THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: A MAN OF PRINCIPLE: Robert Chino, civil rights activist, draft resister and veteran


CAPTURED — This June 26, 1942 Chicago Daily Tribune photo shows Robert Chino in jail after being sentenced to three years as a draft violator. photo courtesy of Greg Robinson

The New Year’s season is a special time for wrap-ups and updates. One interesting, if slightly frustrating, part of doing my Nichi Bei column is that my research does not stop with publication of a given essay. Instead, I continue to discover more information about the people I write about even after the pieces have already appeared. While I thank my lucky stars that I have not discovered, at least as yet, any major mistakes in my columns following publication, I do come across all sorts of information that I wish could have been included in my columns.

Sometimes the new information comes in the form of stories told to me by friends or relations of my subjects (since in general I do not write about living persons, I do not hope for information from the people themselves!). For example, not long ago I wrote a column about San Francisco YMCA secretary Lincoln Kanai who bravely defied Executive Order 9066 during the spring of 1942 by leaving the West Coast to seek help in resettlement. I was honored to hear from the renowned Bay Area community figure and former YMCA leader Fred Hoshiyama, who wrote, “I am probably the last remaining person alive who worked with, was influenced by, and talked to Lincoln Kanai. I still remember his last advice and words in April 1942: “Fred, your job is to stay with the evacuees and support them. My job is to visit as many college presidents as possible to try to open admissions. I have a higher authority than the U.S. government AND I MUST FOLLOW IT.” Fred’s eyewitness account underlines the moral dimensions of Kanai’s protest.

Sometimes the information I receive comes from reading old newspapers or official documents. Thus, I discovered from a census report, for example, that Arthur Matsu, the first person of Japanese ancestry to play in the National Football League, was in fact named Matsuzau at birth. (Since Matsu was a Scottish-born alien, I learned, the fans of the late Wally Yonamine who continue to insist that he, and not Matsu, was the first Japanese American in the NFL might technically be correct). In addition, new material will appear on the Internet after I have finished writing — I have been chagrined to discover photos of people I write about after it is too late to include them.

Occasionally, the problem is that people change their names, and I am unable to trace them. The greatest difficulty lies in the women who take on their husbands’ family names after marriage — as a historian I now feel grateful to Quebec’s government, which has made a law that any woman married in the province automatically keeps her own name unless she specifically applies to change it to that of her husband! There are other cases, too. I once wrote a column on my discovery that the wartime journalist and activist Kiyoshi Conrad Hamanaka and the actor Conrad Yama, both of whose careers I had been researching, were one and the same person. There also was the case I reported of Maria Arai, the Spanish-born Nisei daughter of a Japanese diplomat, who obtained a law degree in Mexico City in her early 20s and was then named chief prosecutor in the Mexican government’s crime bureau. I mentioned in my article that I had no information on her later career. I subsequently learned that she had adopted the name Hisa Arai and had spent a long career as an advisor on Mexico’s international trade for the Instituto Mexicano de Comercio Exterior — sent on trade missions to Japan, she made use of her fluent Japanese for negotiations.

She died in 2007.

Still, all these additions, however useful, tend to be minor — little bits of historical lagniappe. They have not fundamentally shifted my understanding of my subjects. In one particular case, though, I discovered substantial information that I had missed on Robert A. Chino, and that has changed my perception of things. To go back to the story, several years ago I did a series of Nichi Bei articles on the Chinos, a rare family of Japanese Americans from pre- World War II Chicago. The patriarch, Haruka (aka Frank) was born in Odawara and came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. After settling in St. Louis at the time of the 1904 World’s Fair, he married Mercelia Hicks, a white woman. Soon after, the family moved to Chicago, where Haruka opened a successful Japanese goods store. The Chinos’ three sons had exceptionally divergent life paths. Elbert (aka Yone), the eldest, became an airplane engineer, and later was hired as an executive by Alaska Airlines. In the process, he changed his name to Cheyno, hid his Japanese ancestry and claimed a (possibly spurious) Native American identity through his mother’s family, and took up a career as an artist. The middle son, Franklin Chino, became a lawyer, directed a local young Nisei group, and was employed by the Japanese consulate in Chicago (I recently discovered that Franklin was accused in Drew Pearson’s famous “Washington Merry-Go-Round” newspaper column of acting as a paid propagandist for Japan, but also that he was featured in a Life magazine story about income taxes). After the war, Franklin Chino largely withdrew from local Japanese affairs, focused on his law practice, and became a local leader of the Knights of Columbus (Franklin converted to Catholicism in connection with his marriage to an Italian American woman).

CAPTURED — This June 26, 1942 Chicago Daily Tribune photo shows Robert Chino in jail after being sentenced to three years as a draft violator. photo courtesy of Greg Robinson

Robert Asahi Chino, the youngest son, was a star athlete at Hyde Park High School, as well as a poet. There is some suggestion that he may have studied at University of Illinois. After leaving school, he became a labor organizer and supporter of left-wing causes. Chino became notorious as a draft resister. In 1940, as war dawned, he joined the War Resisters League. He considered war to be senseless destruction. When his draft board called him, he asked to register as a conscientious objector, but the board simply deferred him. After Pearl Harbor, Chino returned the draft card he was sent to his board, and asked to have his application for conscientious objector status considered. On Feb. 17, 1942, Chino was taken into custody along with a group of his friends for whom he served as “advisor.” His trial received widespread publicity, with newspaper accounts heavily emphasizing Chino’s “enemy” Japanese identity. At first, he pleaded not guilty, but later changed his mind and finally pleaded nolo contedere (I will not contest). On June 25, Judge William Holly sentenced Chino to three years in prison, terming him a “showoff” and refusing his request for probation. He was sent to Sandstone prison in Minnesota, where he spent the next two years.

Chino’s experience in prison left him a changed man. Offered parole if he would join the Army, he agreed and in early 1944 he enlisted in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He served as supply sergeant with the unit in Italy and France. Wounded three times, he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his bravery. Among his Nisei comrades in the 442nd, Chino found a sense of belonging, even more than among the pacifists and idealists in prison, and he paid warm tribute to their decency and consideration. He served for several years in the postwar Army. Ironically, however, his past draft conviction remained on his record as a black mark that barred him from promotion, and he eventually left the Army. He died in December 1987. His lonely episode of draft resistance, like his proud military service, remained long forgotten among the Japanese Americans in whom he had expressed such pride, yet his acts of principle make him a fitting subject of respect for admirers of both draft resisters and veterans.

Not long after writing the article on Robert Chino, I was looking at “Lay Bare the Heart,” the memoir of James Farmer. Farmer was the founding director of the Congress of Racial Equality, the non-violent protest group that was one of the major forces in the black civil rights movement of the 1960s. In his memoir, Farmer notes that in April 1942 he came up with the idea for a Gandhian protest movement, and a group of a half-dozen activists met to form its steering committee. Farmer states that one of the group was “Bob Chino,” whom he mischaracterizes as a “University of Chicago student who was half-Chinese and half-Caucasian.” He added that it was Chino who came up with the idea of calling the group CORE, as representing the center of things and the place of action.

“Bob Chino” was then one of 28 activists who participated in the very first civil rights sit-in, in May 1942, at Jack Spratt’s restaurant in Chicago, a restaurant that did not serve blacks. Chino went to jail only a few weeks after for draft resistance (as did eventually all the male members of the first “cell” except Farmer), so he did not have time to participate further.

It is likely that Farmer simply did not remember that Chino was Japanese American, 40 years after the events described in his memoir, and misremembered him as Chinese because of his name — it is unlikely that Chino would ever have passed for Chinese, given not only the publicity about his Japanese background during his trial but also his own strong feelings against passing (he stopped speaking to his older brother once Elbert began to pass as Native American).

Despite the error, Farmer’s identification of Robert Chino as “present at the creation” to help give birth to CORE deepens our understanding of Chino’s history as a man of principle. More importantly, it reshapes our historical understanding of CORE and the Civil Rights Movement. The mass of history books and encyclopedia entries that have been produced on the subject tend to paint the original CORE as made up entirely of middle-class black and white (mainly Protestant) religious actvists. The revelation that a secular Japanese American like Robert Chino played such an important founding role allows historians a larger understanding of civil rights struggles the place of Nisei in them, even as it challenges larger (and unjust) stereotypes about Asian Americans as fundamentally hostile to blacks.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at

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