RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Kiyoshi Okamoto, an unsung hero of the camp resistance movement

It was a solemn and moving ceremony in a Buddhist church last month, the funeral for Frank Emi. At 94, his time had come, and so a steadfast American patriot was honored and put to rest at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. When the light that was Frank’s spirit — which had burned so steadily through all these years — goes out, it’s like a void opens and we can only be comforted by the thought that his quiet strength had been such a source of encouragement for those of us who have studied the concentration camp history of Japanese Americans.

But there is another compelling figure in the story of the resisters who remains little known. He is also buried at Evergreen Cemetery, but in a pauper’s grave on another side of the burial grounds. After Frank was buried, a group of us went to honor and pay our respects to this person, Kiyoshi Okamoto, the original protester who gave himself the title, “The Fair Play Committee of One.”

Kiyoshi Okamoto’s mug shot photo courtesy of Marie Masumoto

Okamoto was a middle-aged inmate at Heart Mountain concentration camp during World War II, known as an outspoken and somewhat eccentric Nisei who, in the words of Eric Muller in his book, “Free To Die For Their Country,” “had been a thorn in the camp administration’s side” from the beginning. His writings inspired other Nisei who admired him for speaking his mind publicly and fearlessly.

The announcement of the government’s intention to institute the draft was the catalyst for many who had been thinking about their incarceration and the plight of their families. The Fair Play Committee of One grew to become the Fair Play Committee of Seven, seven men including Frank Emi who were willing to lead in opening up discussions about their situation. They held meetings and published mimeographed explanations of their work. For instance, on a Q-and-A format leaflet: “Q-What’s this Fair Play Committee about? A-The Fair Play Committee (FPC) is organized to inject justice in all the problems pertaining to our evacuation, concentration, detention and pauperization without hearing or due process of law, and oppose all unfair practices within our center, State, or Union.” The military draft seemed a particularly harsh step by the government in light of the captive condition of the inmates of the camps.

The Fair Play Committee was met with immediate opposition by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the editor of the camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, who editorialized that these were clever troublemakers and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States attorney should quickly take the resisters into custody. It alarmed the authorities and they looked for ways to curb their influence.

FINAL RESTING PLACE — Kiyoshi Okamoto, who was born in what was then the Republic of Hawaii in 1889, went on the form the “Fair Play Committee of One” at the Heart Mountain, Wyo. concentration camp. The grave site of Okamoto, who died on Dec. 28, 1974, was rediscovered two years ago after his grand niece-in-law, Marie Masumoto, researched its whereabouts off and on for eight years until she found him buried in an unmarked grave for indigents at the Evergreen Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

But the message of the FPC resonated with camp inmates, and as their influence grew, they were threatened with prosecution. Okamoto and another FPC member, Sam Horino, were picked up and whisked off to Tule Lake, Calif., the camp for “disloyals” and “troublemakers.” Okamoto and Horino later stood trial with the other FPC leaders and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment at Leavenworth, Kan., for conspiracy. The young men who had decided to defy army orders and had failed to report for physicals were convicted of draft dodging and most served time in jail, though all were later pardoned.

After the war, Okamoto went off to be a gold prospector and his whereabouts were unknown for a long time. A determined researcher, Marie Masumoto, wife of Okamoto’s grand nephew, located his pauper’s grave after years of investigation.

The really sad aspect of the story of the FPC and the draft resisters is how the Japanese American community was duped into believing that these men were unpatriotic, disloyal, and posed a threat to our status as American citizens. No consideration or respect was given to these men for raising questions and challenging the government. In fact, they were pilloried. It seems evident now that the incarceration had dealt such a blow to the self esteem of Japanese Americans that they accepted the idea that the highest form of patriotism was to have served in the army, even though most of the men from the mainland had been drafted (rather than volunteered).

At the first JACL convention held after the war, some proposed that Tuleans and draft resisters all be deported, that a distinction be drawn between “those who stood for principle and those who wavered.” This was an ironic reversal of the meaning of principle. The delegates did not go that far, but Tuleans and resisters had to endure ostracism in the JA community for years.

A draft resister, Yosh Kuromiya, said this about Okamoto: “This is the message I learned from Kiyoshi Okamoto. … Most people criticized him for his general demeanor and brutal language — and they missed his message … completely. If Kiyoshi were here today, he might say: When you kiss-ass, you risk getting farted on — or worse. (He didn’t say that, of course, I said it). But that’s exactly what happened to us JAs because there weren’t enough of us that took a stand!”

It is time that the JA community recognize the enormous sacrifice and the enormous lesson the story of the FPC and the draft resisters can teach about resistance to tyranny and to standing up for principles.

Chizu Omori is the co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She writes from San Francisco, and can be reached by e-mail at chizuomori@earthlink.net. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.


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