Reconciliation Coming Slowly for Draft Resisters
It's an issue that still divides the community.
Fiftysome years ago, 315 draft resistors, most notably the 85 Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee members, challenged the United States government during World War II. They resisted volunteering for the U.S. armed forces until they and their families were released from concentration camps and restored their constitutional rights.
For this, many in the Nikkei community ostracized and vilified the resisters, labeling them as "disloyal Americans." Ironically, some of these same resisters would go on to serve in the Korean War.
While the rift in the community is still visible, some of the very groups whose members once denounced the resisters are slowly extending the olive branch of reconciliation.
Of note was the passage of a resolution on Jan. 28, by the Northern California Military Intelligence Service, considered the largest MIS group on the continental United States, numbering 350 members.
According to Marvin Uratsu, Northern California MIS president, the resolution passed almost unanimously after careful research and months of discussion.
"It was passed without any problems," said Uratsu. "The feeling is that they (resisters) were doing what they thought was right. The MISers took the step we did because we thought that was right. But the ultimate goal for both groups was to fight for justice and freedom. The goal is the same, just the approach is different. With 50 years of hindsight, we can see that very clearly.
He added, "If the resisters or their family or offsprings were caused any anxiety because they were ostracized by some of our people, then its high time that this gesture of reconciliation be extended. We need to come together and fight together because that common enemy -- racism -- is still out there."
The resolution read in part: "Now, therefore, be it resolved, 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. Resolved further 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."
According to Uratsu, the Northern California MIS group was inspired to take action after the Hawaii 442nd Club, the largest Nikkei veterans' group, approved a resolution of reconciliation last summer on Aug. 3, 1998. It passed unanimously.
Ernest Uno, the 442nd Club chaplain, noted that many Hawaiian veterans, after learning of the controversial "loyalty" questionnaire that mainlanders were subjected to, admitted that had they been put in the same situation they would probably not have volunteered for the U.S. army.
"The resisters fought on grounds of constitutional civil rights violation," said Uno. "These people certainly were in their own right. They were not criminals, law breakers, traitors or yellow dogs as they were called. They were bold and extraordinarily courageous. . . Now, if they had done something illegal, I'd have different thoughts about this."
In an effort to lift the burden of ostracism from the remaining resisters, their children and their grandchildren, the Hawaii 442nd Club drew up the resolution, said Uno.
"Why should their children or their grandchildren carry the burden of wrongdoing placed on them by a community that didn't understand?" said Uno. "No, their children and grandchildren stand as loyal Americans."
Similar gestures may also be forthcoming from several chapters of the JACL, the civil rights organization that supported the United States government's decision to evacuate and intern the Nikkei community during World War II. It was also the JACL that petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 to reinstate the draft for Japanese Americans so that the Nikkei community could further prove their loyalty.
The Pacific Southwest District of the JACL has already led the way towards reconciliation. Back in 1995, following a heated and emotional debate, PSW passed a resolution by a margin of 12-6.
While the PSW resolution clearly states that "this recognition stops short of an apology to the Japanese American draft resisters," it also reads in part: "Now, therefore be it resolved, PSW-JACL regrets and apologizes for any pain or bitterness caused by its failure to recognize this group of patriotic Americans and that by this recognition the PSW-JACL strives to continue to actively promote and nurture the healing process of an issue that has divided our community."
Most recently, a resolution was brought up at a Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific (NCWNP) District JACL meeting. At that time, the district council members voted to amend the resolution and revisit the issue at their next board meeting. A vote is anticipated in May.
But no action is expected from the national JACL any time soon. At issue, according to JACL National Director Herbert Yamanishi, is the question of whether the stance taken by certain JACL members during the war were in fact JACL policies or the actions of a few individuals who took too much liberty on behalf of JACL.
"Whether they were the policies of JACL or of the individual has always been the question," said Yamanishi.
But speaking on a personal level, Yamanishi said he hoped the JACL and the resisters could one day find reconciliation.
In a separate move, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which does not share a controversial history with the resisters as do JACL and the veterans, adopted a resolution on Feb. 19, in support of them.
There are those, however, who still question the actions of the resisters. Dr. Harold Harada, a World War II veteran and JACL member, was among those opposed to the PSW-JACL resolution back in 1995.
"It's not necessary for World War II veterans to apologize for anything," said Harada. "We (veterans) made our choices and we did what we had to do. So be it."
In Northern California, Karl Kinaga, a San Jose JACL member, is concerned about NCWNP-JACL considering the passage of a similar resolution.
"I'm not very happy about the situation," said Kinaga. "I don't think they deserve it."
Kinaga noted that he had grown up with several of the men who joined the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee and felt many had become draft resisters other than for fighting for their constitutional rights. According to Kinaga, some of the men's father were pro-Japan and directed their sons to violate the draft.
"When the father said, 'Don't go to the draft,' they didn't go," said Kinaga. "Now, what does that have to do with constitutional rights?"
Another point that upsets Kinaga is the potential danger the actions of the resisters put the entire Nikkei community in.
"My attitude is that what the resisters did had absolutely no chance of helping the Japanese people. There was no chance that the U.S. government was going to release people from camp because of what the resisters did. They were, in a sense, tilting at the windmill.
"If you defy the government, the government retaliates and not only against the active people but against the whole group," said Kinaga. "The government could have retaliated against the whole group. That's the risk the resisters took. They not only risked their own lives, but they risked the welfare of the Japanese people. I don't think they thought about this very deeply."
Fred Hirasuna, a Fresno JACL member, voiced similar sentiment. "Under the circumstances we should have supported the war effort," said Hirasuna. "It wasn't about constitutional rights violation but a look at a long range picture. We had to help no matter what the cost to secure our position in American society after the war."
In a written statement, Hirasuna wrote in part: "Those brave young people like Rudy Tokiwa, who volunteered, or were willingly drafted for military service in spite of the constitutional wrongs committed on them and their families by their own government, showed more real courage and more commitment to the overall cause of Japanese Americans. They did more for the Japanese American cause than any other single group, more than the Heart Mountain group. Because of them and their outstanding military record, we and our kids were able to return after the war to our proper place in American society with heads high and hearts proud.
"We should not forget the other Nikkei -- the Issei, Kibei and bilingual Nisei who served the United States in the Military Intelligence in U.S. military Japanese language schools and in advanced Japanese translation units in the war against the Japanese.
"I felt that our true and primary concern should have been for our kids who would have had to return to American society after the war and what they would have had to face. We wanted them to have a fair chance to make their place in American society. I wanted them to be proud of the war record of Japanese Americans. This concern should have been the primary concern of all Nikkei, not arguments about what JACL did or did not do."
As for the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (FPC) members that the Pacific Citizen interviewed, none spoke of harboring bitterness or expecting apologies from those who had ostracized them during and after WWII.
"Bitter? No," said Ray Motonaga. "But I really don't think they (JACL) had the right policy towards the Japanese Americans. They were too caught up in the hysteria of the time, and when that happens, your best judgement is not there. You see, the first duty for us was to have our rights, our constitutional rights, restored. When we forego that, we are not protecting ourselves or our country."
Frank Emi, one of seven FPC leaders charged with sedition and sentenced to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, put it this way: "At the time that we were active, they (JACL) used a lot of derogatory terms against us, but as far as I'm concerned, I don't hold any bitterness towards the JACL or the veterans. I figure each group or person has an idea of what's right."
Regarding an apology from JACL, Emi said, "We've never asked them for an apology. After all, they're not the ones to blame. It's the wartime JACL people. But if this country can apologize for wartime deeds, there's no reason that the president-day JACL leaders can't do the same things."
Yosh Kuromiya, who had a confrontation with two JACLers while awaiting trial in the Cheyenne county jail, said he is saddened by JACL's current stance.
"I have great respect for the JACL because of what they have accomplished," said Kuromiya. "But if they had to do this by sacrificing certain segments of the community to make themselves look good, that's a lousy bargain. But I'm not bitter. I just wish there was a little more understanding."
James Kado regretted that they and the JACL could not see eye to eye but added, "I have no grudges against anybody. We're all nihonjin. We should help each other and work together to keep this country great."
The Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee takes its roots back to the United States government's attempt to draft Nikkei men while incarcerating them and their families behind barb wires.
Emi, who was married and had a child at the time, could have quietly waited out the war since the Army was not drafting men with children. But angered by the government's violation of his civil liberties, Emi joined forces with Kiyoshi Okamoto, Paul Nakadate, Isamu Sam Horino, Minoru Tamesa, Tsutomu Ben Wakaye and Guntaro Kubota to form the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee whose premise was: "opposition to military service without restoration of Nisei civil rights; clarification of those rights, and elimination of racial discrimination within the military."
At one point, the Fair Play Committee expanded beyond Heart Mountain. It was able to do so with the help of James Omura, editor of the Denver Rocky Shimpo, the only publication that printed FPC's press releases. Omura also wrote several editorial's in support of FPC, in direct contrast to anti-FPC editorials that appeared in the Pacific Citizen and the censored Heart Mountain camp newspaper, The Heart Mountain Sentinel.
As a result of FPC activities, less than 17 percent of Heart Mountain Nisei men ordered to report for Selective Service physical exams appeared. Alarmed by this, authorities took swift action. Federal agents arrested Omura and the seven FPC leaders who were charged with aiding and abetting the violation of the Selective Service Act. Omura was later found innocent, but the other seven men were sentenced to four years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
What ensued was also the largest mass trial in Wyoming history when 63 Heart Mountain draft resisters were indicted for violating the Selective Service Act. They would later be joined by 22 others, for a total of 85 draft resisters from Heart Mountain who were sentenced to jail. All would be pardoned in 1947 by President Harry Truman and released from prison. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals would also later reverse the sentencing of the seven Fair Play Committee leaders, thus exonerating them.
In retrospect, would the FPC members have taken the same course of action?
"In a heartbeat," said Emi. "What the government did was totally wrong."
"Knowing what I do now, I probably would resist the evacuation," said Kuromiya. "We went along because the guys were pointing rifles at us. But by the time 1944 came around and they had the audacity to try to draft us out of camp, I couldn't see that happening. I had no problems fighting for my country, but at that point, I wondered if this was indeed my country."
Uratsu with the MIS perhaps best summed the situation up when he said, "The resisters, the JACL, the armed service men--all went into this because we were trying to fight for justice and freedom to make a better life here in America. I have nothing but the highest respect for all three groups."
Ó 1999 Pacific Citizen, reprinted by permission.
Updated: March 15, 1999