The Lim Report: “Wartime JACL leaders collaborated”

by Frank Abe

published in the Rafu Shimpo, Hokubei Mainichi, and International Examiner
June 7, 1990

Copyright 1990 by Frank Abe. All rights reserved.

According to a long-awaited research study commissioned by the Japanese American Citizens League, wartime JACL’ers spied on their neighbors on behalf of U.S. intelligence, made premature commitments to the War Relocation Authority that compromised the best interests of the community, and at least two prominent JACL leaders worked simultaneously as employees of the WRA.

The report also documents JACL attacks on the personal integrity of camp resisters, and acknowledges that JACL writers suppressed mention of the resisters in postwar histories.

But those parts of the report may never be seen by delegates to the JACL’s 1990 National Convention in San Diego, for whom the report was intended.

The narrative submitted by attorney and researcher Deborah Lim of San Francisco is instead being recast by a JACL presidential committee, reportedly to offset documentation seen as damaging to the JACL’s image. JACL directors referred all requests for comment to President Cressey Nakagawa, who could not be reached after repeated attempts.

“That’s not acceptable,” reacted former JACL president Clifford Uyeda, who was told the sanitized version wouldn’t be released until one week before the convention, which begins June 17. “They should just come out with Lim’s report and let the membership decide. There’s already so much suspicion.”

The study was mandated in 1988, prompted by a Seattle JACL resolution that sought to heal a decades-old internal rift by acknowledging the JACL’s policy of wartime collaboration and seeking a reconciliation with those the policy oppressed, such as the “no-no boys” and draft resisters. Widespread disbelief greeted the idea that the JACL owed an apology to anyone.

Lim’s original report documents several points of controversy:

  • That key JACL leaders were deeply involved in turning over the names of Issei and Kibei community leaders to the FBI and Office of Naval Intelligence before Pearl Harbor, and the names of dissidents once inside camp, in the belief that by acting as government informants they were being “constructive cooperators for national defense.”

The report names at least 8 JACL leaders and 3 emergency defense committees in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, as confirmed informants. None of those arrested after Pearl Harbor was ever shown to have committed acts of espionage.

  • That the National JACL directed its Northern California chapters to go through Japanese directories and compile lists of people who seemed to be “living beyond their means” and to report rumors on their “attitudes of loyalty.” The report says the information gathering, conducted at the request of the Office of Naval Intelligence, went “considerably beyond the bounds” of the JACL’s stated policy of answering government inquiries only with the information at hand, and “did more closely approximate a witchhunt.”
  • That after the removal of Issei heads of households, the distress of their wives was exploited by dozens of corrupt Nisei, mostly in the Imperial Valley, who legally owned the land and crops of interned Issei farmers. Among those Nisei were some “who happened to have been JACL members,” according to the report.
  • That in an effort to stave off impending evacuation, wartime leader Mike Masaoka proposed what he himself called “a volunteer ‘suicide battalion’ which would go anywhere to spearhead the most dangerous missions,” and whose loyalty would be ensured by having the government hold their families and friends as “hostages.” The passage quoted appears in Masaoka’s “Final Report” to the JACL in 1944.

In a 1988 interview in Seattle, Masaoka said, “I’ve been accused of trying to get suicide battalions. Do you think I’d want my own brothers to go out and get killed?”

  • That in the minutes of the JACL’s March, 1942, Special Emergency Meeting, Masaoka recommends “the Japanese be branded and stamped and put under the supervision of the Federal government,” in order to appease the fears of Western governors reluctant to allow Japanese American resettlement in their states. Lim in her report says it’s possible the “outrageous and shocking” proposal was made instead by one of the governors, but she notes Masaoka personally reviewed the minutes before their republication in 1971, and made no correction.

Masaoka in 1988 denied ever recommended branding, asking “Would I in front of other Japanese Americans dare to say something like that?”

  • That Masaoka and two other national officers crossed the line from community advocates to actual employees of the War Relocation Authority, working without pay and title in exchange for freedom of movement.

The report cites three documents, including a 1942 memo to the WRA that the JACL leaders wrote on WRA letterhead, that “forces us to conclude that Masaoka and (another officer) were WRA employees acting as consultants on important issues such as how to handle the Kibei and segregation.”

Lim’s report says Masaoka’s offer of JACL “cooperation with and subservience to the WRA” in another letter was “particularly disturbing” for effectively compromising the JACL’s freedom to act in the best interests of the Japanese American community “when a difference in point of view or priorities arose.” It says the blanket commitment to the WRA came “at a fairly early point in time; certainly too early to know what many of (the WRA’s) policies would be and how the camps would be structured.”

In 1988, Masaoka admitted, “I may have trusted the U.S. government too much in what they said to us,” but added, “We were trying to put out a certain face to the government … don’t you think sometimes we had to write things we didn’t always want to write, as part of the price of getting better treatment?”

  • That government analysts attributed the beatings of JACL’ers inside camp, such as in the Manzanar riot of 1942, to the JACL’s own unpopularity for acting in the name of the community without an elective mandate. Some have argued that camp dissenters assaulted JACL’ers out of disloyalty to America and therefore deserve no apology.
  • That the JACL regarded the answer of “no-no” to the government’s flawed Loyalty Oath as a strict admission of disloyalty to the U.S., and a threat to the purity of the JACL’s record of loyalty, even though the camp director at Manzanar recognized the “no” answer as an “outcry” of protest from citizens who felt they’d been wronged.
  • That the JACL urged charges of sedition against the 63 men at Heart Mountain who resisted being drafted from inside a concentration camp until their constitutional rights were first restored and their parents released from camp.

Lim’s report says the JACL, through newspaper editorials, attacked not only the actions but the character of the Heart Mountain resisters, in one editorial alone branding the resisters as “‘slow witted,’ ‘warped minded,’ ‘wild eyed,’ “whimpering weaklings.”

The report quotes historian Roger Daniels’ judgment that all camp resistance “has been almost totally ignored and in some instances deliberately suppressed by chroniclers of the Japanese Americans. The JACL-WRA view has dominated the writing of the evacuation’s postwar history, thereby nicely illustrating E.H. Carr’s dictum that history is written by the winners.”

According to the Hokubei Mainichi in 1988, the report compiled in response to what’s known as “Resolution 7” was to have been distributed to all JACL chapters and published in the JACL’s house organ, Pacific Citizen, prior to the 1990 convention.

The report on Resolution 7 is set for a business session on Wednesday morning, June 20th. A similar resolution aimed at “community unity and healing,” submitted by the JACL’s Golden Gate chapter, is expected to be brought up on June 21st.

At the time of publication, Frank Abe was senior reporter for KIRO Newsradio 71 in Seattle. He was the writer first approached by the JACL to compile the research report.

See the previous profile on Deborah Lim: “Report on JACL’s WW2 actions to be released,” April 2, 1990.

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The history and literature of Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration

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