“Draft protesters tell story of courage”


by L.A. Chung
San Jose Mercury-News staff columnist
Nov. 28, 2000

Standing for something takes courage. It always costs something. But some stands cost more than others.

If protests of late seem contrived, if the words “principles” and “constitution” seem to be used too cheaply these days, there is for 90 minutes on Thursday a refreshing antidote.

Program your VCRs for 11 p.m. on KQED (Ch. 9) — or get your friends to help you — because I’d hate for a lousy time slot to be an obstacle.

The Bay Area, with San Francisco as its chief showcase, has always been a hotbed for protest. But who expected farmers’ boys from Santa Clara County to be leading the way, half a century ago?

“Conscience and the Constitution,” a documentary by a former Santa Clara and San Francisco resident, Frank Abe, reminds us that courage and protest take many forms. It’s about young men stripped of their civil rights who refused to fight for the democracy they didn’t have.

“They even called them cowards. . . . It really makes me angry,” said Clifford Uyeda, a former national president of the Japanese American Citizens League in San Francisco. “It’s not as hard to say, `Yes, I’ll go into the Army,’ because everyone was volunteering at the time. It took a lot of courage to say `no.’ ”

This is a story about standing for something and paying the price. For 55 years. It is also, hopefully, a story of reconciliation.

Most of us on the West Coast know part of this story from World War II. Our government, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sent more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans to U.S.-style concentration camps, upending lives, family units and untold number of dreams.

People from San Jose to Palo Alto, parts of San Francisco and Los Angeles, were sent to Heart Mountain, Wyo., one of 10 camps in some of the most desolate and unforgiving patches of nowhere in the country. They carried the kind of ache in their hearts that comes from having everything they worked for disappear overnight, from having to sell property for a pittance (imagine what some of that real estate around here is worth now) to being equated with the enemy by living behind barbed wire and with armed guards.

The image from history books is that Japanese-Americans went quietly and then, in a burst of 200 percent American patriotism, volunteered out of the camps and fought their way to distinction in Europe, or served admirably through the Military Intelligence Service as part of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s fight in the Pacific.

All that is true. But there is more that hasn’t been told.

Heart Mountain turned out to be the site of one of the strongest draft protests in the country. There, people formed the Fair Play Committee, led by Frank Emi, dedicated to defending their severely abridged constitutional rights. When the draft notices came down, the response was simple: Restore our civil rights and those of our families, return them to where they were and we will gladly go and fight for our country.

The resistance was opposed by the Japanese American Citizens League, which had counseled cheerful cooperation and worked with the U.S. government to create the segregated volunteer 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese-Americans who served in Europe. The JACL condemned the resisters in its newspaper, the Pacific Citizen, and many believed it worked to identify leaders of the Fair Play Committee. Even the American Civil Liberties Union refused to help the resisters.

In the largest mass trial in U.S. history, in Cheyenne, Wyo., 63 resisters were found guilty of draft evasion. The leaders of the Fair Play Committee were convicted. Those convictions were later thrown out on appeal, but not before the accused had spent more than two years in jail. The 63 were later pardoned with 450 other conscientious objectors by President Truman. In all, 267 from all 10 camps were convicted.

But there was more to come.


Ostracism came from within the Japanese-American community, much of it the result of the JACL’s lead, Abe said. After the war, the JACL turned on the resisters and on journalist James Omura, the English editor of the Japanese-American newspaper, Rocky Shimpo, who had opined in support of their principled stand.

Many saw the JACL’s influence in getting them fired from jobs in the Japanese-American community. Omura, who had been tried but not convicted because he was exercising his First Amendment rights, became a landscaper and never found work as a journalist again. People picked up their lives, but as pariahs.

Parents suffered greatly. Jim Akutsu from Seattle recounted how his mother committed suicide as her social circle disappeared and she was told not to come even to her own church.

In the 50 years since, efforts to reconcile have been rocky. Uyeda, who has left the JACL in disgust, organized panels and forums on the resisters’ story in the 1980s. One turned into a shouting match in Oakland.

Much of the tension has risen because some war veterans feel the resisters deserve no apology. Mits Koshiyama’s conscience is clear. He was a San Jose resister who was a flower grower and later a gardener for Willow Glen High School.

`They did what they had to do’

The veterans did what they had to do, he said. “And we did what we had to do. My three brothers served in the war, and they did what they had to do. Today, I’m proud I did stand up for my rights.”

On the path to principle, many of us play it safe. We make small decisions here and there and cut our losses when the cost is too great. During wartime, those decisions become more dear and costly.

But everyone has to make their own decisions. On principle.

“There are no villains here,” said Abe. “Everyone did what they thought was right at the time.”

L.A. Chung appears Tuesdays and Thursdays and wants you to share your stories with her. Contact her at [email protected] or (415) 394-6881.

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The history and literature of Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration

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