Conscience and the Constitution

MIS Nor-Cal Veterans Honor Nisei Draft Resisters
JACL NCWNP District Resolution Tabled

By KENJI G. TAGUMA
Nichi Bei Times, February 10, 1999

STOCKTON — A major step in community reconciliation was taken Sunday, as the Military Intelligence Service Association of Northern California presented a commendation to Nisei draft resisters who stood on principle to reject being drafted to serve in the U.S. military during World War II. Nisei draft resisters refused to be drafted from behind barbed wire until their citizenship rights were clarified and their families released from internment camps. Their stand on constitutional principle, however, was met with community ostracism by many veterans and especially by leaders of the Japanese American Citizens League.

The commendation, passed at the MIS Nor-Cal board meeting Jan. 28 in Sacramento, was presented at an educational panel on Nisei draft resisters, hosted by the JACL’s Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific District Council as part of their quarterly meeting. MIS Nor-Cal board member Barry Saiki made the presentation on behalf of the group. In terms of resister-veteran relations, the commendation — which follows a similar resolution passed by Hawaii veterans last year — represents a major milestone. Many Nisei veterans, as well as wartime JACL leaders, had denounced the resisters as "cowardly" or "deluded."

The commendation states that "the Military Intelligence Service Association of Northern California belatedly commend each of the resisters and the members of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee for their civil disobedience in seeking fair play and restoration of their civil rights."

The commendation further resolved that "the hand of reconciliation and understanding be extended to each of the resisters, their immediate family, and to the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee in recognition that the action taken by the resisters were done in good faith and conscience as loyal citizens of the United States."

"We respect the resisters for what they did," explained Marvin Uratsu, president of MIS Nor-Cal. "We were all fighting for the same thing, freedom and justice, in the long run."

According to Uratsu, it is time to bury the bitterness of the past. "We’re spending too much time going over the wounds," he said. "We should get over it, because the enemy is still out there."

Uratsu noted that the MIS board vote on the commendation, following a presentation by Bay Area attorney Mas Yonemura, was "pretty close to unanimous."

"It’s wonderful," said Mits Koshiyama, a Nisei draft resister, on the MIS commendation. "It takes a lot of courage for a veterans group to do that. I think my brother , who was in the MIS, would be happy." Koshiyama was a member of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, which counseled young men to resist the draft at the Wyoming internment camp. He joined Uratsu and California State University, Sacramento Ethnic Studies Instructor Wayne Maeda on the JACL panel.

Written Out of History

The history of the Nisei draft resisters has been brought out only recently, with earlier Japanese American history books — written with a JACL slant —omitting their story from so-called "history" texts.

Maeda, who has taught Asian American studies for some 30 years, said he was "shocked" to hear that Japanese Americans resisted, as earlier texts identified the relocation centers as "happy camps." Maeda also noted that while the War Relocation Authority — the governing body of the 10 internment camps — expected some 2,000 army volunteers from Heart Mountain alone, only 38 ended up offering their services. Resisters from different camps were met with varied judicial responses. In Poston, the judge fined them a minimal amount. The judge in the Tule Lake draft resistance trial threw the case out, saying it was unconscionable for the government to defend rights and freedoms that the internees themselves were denied. Amache resisters were sent to a federal penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona. Heart Mountain resisters were imprisoned at McNeil Island in Washington or Leavenworth, Kansas.

The largest organized resistance was at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where some 63 young Nisei constituted the largest mass trial for draft resistance in the state’s history. Eventually, 85 men from Heart Mountain would resist the draft.

The JACL stand against the resisters, Koshiyama said, hurt him, especially since he was a JACL member at the time. "The Fair Play Committee was founded to have the government return our constitutional rights and to fight racism," he said.

During the war, the JACL stood opposed to cases testing the constitutionality of internment, such as the Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui cases, and promoted a policy of accommodation.

The Fair Play Committee, on the other hand, held mass meetings, and presented articulate bulletins broadcasting their position against the draft. Uratsu likened the varied perspectives — of military volunteers and resisters — to the famous paintings of Katsushika Hokusai’s "Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji," a series of woodblock prints.

"The 63-some-odd men at Heart Mountain took the steps they thought they had to," he explained. "In my opinion, whatever the case, the ultimate goal was to take a stand for justice."

While the MIS commendation and the JACL district panel were major attempts at reconciliation, there are detractors.

During the panel presentation, Karl Kinaga of the San Jose JACL argued that some of the Nisei resisted because they were "pro-Japan," an allegation that was quickly dismissed by Koshiyama.

JACL Resolution Tabled

A NCWNP District Council resolution, which recognizes the resisters’ stand and offers an apology for the organization’s failure to recognize them earlier, was introduced as part of the program. The resolution was authored by Florin JACL Civil Rights Chair Andy Noguchi and sponsored by the Florin, Sequoia and Golden Gate JACL chapters.

The resolution, however, was tabled because some of the delegates felt that they should discuss the matter with their respective chapters first. In 1995 the Pacific Southwest District Council of the JACL passed a similar resolution, which saw heated debate within the organization. A motion for the district to apologize to the resisters was deleted from the original resolution, as some delegates thought it was inappropriate for the district to apologize. There was disagreement on this point, however. "I think the JACL at all levels has not recognized the draft resisters," said delegate Neil Taniguchi. "I think the district should apologize." Elisa Kamimoto, the president of the Golden Gate JACL, and Noguchi were also disappointed that a district apology was omitted.

At their Time of Remembrance commemoration in 1994, the Florin JACL recognized the local Nisei draft resisters with their Daruma Civil Rights Award. Noguchi, who made the presentation on behalf of the chapter, said the resister’s stand should have been heralded, rather than ostracized, by the JACL. "What the resisters had done, standing up for civil rights, is what the JACL has been trying to do for the past 25 years (with redress)," Noguchi noted. "I think the resisters’ stand is something that we as the JACL would want to emulate today."

Noguchi, however, was "not surprised" that the resolution was tabled, as the delegates did not receive information on the proposed resolution beforehand. The resolution is scheduled to be discussed again at the next NCWNP District Council meeting, scheduled for May 2 in Fremont, Calif.

reprinted with permission


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Updated: February 12, 1999