|Nichi Bei Times, May 2, 2002
To Resist or to Comply: A Human
The upcoming JACL ceremony to honor and apologize to the Nisei draft resisters of World War II has triggered an outpouring of editorials, commentaries, and letters to the editor in the Japanese American press. Some describe the resisters as villains and cowards; others defend them as heroes and patriots.
Sus Satow, in this newspaper and others, argues that they were really all no no boys, while Frank Emi calls them all resisters of conscience and Floyd Mori compares their motivation to that of Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Which of these accounts should an objective reader believe? After years of researching the resisters story, I have concluded that neither of these opposing caricatures of the resisters is accurate. The truth lies somewhere in between.
The wholesale denigration of the resisters motives misses the true patriotism that motivated many of the resisters. Frank Yamasaki of Seattle refused to show up for his preinduction physical even though he knew full well that he would have failed the test due to chronic illness. Takashi Hoshizaki of Los Angeles resisted the draft while incarcerated at Heart Mountain, but, once free, complied with the draft and served at the time of the Korean War. These men proved the good faith of their resistance with their actions.
And others, like Yosh Kuromiya of Alhambra and Mits Koshiyama of San Jose, prove it with their words their thoughtful, articulate, intense, and persistent explanations of the decisions they made as young men more than 50 years ago. I defy any fair-minded person to engage these men in a conversation about their resistance and question their patriotism, then or now.
Yet the claim that all of the several hundred men whom the JACL is recognizing on May 11 were resisters of conscience is also undoubtedly false. Even at Heart Mountain, the site of the most overtly patriotic of the resistance movements, not all of the resisters answered Questions 27 and 28 yes yes. (Indeed, Fair Play Committee leader Frank Emi encouraged draft-age Nisei not to answer the questions at all.) At Minidoka, as at many of the other camps, many of the resisters requested expatriation to Japan in 1944 (even after answering yes to the loyalty question in the spring of 1943).
There are other hints that resistance was not a pure matter of principle for all of the resisters. On the advice of their attorney, many of the Heart Mountain resisters got crewcuts before their trial, in the hope that they could beat the charges against them on the technicality that the prosecutor would not be able to identify them. (The gambit failed.) And once the Heart Mountain resisters were convicted in federal district court, some of them opposed the idea of appealing their conviction to the court of appeals, knowing that they were out of harms way for the likely duration of the war. In short, there is ample reason to suspect that some of the hundreds of men who will be honored on May 11 did not act in the tradition of Lincoln and King.
The truth is that the war, and the governments racist domestic response to it, created extraordinarily difficult problems for all of the Nisei. You do not need to be an expert on human nature to know that human beings will respond to difficulty in lots of different ways and for lots of different reasons. And this is especially true for a group of bored and angry 18-year-olds.
But if this is so, then wouldnt it also be true of those who made the other decision and complied with the draft? Today we are told over and over again that they were all heroes and patriots. But what of the young men who (though they would not now admit it) went into the army because it was the only ticket out of camp, or who jumped at the draft as a way to get out of a difficult relationship with a parent or a girlfriend, or who were simply crazy with boredom and looking for a change? What of the young men who went into the service at a point when the war was all but over? What of the young men who were overcome by fear or even froze or fled in terror as I think I might have done when the shells began to fall and the bullets to fly?
Those who resisted the draft were not all patriots. Neither were all of those who complied with it. They were, instead, imperfect human beings, and young ones at that, trying their best to deal with an impossible set of conditions not of their making. Neither group is honored by pretending that all were heroes or all were villains.
If there is a villain in this story, it was not the
resisters. It was instead the wartime leadership of the JACL. This is a
strong claim, so let me be completely clear about it. The leaderships
villainy was not their support of military service or even their
disagreement with or disapproval of the resisters position. It was
instead the specific actions they took to punish the resisters, actions
these leaders were under absolutely no duty to take. My book
It is therefore ironic that many of those who oppose the May 11 ceremony grudgingly accept the idea of recognizing all of the resisters, but adamantly oppose the notion of apologizing to them. If anything, this has it backwards. We cannot say for sure that each and every one of the several hundred men who resisted the draft truly deserves the label resister of conscience. But each and every one of them is due an apology from the JACL, because whatever that organizations wartime position on the military draft may have been, and however calculated that position may have been to show the Nisei as better Americans in a greater America, the JACLs leaders were surely not obliged to volunteer as government agents, urge harsher punishment for the resisters, and destroy the reputation and career of James Omura.
L. Muller, author of
Updated: May 7, 2002