Conscience and the Constitution

Wednesday, April 30, 2003
Golden Peacock Restaurant, Renton, WA
keynote address by Frank Abe

“Japanese Americans and War”

In my life I’ve been in on the start of many movements.

I was there for the founding of the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco. I was there for the founding of the Asian American Journalists Association in Seattle. I was there with Gary Locke as he prepared himself to become the first Asian American governor on the mainland.

I sometimes feel like the Forest Gump of Asian America, showing up in the background of pivotal events.

But two accomplishments mean the most to me: redress and the resisters.

In both of those projects, what we did was to recover and reclaim a true history, to shift the paradigm, the framework for how we understand our history.

Tonight, I want to share some thoughts about where we’ve been and where we’re going, and suggest to you three legacies that we leave the world as a result of our experience in World War II.

Surprise attacks and war are nothing new to us. War defines our collective experience as Japanese Americans.

September 11th gave us a sense of what it felt like for many of you on December 7th. A foreign power, representing a non-white race, attacks without warning on American soil.  Thousands of Americans are instantly killed.  The nation is horrified, then angry.  And in this land of ours are Americans and resident aliens of the same race or religion as the attackers, or who look very much like them. 

One poll claimed one-third of New Yorkers favored creating internment camps for people identified by authorities as sympathetic to terrorist causes.

Fox News claimed one in three Americans favored putting Arabs in this country under special surveillance, and putting legal immigrants from unfriendly countries into internment camps.

It sounded awfully familiar.

America was made a victim and it needed to get back at someone.

But this time, the U.S. did not follow through with massive retaliation against Arabs and Islamics. Why not?

I submit to you that one reason was our own accomplishment of redress.

You have to remember how things were back in the seventies. The camps were shrouded in myth. Texts didn't teach them. Our parents spoke of them only in hushed tones or changed the subject when asked. Our leaders called the camps our sacrifice to the war effort. The Nisei were the “Quiet Americans.”

There was no legal and political consensus on the meaning of the camps. In fact, if there was any precedent, it was the Supreme Court’s finding in the Hirabayashi and Yasui test cases that the camps were justified by military necessity.

Our history was no more than opinion and hearsay on talk radio, subject to interpretation by every old-timer who called in to say the camps were for our own safety, or to invoke the fear of invasion.

In this climate we organized the very first Day of Remembrance, on Thanksgiving weekend, 1978.

We nailed signs to telephone poles that resembled the old "Instructions To All Persons of Japanese Ancestry" posters.

We invited people to assemble on Thanksgiving weekend with their bento boxes, put on replicas of the old family number tags, and board National Guard buses for a car caravan out to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, to stand for redress with their families and share a giant potluck dinner.

We were stunned when nearly 2,000 people turned out. It had to be the biggest gathering of Japanese Americans in Seattle since Evacuation!

The line of cars stretched for miles down Interstate-5. Inside the cars parents spoke to their kids about the camps, some of them for the first time.

We worked the press and got sympathetic coverage. And what the Nisei feared most, never happened. There was no white backlash. No angry mob outside the gates of Puyallup.

One anthropologist called it "the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history," a ritual event that has become an "invented tradition" in which practices and symbols that have continuity with the past are reclaimed and reinterpreted to make sense in the present. 

Days of Remembrance have been observed every year since then, wherever we live.

And this chapter, White River Valley JACL, should be proud to be remembered as one of the co-sponsors of that first event.

It was the spark that kick-started the popular campaign for redress. 

We petitioned the government for redress of grievances, and ten years later, after Congressional Commissions and forums and more Days of Remembrance, we won.

We turned around the legal precedent.  We made it the law of the land that if you incarcerate mass groups of people solely on the basis of race, you will pay.

In the weeks after September 11th, the New York Times carried seven stories recalling the Japanese American internment and the wrongs that were committed.

The nation had learned.  It didn’t happen again.

That is our first legacy.

We held the government accountable for its actions in WW2.

Then some of us turned our attention to our own leadership.

How did JACL respond to Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066? Well, this is kind of a touchy subject, so let me offer you this analogy.

After September 11th, when shots were fired at local mosques and planes were grounded because of passengers wearing turbans, could you have imagined the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee saying something like this:

“As Arab-Americans we now function as counter-espionage. Any act or word prejudicial to the United States committed by any Arab-American must be reported to the FBI, Naval Intelligence, and local police.”

Or suppose the U.S. had followed through with the talk of rounding up suspicious-looking Islamics, could you have imagined the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington saying something like this:

“We are preparing our people to move out. We want them to go without bitterness, without rancor, and with the feeling that that this can be their contribution to the defense of the United States. We want to convince them that it will be patriotic to make this sacrifice. Why jeopardize this country or our people by trying to insist on staying, or even by pursuing our legal rights as citizens of this country to contest evacuation?”

That would be hard to believe, wouldn’t it? Yet those were the words of Joe Grant Masaoka on December 8, 1941, and Mike Masaoka, on February 28, 1942. Those were the words of JACL leadership.

Compare them to the words of a Bainbridge Island native, journalist James Omura, who asked a Congressional Commission, “Has the Gestapo come to America? Have we not risen in righteous anger at Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews? Then is it not incongruous that citizen Americans of Japanese ancestry should be similarly mistreated and persecuted?”

Compare also, the words of Frank Emi of Los Angeles and Min Tamesa of Highline, inside the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. “Until we are restored all our rights, all discriminatory features of the Selective Service abolished, and measures are taken to remedy the past injustices thru Judicial pronouncement or Congressional act, we feel that the present program of drafting us from this concentration camp is unjust, unconstitutional, and against all principles of civilized usage.


An historic moment of crisis, two different responses to injustice: compliance or resistance.

I spent almost ten years making our PBS documentary about the JACL and the Heart Mountain resisters. I made it out of sense of frustration.

In the seventies, as I was growing up, it was generally accepted that our response to one of the largest civil rights violations of the American 20th century was either passive resignation, shikataganai, it can’t be helped, or patriotic self-sacrifice, go for broke.

When we asked “Gee mom, dad, why didn’t you resist?” The answer was a pat on the head. “Oh you’re too young, you don’t know how it was then, you can’t apply your Berkekey civil rights activism of the sixties to 1942. Times were different then.”

Well, when we heard the story of these Nisei resisters, it proved that the Constitution did exist in WW2, that civil rights was not an invention of the Sansei generation, and that Japanese Americans did resist the camps in the only way they could, by breaking a law to get a test case into court.

They stood for a principle, and they paid a heavy price: two years in prison, fifty years written out of history by their own community.

The U.S. made mistakes in WW2. So did JACL, branding the resisters as "agitators" and "troublemakers."

It takes a great nation to admit it was wrong.

It makes a good organization stronger to admit it was wrong, as JACL did just about a year ago in San Francisco.

National president Floyd Mori stood in public to say JACL offered a sincere apology for collaborating with the FBI and WRA to crush the draft resisters, and their test case seeking civil liberties for all.

The wartime leader of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee is a retired postal worker and judo master named Frank Emi.

He thanked JACL for the gesture, but he added that JACL should go one step further and offer a similar apology to the entire Japanese American community. 

He said JACL should apologize for providing the names of suspicious Issei to the FBI, for urging the creation of Tule Lake for the segregation of so-called troublemakers, and for the overall surrender of Nisei civil rights for the duration of the war.

Frank Emi said, “I believe such action would finally put to rest JACL's unholy ghosts of the past and would be a worthy way to start the 21st century.”

Well, I haven’t seen anyone rushing to follow up on Frank Emi’s suggestion. But like he said, the ceremony was a good first step. As redress did for the government, the public apology gave JACL a chance to show that it is not the same organization it was in 1942. 

Again, taking our history, reshaping it, making it our own.

So what lies ahead? What is our responsibility as Japanese Americans today?

Tonight, I worry. In Iraq, we’ve won the battle, but did we win the war? Have we sown the seeds of revenge? Have we given cause for some splinter group that we don’t even know the name of yet, to retaliate?

Are there sleeper cells, the agents of Bin Laden or Hussein, awaiting only the signal from overseas to hijack our planes or poison our reservoirs or topple the Space Needle.

I hope not. But at some point, maybe soon, maybe decades from now in a completely different context, we will be attacked again, on our soil, by a non-white race, with a terrible loss of life. And history has shown us what we can expect. America will need a scapegoat.

Another group will be targeted for race hatred and economic opportunism. Another group will suffer due to a failure of political leadership. Another group will suffer… unless we again step forward with the lessons of our own experience.

We leave the legacy of unjust incarceration, and the campaign to convince the government to redress that injustice.

We leave the legacy of our collaboration with incarceration, and of our resistance to it.

That is our history, and in some ways that is our curse.

My friend, the poet Lawson Inada, once complained “Man, being a Japanese American is like a full-time job. You’ve got to know all this history and all these dates and stuff. It can wear you out.”

It is a job. Or maybe, it’s an obligation. A duty to stand for civil liberties for all, now and for generations to come.

And that will be our final legacy. The legacy of our commitment to tell the story, and keep telling it for however long as it takes.

Thank you all very much.


Updated: June 2, 2003