Conscience and the Constitution

Roundtable Discussion on
Japanese American Draft Resisters from WWII

Boston Public Library
March 27, 2004, 3:00pm

Organization of American Historians annual meeting
“Race, Resistance and Reconciliation”

This roundtable brings together historians, lawyers, and activists to discuss some very timely issues of the nature of citizenship, race, and civil disobedience during times of war. It also examines the wartime conflicts over loyalty and patriotism that divided communities, and later attempts at reconciliation. Using the story of the Japanese Americans who resisted the draft while they and their families remained incarcerated behind barbed wire, this panel will uncover the problems of wartime citizenship when defined in terms of race and nationality, the scars that the draft created within the Japanese American community both during and after the war, and the possibilities and limits of recent reconciliation efforts and formal recognition of the resisters by a new generation of JACL leaders and Japanese Americans.

Presiding: Arthur Hansen, California State University, Fullerton and
                         Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles

Panelists: Frank Emi, Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee
                         “Heart Mountain, the Fair Play Committee, and the Limits of                          Reconciliation”
                   Cherstin Lyon, University of Arizona
Beyond Heart Mountain: The Tucsonians”
                   Frank Chin, Independent Activist/Writer
                        “Born in the U.S.A.”

Commentators: Martha Minow, Harvard Law School

Arthur Hansen, professor of history at California State University at Fullerton will moderate the roundtable. Professor Hansen has published numerous books and articles on Japanese American internment, including Voices Long Silent, Manzanar Martyr, and most recently “Protest, Resistance and the Heart Mountain Experience: The Revitalization of a Robust Nikkei Tradition.” Along with Gary Okihiro, he is one of the first historians to write of Japanese American resistance to internment during the war. He currently serves as the director of the Center for Oral and Public History at Fullerton, as curator at the Japanese American National Museum, and is editing the forthcoming autobiography of James Omura. Omura was a newspaper editor tried for conspiracy to advise individuals against the draft along with the leaders of the Heart Mountain Fair Play committee. Although acquitted of these charges under the First Amendment, Omura lost his job at the paper, became the target of JACL hostilities, and was ostracized by the community for his sympathy with the resisters of conscience.

Frank Emi is the last surviving leader of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (FPC), the only organized group of draft resisters inside the camps. When the War Department reopened Selective Service for Nisei men, Emi was not eligible for the draft. He was married and had children, but joined the FPC out of a desire to fight against the unconstitutional treatment of Japanese Americans and seek clarification of the Nisei’s citizenship rights. He became one of the leaders of the FPC and encouraged the group to confront the government’s unconstitutional policies with civil disobedience. He served an 18-month prison sentence at Leavenworth for his resistance against the draft, but was acquitted of conspiracy charges along with newspaper editor James Omura and the other leaders of the FPC. He has continued fighting for civil rights in the postwar years and joined the campaign for redress in the 1980s. Most recently, Emi was honored as a speaker at the 2002 ceremony of recognition and reconciliation between the JACL and the resisters.

Cherstin Lyon is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Arizona and will be presenting a portion of her research on race, citizenship and the law in the 20th Century. Her presentation on this panel will be on those who resisted the draft “beyond Heart Mountain,” from camps such as Topaz and Amache as individual resisters rather than as an organized group. She will also provide some comparisons with others who resisted the draft during WWII on the basis of civil rights and freedom of religion – such as Hopi Indians, and Tohono O’Odham Indians from Arizona. Her research on the resisters from Topaz and Amache is based in part on oral histories funded by the CCLPEP with a group of men who began calling themselves Tucsonians after the war in honor of the prison where they met while serving nine to eighteen month sentences for Selective Service violations. Because the Tucsonians stood alone as individual resisters against the draft, not as a unified group as did the resisters from Heart Mountain, their stories reveal the complex reasons why some of the Nisei chose to resist, and presents striking examples of individual forms of civil disobedience in defense of their own interpretations of their rights and obligations as U.S. citizens. Lyon’s presentation will also provide an analysis of their postwar efforts to create a community of resisters with annual Tucsonian reunions, and the importance of reconciliation to the third and fourth generation of Japanese Americans.

Frank Chin is the person most responsible for rescuing from oblivion both the Heart Mountain resisters and James Omura, and has recently published Born in the U.S.A., the most significant study to date based upon the resisters’ wartime campaign against the U.S. government and their own ethnic population. The community dramatizations he developed relative to "the resistance" were rooted in the oral histories he undertook with these men and their families, as well as their arch opponents from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). These oral histories constitute in themselves an important historical record. Chin was at the forefront over the last twenty years of replacing the self-serving JACL version of the WWII Japanese American exclusion/detention experience with one grounded in historical documentation, taking into account the full range of wartime experiences.

Commentator Martha Minow is a professor of law at Harvard University. She has written extensively on the law, identity and civil rights, war and reconciliation, and the uses of memory for achieving social justice. Minow’s extensive research on the attempts to construct positive legal responses to the Holocaust and her commitment to social justice provide her with the background, expertise, and insights to draw conclusions to this panel that will push audience members to think beyond the Japanese American resisters of conscience and World War II and connect the issues raise by panelists to issues of war and social justice that extend beyond our national borders, historical memory and forgetting, and the important role of civil disobedience in the face of state efforts to squelch dissent and limit civil rights.


Updated: February 22, 2004

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