remains to be seen. But in an ironic twist, JACL will be honoring the wartime JACL leaders, the same leaders who called for the government to charge the Heart Mountain FPC leaders with sedition, at JACL’s upcoming national biennium convention in Las Vegas.

When asked whether this tribute to JACL’s wartime leaders was a direct response to the resisters’ ceremony, National Executive Director John Tateishi said, “I think it’s a response to put a positive look on the organization by some people who were concerned about the divisiveness of the resolution issue. It wasn’t a direct response to try to push in the face of what this is all about but more to say, ‘Look, these were really difficult decisions made in really awful times and these people who were the leaders of the JACL have never been recognized by the organization, and if we’re going to be recognizing others, then certainly, as an organization for which they had contributed so much, we ought to recognize them.’ That was the thought behind the sponsorship by the Sacramento chapter to put on that Friday night dinner.”

“The tribute, sponsored by the Sacramento chapter, is I think something that people felt needed to be done,” said National JACL President Floyd Mori. “I think it’s very appropriate. I don’t think it has any relationship to the resisters at all.”

Both Mori and Tateishi expressed hope that dialogue regarding the various stands taken during WWII would continue.

“We’ve completed our responsibility in terms of the ceremony,” said Mori. “But in terms of the issues that are with us, I’m sure there’ll be some continued dialogue, and I’m hoping that this is an opening to bringing a lot more understanding to all of the situations that existed during the war. The resisters have been sort of brushed aside in the past but it is part of our history that people should understand, that courage comes in many forms and the resisters have shown that.”

“I hope it’s a step for us to open the platform and discuss what happened during the war years,” said Tateishi. “I don’t know if it (ceremony) relieves us of all the responsibilities of the organization during the war but I think in all honesty, this is one of the major issues that we had to put behind us by facing it honestly. I think we did. And I know there’s going to be other issues that are going to come up, things like the informants and all of that. But I’ve looked at that issue really thoroughly in the days that I was the director of the redress campaign and informants were on all sides of that issue, so I think as far as JACL is concerned this is a major step out of the past and towards the future. But we’ll never put the camp issue to rest.”

Sen. Inouye’s Message

One of the goals of the May 11 ceremony was to mend the rift between the JACL and the resisters. Because many of the vocal JACL critics of the resisters happen to be Nisei veterans, JACL requested a message of reconciliation from U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Medal of Honor WWII 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran who lost an arm in battle. Inouye voiced his regrets that he could not attend the ceremony personally due to legislative responsibilities and, at the request of Tateishi, sent a videotaped message.

In the videotape, Inouye said: “I believe the time has come to bridge the chasm between the Nisei veterans of World War II and the resisters from the internment camps. Together we must make a personal commitment to healing the wounds from that sad episode in our collective history.

“If we are to flourish and thrive as a community in this nation, we must put that painful part of our past behind us. I have many friends on both sides of the veterans versus resisters debate. It saddens me that harsh feelings still exist between the veterans and the resisters. I’m especially troubled that people have harbored these bitter feelings for 60 years. We must keep in mind that the volunteers and the resisters had the same goal in mind: to convince our country that it was wrong to imprison Americans of Japanese ancestry.

“Some young men answered the call to military service to make this point, and they did so with honor and with great courage. Some young men chose to make their point by resisting the government’s order to report for the draft. They too were honorable and courageous. They should not be faulted for challenging the government’s orders, given the government’s actual treatment of Japanese Americans during the war.

“Many of my fellow veterans have labeled the draft resisters as ‘cowards’ and ‘traitors.’ I however feel the resisters were brave and patriotic. I personally believe it took a tremendous amount of courage and love of country to stand up and say ‘I will not take an oath to defend my country until my family and I are treated as equal and worthy citizens.’

“I’m proud that our nation apologized for and rectified this mistake through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The actions and sacrifices of the soldiers, resisters, internees and their loved ones paved the way for this national apology. Our great nation has vowed to learn from this past and move on to a brighter future. I hope the time has come that we, as members of the Japanese American community, can likewise put the past behind us and move forward to a glorious future.

“If we let angry feelings live and fester, an atmosphere of hate shall permeate for generations that follow us. Sadly such discord would ultimately lead to the divide and downfall of our community. So it is my sincere hope that this ceremony would mark the beginning of a new era of unity for Americans of Japanese ancestry. Aloha.”

Other Reaction

Like Inouye, Marshall Sumida, a Military Intelligence Service veteran and a JACL member for more than 50 years, said the ceremony was “long overdue.” Sumida, also a VFW member, referred to men such as Frank Emi as “men of principle” and regretted that the other VFW Nisei veterans, who have recently been condemning the resisters in various Nikkei newspapers, had not attended the event.

Warren Tsuneishi, a JACLer and MIS veteran who flew in from Washington D.C. to speak at the ceremony, said he was aware that this issue was controversial among the veterans but speaking as a JACL member, Tsuneishi said “of course, the JACL should apologize, they need to apologize to heal that wound.”

Marvin Uratsu, another MISer, said, “Why continue to hurt each other for what the government did to us? Let there be reconciliation, and let it begin with me.”

Fred Korematsu, a recipient of the Medal of Freedom who had challenged the government by violating evacuation during WWII, said, “I’m glad the JACL is giving the resisters this blessing. I think what the resisters did is right and it should be known.”

Korematsu’s wife Kathryn said it was important for them to attend the ceremony because “Fred has received support from the resisters in the past and it was important for us to give back that support.”

U.S. Congressman Mike Honda, the keynote speaker of the event, aptly summed it up when he said, “The importance of this public ceremony is that it seeks to heal the rift between the national JACL and the resisters of conscience by recognizing that there were in fact more than one way to respond to this situation that was completely out of control.”

The history and literature of Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration