A Nisei resolve for social justice

Manzanar and Beyond: Memoirs of Frank F. Chuman, Nisei Attorney

By Frank F. Chuman with foreword by Daniel Inouye and introduction by Dale Minami (San Mateo, Calif.: Asian American Curriculum Project, Inc., 2011, 153 pp., $15.95, paperback)

A timely and accessible memoir written at the prompting of Chuman’s children, who collectively urged him to “write something for all of us so we know more about you.” Many will recognize Frank F. Chuman’s signature work, “The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese Americans,” one of the first comprehensive compilations of Japanese American legal history. His memoir fills in the spaces before and after his seminal work.

He introduces us to his family’s Kagoshima roots and all that it implies — pride, toughness, never-give-up attitude, and a streak of anti-authoritarianism that Kagoshima folks are known for. His father, like thousands of fellow Issei, came to America looking for the land of riches only to find hardship and poverty. And like thousands of other Issei men, he sent for a “picture bride” to begin a new life in America.

Chuman chronicles his early childhood in Montecito, Calif. to his experiences growing up in Los Angeles. UCLA becomes his next target and perhaps a career with the Foreign Service. However, a dean bluntly tells him that the State Department will never “appoint anyone…who is of a certain racial background like you.” Stunned, Chuman considers a career in Japan, following many other Nisei who envisioned Japan as an alternative to the discrimination that they faced in America. He instead enrolled in the USC law school only to have that path interrupted after only one semester by the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

He is then asked and agrees to be head administrator of a planned 250-bed hospital at the Manzanar concentration camp in California. With a book on hospital administration in hand, he and two others were off to Manzanar.

Once the mission was completed, Chuman headed to Ohio to continue his law degree, and ultimately ends up graduating from the University of Maryland School of Law, where he is exposed to arcane legal principles in Latin. After passing the bar, he turned down three potentially life-altering opportunities and returned to Los Angeles, no doubt, to help his family as the incarceration camps were being closed.

As fate would have it, Chuman found work with A.L. Wirin, special counsel to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). During his stint with Wirin, Chuman worked on many landmark cases including cases of renunciants, passed the California Bar, and opened his private practice. He became involved in the JACL at the national level and still managed to write the landmark study, “The Bamboo People.”

Chuman also, unbeknownst to many, introduced the little-used and little-known writ of coram nobis remedy that he had studied at University of Maryland School of Law as he testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981. The rest, as they say, is history.

This important memoir gives the reader insights into the difficulties and challenging world that many Nisei faced before and after the War. It is also a story about one man’s resolve for social justice after discovering the paradoxical nature of America by going “east” across America as the Issei traveled east to America a generation before.

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