Draft Rift Lingers 50 Years Later
Draft Rift Lingers 50 Years Later
During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans served in the military -- but hundreds, protesting their
internment, refused. Their resistance divides the community to this day.
by SUSAN MOFFAT Friday, March 12, 1993
by SUSAN MOFFAT
Friday, March 12, 1993
Frank Emi said no.
He refused to fight for freedom and democracy overseas while denied it at home.
George Yoshinaga said yes.
Like thousands of his generation, he left his mother and sister behind in an American internment camp and marched off to war.
Half a century later, the wounds have not healed. One of Emi's fellow draft resisters will not speak publicly about what happened because his wife's memories of being taunted by neighbors still make her sob. Some of the resisters are unwilling to have their names published. Some have not even told their children what happened back then.
More than 33,000 Japanese Americans served in segregated battalions during World War II, forming the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. But a few hundred American men of Japanese descent dared to defy the order to report for military duty from inside the U.S. concentration camps where they were imprisoned. They were a tiny minority in a tight-knit community.
The small group of resisters, led by Emi, argued passionately that they were ready to give their lives in battle to defend the Constitution, but not until their basic rights as American citizens were restored. "We could either tuck our tails between our legs like a beaten dog or stand up like free men, (imbued) with American ideals, and fight for justice," said Emi. Driven from their homes and incarcerated without trial because of their race, they refused to serve as soldiers while their families were being treated as enemy prisoners.
It was an act of resistance that, until recently, many in the community - especially veterans - had called shameful, even traitorous. But slowly, these protesters have started telling their children and grandchildren their stories. It has been a painful process, uncovering rifts in the Japanese-American community long swept under the rug.
At a time when most Americans seem to have made an uneasy peace with Vietnam-era draft resisters - electing a president who did not serve in that war - the psychic wounds of these resisters and veterans of George Bush's generation are surprisingly raw. For the Japanese-American community, which traditionally has tried to avoid open controversy, the heated public debate on the issue is extraordinary, and not welcomed by everyone.
And yet the drive to uncover the difficult truth is a universal American experience: It reflects the longing of successive generations to know the past and draw lessons from it - even if they are not the lessons the elders would have them learn.
Frank Abe, 41, a third-generation Japanese American and a television and radio journalist in Seattle, sought out the stories of the resisters and felt compelled to share them. He felt he had been lied to about the history of his parents' generation, told that they meekly went along with the wholesale denial of their rights. Abe wrote an article in a community paper saluting the courage of the draft resisters. "There's a sense of liberation whenever we tell the story of the resisters," wrote Abe.
But to George Yoshinaga, a 69-year-old veteran and columnist, the telling of those stories was not liberation but an unwelcome revision of history.
"Some have chosen to make heroes of (the resisters)," he wrote. "Were these draft resisters really fighting the draft because they felt their constitutional rights were `violated,' or were there more deep-seated reasons? Could it be that many of them were pro-Japan?"
No accusation could have stung more deeply. It echoed the unsubstantiated charges made by whites against Japanese Americans half a century ago, when 120,000 people of Japanese descent - most of them U.S.-born American citizens - were imprisoned. Not a single case of espionage or treason by a Japanese American was ever proven, and the U.S. government later admitted that no serious security threat had ever been established.
Hearing this kind of accusation from a fellow Japanese American incensed Emi because it also rekindled the accusations and infighting that had taken place within the camps. He published an impassioned retort in the Rafu Shimpo, the Los Angeles-based Japanese-American newspaper. So did Mits Koshiyama, a 68-year-old retired flower grower.
"After all these years, I still cannot forgive the
It wasn't until 1990 that the JACL - the organization that since prewar days has advocated for the community's civil rights - made peace with the resisters. The organization passed a resolution stating that "the JACL regrets any pain or bitterness caused by its failure to recognize this group of patriotic Americans. . . . They, too, deserve a place of honor and respect."
For many of the baby-boom generation, the discovery of this resistance has been a revelation. For decades they had read in books by Japanese-Americans that their parents were the "quiet Americans" who allowed themselves and their families to be snatched from their homes, farms and businesses and imprisoned in horse stables and tar-paper barracks.
Then, according to those histories, the young men marched obediently off to war in segregated battalions, performing more gloriously than any other American fighting unit, liberating the Dachau death camp while their wives and mothers waited patiently behind barbed wire in the American camps.
Many of the younger generation, raised amid the protests of the 1960s, felt a mix of deep pride and dismay at their parents' stoicism. Abe, a television and radio journalist in Seattle, says he understood why the older generation stressed a history of compliance, not pro-test, and why they tried to blend into the American woodwork as much as possible: "They wanted to make sure their kids didn't suffer the same humiliation."
But when he looked at his parents, he still could not help wondering: "Why didn't you resist?" And then, as he began digging into the past, he discovered that some people did.
He met Emi, a soft-spoken retired postal worker living in San Gabriel. Emi had not been able to protest when he, his wife and two children were taken at gunpoint from their home to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.
But once inside the camp, when the U.S. government demanded that he serve in the military, he called upon the ideals of Abraham Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence to argue lucidly why the demand was unjust. He organized several hundred men in what they called the Fair Play Committee to protest being drafted while imprisoned.
To Emi, his act of resistance represented the natural outcome of his education in California public schools. "We were very angry and frustrated at the injustice of what the government did to us. For a person raised in the American tradition -- not the Japanese tradition of bowing to authority -- we felt we had to speak out.
"I guess we were indoctrinated too much in the American way," he said ironically.
The draft of Japanese-Americans had in fact been initiated by the lobbying of Japanese-American leaders. After Pearl Harbor, the government had changed the status of young Americans of Japanese descent from 1A -- eligible to serve -- to 4C -- enemy alien.
The Japanese American Citizens League, desperate to prove the loyalty of Japanese-Americans, proposed to the government that they form "suicide battalions" of young men to serve on the most dangerous missions, leaving their families with the government as "hostages" to ensure their fidelity. The government rejected the idea. But in 1943, the selective service re-designated the young men 1A, and tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans served in segregated units.
Dr. Harold Harada, 69, a veteran who lives in Culver City, recalls that the draft caused a lot of conflict at the camps.
"There were fights and brawls and a lot of hard feelings. (Many asked]: 'Why should you go fight and die for a country that incarcerated you and your parents?'" he said. But in the end, Harada said he and many others decided that "this is our country right or wrong and we wanted to serve her."
Others felt differently. "How could we fight for freedom and democracy overseas when we didn't have it at home?" Koshiyama said.
The Fair Play Committee echoed the Declaration of Independence in arguing that its defiant stand was made in defense of established principles: "We, the members of the Fair Play Committee 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!"
In the end, 315 men from 10 camps were convicted of draft evasion, and most served prison terms of about two years. Seven leaders of the Fair Play Committee had their convictions for conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act overturned on appeal. President Harry S. Truman pardoned the rest of the resisters in 1947.
But some in the Japanese-American community still have not forgiven them. "I always thought those guys were a bunch of chickens," Yoshinaga said. "If all of us refused to go into service, where would we be today? The majority [Anglo population would have said]: 'We're right, those Japs are disloyal.'
Veterans hold a revered place in the Japanese-American community. The 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in American military history, are hailed as heroes in many books and feature and documentary films.
They are appreciated for their role in the fight not only against Germany and Japan but also against prejudice at home. The achievements of the veterans and the war dead, many Japanese-Americans believe, helped the entire community gain acceptance in U.S. society, and were crucial in 1988 in obtaining the U.S. government's apology and reparations for the internment.
Given the emblematic role of the veterans, some resisters and their supporters have felt ostracized. Jimmy Omura, a journalist who wrote editorials supporting the resisters during the war, said that he could not find a job once peace came. Japanese-Americans would tell their Anglo bosses they did not want to work with him, that he was "trouble." He stopped going to the local bowling league and other community events, and spent years in obscurity as a landscape contractor. Many of his old friends thought he was dead.
But recently, the 80-year-old Omura and others have finally been able to go public with their stories.
At a "homecoming" organized by Abe and others at the Centenary United Methodist Church last month, a number of resisters stepped forward to identify themselves, some for the first time. As the elderly men stepped onto the dais, an audience of 350 people applauded with the warmth of recognition deferred for decades. The retired farmers and gardeners signed their names on a huge blowup of a 1944 courtroom photo of 63 teen-agers and young men in wide-collared shirts and cardigans lined up for their trial. Almost 50 years had passed since the trial and some men had trouble finding themselves in the photo.
The resisters read from letters and manifestoes they wrote during their internment.
With his 76-year-old father sitting behind him, Emi's son, Grant, re-enacted the older man's interrogation by the director of his internment camp, reading from a transcript of the internee's constitutional arguments against his family's imprisonment without trial.
Such ritual homecomings are part of a process that every generation goes through in seeking the truth about the past, says Peter Irons, who has written a number of books on Japanese-American history. "It's a necessary thing to do. It's unfair for any group to have only part of their history told."
Some Japanese-American veterans were so upset about the ceremony that they considered picketing it in protest, but decided against it, figuring that it would only reopen old wounds. However, at least one veteran did attend the homecoming, and said he learned something.
"They were courageous in what they believed, and we were courageous in what we believed," said George Nishinaka, who served in the 442nd. Nishinaka said the ceremony may have cleared the air by helping people understand the resisters' principles.
"This is part of our heritage," said Grace Kubota Ybarra, an attorney and daughter of one of the leaders of the resistance. "It's important that there was a group of men and women who felt what happened was wrong. What was important was that they questioned. This is the basis of what makes us American."
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