by Frank Abe
special to the Northwest Nikkei, September, 1992
and the Tozai Times, February, 1993
I’ve covered my share of stories as a journalist but there’s one that has stuck with me and won’t let go. It started for me when I learned that the area where I grew up, the Santa Clara Valley in Northern California, was once a hotbed of Japanese American resistance to our wartime incarceration.
This simple fact had been left out of the books I had read by the unofficial keepers of Japanese American history. I must have been eighteen when I went to the park across the street from my home and sat down with my father’s obligatory copy of Nisei: The Quiet Americans, which he ordered like everyone else from the Pacific Citizen, the house organ of the Japanese American Citizens League. It was the kind of book you bought because you were so pleased to have a book about us. I was looking for some corroboration about the few things my father had said about the camps, especially the one at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, to which a of San Jose people were expelled, or “evacuated,” as we called it then. No mention of the resisters of Mountain View San Jose. To the contrary, the lesson of the book was clear: we Japanese Americans weren’t happy about incarceration, but we went along in order to prove our loyalty, to protect our families and ensure good treatment, and to make a down payment on our hope for acceptance after the war. And the balance of that payment was made, and the fact I could sit in that park near my home in California was therefore assured, by the publicity created by the sacrifice of our boys who answered the draft and served in the military.
Whew. That was a lot for a kid to live up to. But something still bothered me and others of my generation, born after the camps. It was first expressed in the naive question, “Why didn’t you resist?” The answer was usually a pat on the head and a mild protest against applying the values of today to events of past. A number of Nisei chose to misunderstand the question, as if we were making the absurd suggestion that the Nisei should have demonstrated in the streets. Mr. Hosokawa wrote an entire book, JACL: In Quest of Justice, which the flyleaf notes is intended “to answer JACL’s critics, notably the Sansei … many of whom believe their fathers should have resisted the Evacuation during World War II.”
Now we know the question is not “Why didn’t you resist?” but “Why did you turn your backs on those who resisted?” — because that’s just what Japanese America did. For fifty years it has buried the story of the largest organized resistance inside the camps, at the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and that makes me mad. The resistance turned on the question of the draft, but it was spurred by still‑simmering outrage over the incarceration and a final refusal to be pushed around any more by the JACL, which was acting as an administrative arm of the government’s War Relocation Authority.
As he was fond of telling us, JACL field secretary Mike Masaoka convinced the government to draft his fellow Nisei out of the camps, so they could have “the opportunity to prove Japanese American loyalty with their blood.” But at Heart Mountain sixty-three young men just in their twenties didn’t ask Masaoka and the JACL to offer up their blood as the price of white acceptance.
“We, the members of the Fair Play Committee are not afraid to go to war ‑‑ we are not afraid to risk our lives for our country. We would gladly sacrifice our lives to protect and uphold the principles and ideals of our country as set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, for on its inviolability depends the freedom, liberty, justice, and protection of all people including Japanese‑Americans and all other minority groups. But have we been given such freedom, such liberty, such justice, such protection? NO!!”
That comes not from the overheated imagination of a Sansei but from a bulletin issued by a group that called itself the Fair Play Committee. Here was the answer to every Nisei who says, “You can’t judge because you weren’t there.” The resisters were there. Their actions were real. Their bulletins bristle with patriotic references to Abraham Lincoln and equal protection under the law. The Constitution they championed was not an invention of the 60’s. A total of 85 young men individually refused to be drafted out of camp until their rights as citizens were first restored and their parents released from camp. This qualified them, in the eyes of the JACL and the JACL‑ and government‑run camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, as draft-dodgers, as disloyals, as delinquents who would jeopardize “the post‑war assimilation of the Nisei.”
Where the wartime JACL was mostly urban and professional, the resisters were mostly rural and unsophisticated. Where the JACL prized good publicity and collaboration as the keys to assimilation, the resisters saw that as the path to permanent accommodation to popular will and sentiment. Theirs was a test case on behalf of constitutional democracy and the citizenship rights of Japanese Americans.
Bainbridge Island native Jimmie Omura, publisher in Denver of the Rocky Shimpo newspaper, recognized that. Omura had already been branded “public enemy number one” by the JACL for testifying to a Congressional commission that mass “evacuation” would not answer the question of Japanese American loyalty, as the JACL hoped it would. Omura was the only editor who printed the press releases of the Fair Play Committee and who encouraged them in editorials filled with well‑understood code words to organize and stand firm.
But instead of praising them for their courage, and standing behind them at a safe distance to protect their own programs, the group that claimed to lead in the fight for citizenship rights instead urged full prosecution of Omura and the resisters. FPC leader Frank Emi posed for a photograph with his family just before leaving for the trial, knowing he would probably be gone for a long time. Guntaro Kubota was an Issei who wasn’t even eligible for the draft, but he openly stayed a part of the resistance, translating bulletins into Japanese and writing appeals for Issei support, because he liked what the FPC was doing to clarify the rights of the Nisei. For other Issei, the incarceration raised the question of their legacy to the Nisei. Issei like Uhachi Tamesa of Seattle and Katsusaburo Kawahara of San Jose let their sons Minoru Tamesa and Tom Kawahara know that they were ready and willing to lend financial support to an effort to clarify the citizenship status of the Nisei, for if the Nisei were barred from U.S. citizenship, then all the land bought and leased in the names of their Nisei children was gone, and there was no legacy.
But the JACL had the ear of the government, and the resisters were convicted of draft evasion and the leaders of the Fair Play Committee were convicted of counseling draft evasion. Omura was also indicted with the FPC but acquitted. President Truman issued a blanket pardon after the war, but the damage was done. The resisters served average sentences of two years each. The JACL would later champion citizenship for the Issei through Congress, and the resistance was quickly forgotten by Japanese America.
Those are the simple facts. Once I discovered them, I had to go back to San Jose to seek out some of these men, who are now in their seventies. I was once again surprised to discover that I could have known them all along. My mother said she knew Kozie Sakai from shigin, Japanese folk‑singing class. Mits Koshiyama had been a gardener, like my father. My stepfather asked Mits about his brother, and how was Kozie doing, and so on. They were orchardists, farmers, and grocers before the war. Now they’ve retired from construction or running restaurants. Ordinary guys, not misfits, not oddballs. Not the bogeymen described by the JACL.
I could have known them all along. They lived just a few miles down the road, but I never had the chance to go knock on their door and tell them they had a lot of guts to do what they did. Now my father starts to really talk. Now he tells me, when I bring Jimmie Omura to his house, that he subscribed to the Rocky Shimpo and read Jimmie’s editorials. Now he tells me of the boys who overdosed on shoyu before their draft physicals, hoping the salt content would raise their blood pressure high enough to flunk them. And my father comes into focus for me too, as an apolitical teenager who nevertheless would subscribe to the newspaper that introduced critical thinking and dissent to a camp where thought was controlled, where what you thought could even be dangerous.
In San Jose last May a group of us ended a fifty year delay by bringing the story and the boys of the Heart Mountain draft resistance home as a group, before an audience of Asian American scholars and hometown Nisei. For two‑and‑a‑half hours the resisters read from letters and articles they’d written during the war and after. We re‑enacted the interrogation of Frank Emi by the camp director, and marveled at his cunning refusal to be trapped into admissions of illegal conspiracy. We videotaped it all for a forthcoming documentary.
One resister still prefers we not use his name too much in public. It’s his family. They still don’t want it known that he spent eighteen months at McNeil Island for a cause that no one remembers. When the idea of having a resisters panel first came up, all this resister had in mind was twelve people in a small room. He didn’t think anyone else would be interested. I think he also thought anything more would be too dangerous, too public for him and his family. For every resister willing to come forward, he says there are a dozen who still don’t want to be identified.
That was testimony to the enduring power of community ostracism. Jimmie Omura had been so forgotten everyone thought he was dead. In San Jose, as I had throughout my years working for redress in Seattle, I met a lot of Nisei who’d spent decades gritting their teeth at the one‑sided picture put forward in the pop histories of Japanese America written by Bill Hosokawa and Budd Fukei.
There’s a sense of liberation whenever we tell the story of the resisters. To tell their story is to triumph over our blithe acceptance of the party line. It’s my way of going back and knocking on their door and saying I’m glad they stood up for our rights, and I’m sorry that they got so badly stepped on, I wish I had known about their acts sooner. I can’t undo the sting of those years of prison, those even longer years of isolation and ostracism. I can only try to make things right for them, and for us, now.
It’s meant a lot of work. I already have enough work. But the story is in me now. It won’t let go ‑‑ no matter how much I try to resist.