Conscience and the Constitution

Nichi Bei Times, May 2, 2002 

To Resist or to Comply: A Human Dilemma
by Eric L. Muller

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 harm’s 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 government’s 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 wouldn’t 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 leadership’s 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 “Free to Die for their Country” demonstrates that JACL leaders worked closely with federal government officials to jail the resisters and to demolish the career of a Nisei newspaperman who publicly supported the resisters. Documents in the WRA and Justice Department archives make clear that in 1944, Joe Grant Masaoka was working “hand [in] glove with the FBI” to “hang” Denver journalist James Omura. (Those are direct quotations from a WRA document.) Masaoka and Min Yasui also filed a report urging the government to place the Heart Mountain resisters in solitary confinement in order to break their spirit and get them to cooperate with the government in the prosecutions of the leadership of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. And, as if that were not enough, delegates to JACL’s national convention in 1946 urged the organization to fire JACL attorney A.L. Wirin for having had the audacity to represent some of the resisters on his own time as part of his own private law practice.

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 organization’s 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 JACL’s 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.

Eric L. Muller, author of “Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II,” is a professor of law at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The views presented in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Times.

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Updated: May 7, 2002