Ben Wakaye: A True American
By Amy Fujimoto
My mother's last image of Uncle Ben returns to when she was a five year old visiting her grandmother's apartment where he was living before he died of kidney failure in 1952. She remembers her father half-carrying Uncle Ben to the restroom, not understanding the helpless, sickly state of a grown thirty-nine year old man. However, it was not until she was sixteen, questioning issues of war and diplomacy at the outbreak of Vietnam, did my mother discover Ben's political activism and involvement in draft resistance during the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.
As treasurer of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, an organization of Japanese American draft resistance, Ben and other members served federal prison terms for resisting the conscription of all Japanese American community for treason, becoming a criminal in mainstream society. For Ben and fellow Committee members, life would never be the same after the War.
Reflecting a period of ambiguity, fear, and uncertainty, their courage and staunch belief in American democracy remained hidden by the rehabilitating Japanese American community and mainstream society as outcasts of war.
As a child, my family would customarily place flowers by the family graves every few months performing the okara maiki, our traditional trip to the cemetery. My grandma's family headstone lists Tsutomu "Ben" Wakaye born on January 2, 1913 and died in November 8, 1952 at only thirty-nine years old. He never married; he loved to read Russian and German authors; he worked as a janitor after the War until he became ill. But who was Uncle Ben? Surely this quiet, intellectual, introverted man could not be the threatening enemy alien classified by the United States federal courts. What beliefs spurred him to publicly resist the draft, Americanism, and a public acceptance ideology that the majority of the Japanese American population supported? As a fourth generation Japanese American, I will attempt to uncover some of these gaps and silences surrounding the Japanese American internment history through my own family. The pain, frustration, and bitterness of the internment placed many divisions within the Japanese American community. American-born Nisei struggled to rectify their loyalty and patriotism to their country of birth while the first generation Issei became increasingly dependent on their children as a cultural bridge. Members of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee publicly refused to accept draft questionnaires and requirements until their rights as citizens were recognized. These individuals defended their constitutional rights as American-born citizens even at the cost of their public integrity, reputation, and status. In this essay, I will explore the bravery of these few individuals while addressing the causes surrounding the silences and omittance from Japanese American mainstream history.
The first and only son of the family, Tsutomu "Ben" Wakaye was born just after the new year of 1913 in Honolulu, Hawaii. By the second grade, the Wakaye family closed their small grocery store and moved to San Francisco. While Ben remained active with peers, as he loved to play basketball and baseball at the local Japantown YMCA, my grandma remembers he was "always quiet, almost an introvert."1 Preferring a small group of friends, Ben loved to read and avidly studied German and Latin before graduating from Galileo High School in 1931. In the midst of the Depression, college was not an option as Ben searched for employment while living in the family apartment. When his mother passed away shortly after the birth of his youngest sister Tae, Ben helped supplement the work of his father's carpentry shop, my grandma Kiyono, and his grandmother Iyono. Eventually, Ben found employment with a Japanese Trading Company in San Francisco while spending summers working for apple dryers in Sebastopol. By the mid-thirties, Ben began a job selling insurance he acquired through a friend where he worked until the evacuation in 1942. Before the War, Ben loved to visit the local library and read European authors and scholars such as Tolstoy, Karl Marx, or Dostoyevsky. My grandmother remembers him returning with Adolf Hitler's Mein Kamf one day which she questioned as he replied, he "just wanted to see what it's like...what he wanted to say."2 Intellectual, introspective, and private, Ben Wakaye pursued an independent, simple life before the outbreak of World War II that shattered the Japanese American community.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, instructing the mass evacuation of all individuals of Japanese descent on the Pacific coast. The imprisonment of Japanese aliens and citizens justified the ten federal prison camps as a "military necessity" where "the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose his discretion."3 In 1942, the Selective Service classified all young Japanese men as IV-C, or enemy aliens.4 Stunned by the crowded, noisy, and crude conditions of the camps, Japanese Americans grappled with their dislocation and rejection from American society as their birthright, citizenship, and freedoms were stripped away. Although some individuals such as Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Fred Korematsu attempted to contest the unconstitutionality of internment and evacuation through federal courts, the government convicted these men replying that their policies were based on military necessity during the War.5 As targets of racist fear and antagonism, the Japanese American community struggled to reconcile the divisions and restrictions imposed by the federal government and their country of citizenship.
Japanese American internment created new conflicts between generations, families, and community beliefs particularly for the American-born Nisei. Second generation Asian Americans historically struggled with their dual identity as children of immigrants immersed in American culture as Suecheng Chan explains, "What pained them was having been educated in public schools where they learned the American creed, they thought they would enjoy all the rights, privileges, and duties of citizenship. Instead, they found themselves no better off than their parents."6 Issei parents depended on their children to bridge the cultural gap between East and West cultures by encouraging an American lifestyle, education, and patriotism balanced with Japanese heritage. During the War, this dominant theory of open acceptance, patriotism, and Americanism reflected the ideology of many Nisei in response to the restrictions of the American government. Organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the Nisei Democrats, and other groups focused on conservative, accomodationist strategies preaching "patriotism" and "one hundred percent Americanism" as the key to acceptance.7 American standards of success, support, and patriotism would prove national loyalty against the antagonism of the government. In February of 1943, President Roosevelt hypocritically issued an order stating that "Every loyal American citizen should be given the opportunity to serve this country...in the ranks of our armed forces."8 Signing the loyalty oaths, 33,000 Nisei males served in the U.S. Armed Forces to express their loyalty and obligation as citizens in defending their loyalty and obligation as citizens in defending their country.9 Though still "enemy aliens", the military classified army volunteers as "IV-4C" allowing participation in the European warfront.10 Despite the restrictions and accusations of internment, Japanese Americans predominately promoted acceptance and patriotism as means of restoring public integrity.
While most Nisei preached public acceptance, others, such as Ben Wakaye, decided to defend their individual liberties and rights as American citizens. Though loyalty questionnaires required all Nisei males to register Nisei for the draft and work, Questions 27 and 28 controversially targeted Japanese American allegiance to the United States army and government.11 At the Heart Mountain Relocation camp in Wyoming, Frank Emi began to question the constitutionality of such questions as treatment of an enemy alien rather than an American citizen. He called himself "The Fair Play Committee of One", and began to recruit fellow Nisei to refuse cooperation with the draft unless their citizenship rights were restored.12 Frank Emi lived on block 9 near the Wakaye family barrack where he met my Uncle Ben. Although he rarely discussed political issues with female family members, Ben became involved with Emi and other Committee members which he discussed with his father. His background in accounting and insurance made Ben an obvious candidate for Treasurer of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee where he was elected as an officer.13 In contrast to the "No-No Boys" who completely rejected American citizenship, members of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee celebrated their loyal citizenship and expressed their desire to fight for America if they were recognized as Americans as Frank Emi explained in a 1976 interview, "We really felt that what the government did was just combining two wrongs: first Evacuation, putting us in camp, and then drafting us out of camp without any talk of restoring our rights or clarifying our citizenship status."14 A courageous act of civil disobedience, the Fair Play Committee sought to reclaim their loyalty and liberties through passive resistance.
While the Fair Play Committee managed to recruit various members, they faced the growing antagonism and ostracism from the government and the Japanese American community. My grandma remembers Ben always warning that the "U.S. Federal Marshall will come for me" as an officer of the Committee.15 Many Nisei community leaders condemned the draft resistors as un-patriotic and un-American as perpetuating dominant mainstream stereotypes of Japanese disloyalty and treason.16 Ben Wakaye protected the family from any community backlash or association as he once told my grandma before she left to marry my grandpa, a member of the 442nd all-Japanese American combat team fighting in Europe, "you go your way, I'll go mine."17 In 1944, most Nisei leaders called for the total compliance with government orders spurring many to volunteer for the Army and accept draft calls. However, members of the Fair Play Committee refused to comply with draft orders until their birthright was recognized.18 An extremely difficult, self-sacrificing decision, these individuals faced consequences of imprisonment and ostracism.
In response to draft resistance, seven leaders of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee were arrested and indicted for conspiracy to violate the draft order in June of 1944.19 While my grandma could not attend the trial, resettled in Chicago, her seventeen year old younger sister Tae attended the trial at the federal district court in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Though the Committee members argued that the draft law remained unconstitutional and morally wrong, they were sentenced to four years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary on June 26, 1944.20 Treated as dangerous criminals, Ben and the six other member courageously endured a criminal sentence while upholding their conviction in the United States Constitution. Even after his sentence, Ben urged many of the younger member to accept the draft when their number was called to help fellow Nisei in combat while he would sacrifice himself for the Committee beliefs.21 However, labeled as "disloyals" by the government and the Japanese community, the resisters became the anti-heroes of the time. The Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee members served their prison sentences and virtual isolation with an unfaltering stance on their faith in constitutional principles over American practices for the remainder of the War.
Most resisters were released after the end of the War in 1946 into American society as ex-convicts and community outcasts. Ben Wakaye served two years at Leavenworth before returning to the small basement apartment in San Francisco where his father, grandma, and sister Tae relocated in the spring of 1946.22 As John Okada describes in his novel No-No Boy, many resisters faced the double alienation from the Japanese community and mainstream society while others could rebuild their war-torn lives. Resisters felt shunned as the main protagonist of the novel, Ichiro, laments, "Why is it that, in my freedom, I feel more imprisoned in the wrongness of myself and the thing I did than when I was in prison?"23 After the War, the Japanese American community desperately wanted to forget the trauma and humiliation of internment, thus stifling most memories of war. My Uncle Ben never mentioned his years in prison to my grandma as he struggled to find various housework jobs before settling as a janitor. With a prison record of violating the Selective Service Act, a federal offense, it was impossible to obtain jobs outside of camp during wartime while the War Relocation Authority (WRA) refused to let them reenter camp.24 These Nisei had no place to stay or work, accepting jobs in domestic work, farming, or coal mining where bosses did not ask any questions.25 Additionally, returning Nisei veterans still harbored resentment toward draft resisters because "they refused to serve their country in the time of war."26 Only once did Ben vaguely comment on life in Leavenworth, telling my grandma, "There's one thing I learned in prison: Patience. That, I have a lot of now."27 Though he occasionally spoke to other resisters, Ben and others spent time alone, quietly blending into the community. Patience, courage, and selfless sacrifice are what most Nisei draft resisters endured for the next fifty years until their defense of American ideals would be publicly recognized. With ill health and kidney problems, Ben died young of kidney failure in 1953, never achieving the recognition of his role in American Civil Rights.
Only recently has the reality of Nisei draft resistance during World War II been recognized as many Japanese Americans remained quiet in the face of injustice and discrimination for fifty years. Surprisingly, the subject of Nisei draft remains a controversial subject in Japanese American history which primarily focuses on the brilliant records of the 100th/442nd all-Nisei combat units in Europe and the Pacific.28 Facilitated through the rhetoric of the Vietnam War, my mother gingerly asked questions about Uncle Ben, sensing the painfulness of the subject as she noted, "I had to couch my questions because I knew it was a sensitive subject."29 Similarly, Janice Kawamoto describes the sensitivity and silences surrounding the resister history as she writes, "...in all those years, there was never talk of my father's experience in a camp as a resister. Although interested in his camp days, out of respect for my father, I never pursued the subject."30 In recent generations, many Sansei and Yonsei begin to uncover many of the silences surrounding Japanese American resistance by realizing the pride, courage, and sense of responsibility of their motives. By 1994, the National Japanese American Historical Society recognized fifty years of the Heart Mountain draft resister history in Oakland as existing leaders such as Frank Emi and Mits Koshiyama conducted public panels and discussions.31 Gradually, the Japanese American community and mainstream society has come to recognize the courage and patriotic valor of the Nisei draft resisters during the war and postwar era.
Two decades before the sixties civil rights movements, the Nisei draft resisters act of civil disobedience marks a historic milestone in United States civil rights history. Given the political climate of war hysteria, treason, and racist stereotypes, submission to government order was expected. However, my Uncle Ben and others chose to address larger issues of constitutionality by risking personal safety and ostracism from their own community. As a fourth generation Yonsei, it is easy for me to say that I would have fought and resisted internment as my Uncle Ben. Though his remaining years were plagued with health problems, job discrimination, and ostracism, I choose to remember Ben Wakaye with tremendous pride, amazement, and awe of his participation in my Nikkei heritage. These individuals taught the nature of strength, conviction, and responsibility as real American patriots in the face of the constitutional wrong. The history of Nisei draft resisters marks the significant milestone in Asian American resistance and legislation. More importantly, it examines the many silences and gaps of dominant, mainstream history. The stories of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee serve as a reminder of these hidden individuals within United States society and our own communities.
Copyright 1998, Amy Fujimoto
1. Kiyono Tominaga Interview, Kensington, California,
May 23, 1998.
reprinted with permission
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