‘Masterpiece’ traces battles Nikkei fought for justice


IN DEFENSE OF JUSTICE: Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality

IN DEFENSE OF JUSTICE: Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality
IN DEFENSE OF JUSTICE: Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality

IN DEFENSE OF JUSTICE: Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality
By Eileen H. Tamura (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2013, 256 pp., $40, cloth)

On the dust jacket of this volume, I am quoted as pronouncing it to be “a substantial contribution to Japanese American historiography and collective memory.” That reserved opinion was based upon my reading of the penultimate manuscript draft that University of Hawai’i Professor Eileen Tamura revised into “In Defense of Justice.” Having now read the published version of this work, I am prepared to proclaim it a masterpiece deserving of inclusion in the pantheon of books on Japanese American World War II dissent-protest-resistance along with such earlier classics penned by Roger Daniels (“Concentration Camps U.S.A..” 1971), Michi Nishiura Weglyn (“Years of Infamy,” 1976), Richard Drinnon (“Keeper of Concentration Camps,” 1987), Eric Muller (“Free to Die for Their Country,” 2001), Frank Chin (“Born in the USA,” 2002), Shirley Castelnuovo (“Soldiers of Conscience,” 2008), Cherstin Lyon (“Prisons and Patriots,” 2011) and James and Lane Hirabayashi (“A Principled Stand,” 2013).

In support of this bold contention, I will advance three general points as a base line for further discussion. The first point involves the controversial subject of Tamura’s biography, Joseph Kurihara (1895-1965). At the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp, this Hawai‘i Nisei, World War I veteran and American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars member not only vociferously denounced the U.S. government’s unwarranted eviction and imprisonment of 120,000 Nikkei in the wake of Japan’s attack on the major American naval base of Pearl Harbor on Oahu, but allegedly was chiefly responsible for the Manzanar Revolt of Dec. 5-6, 1942, that tragically culminated in military police gunfire killing two (youthful) inmates and wounding nine other prisoners.

Notwithstanding his Manzanar “notoriety,” Kurihara prior to “In Defense of Justice” had been understudied (but not altogether neglected) by scholars. Tamura has redressed this shortcoming through a combination of probing research questions and a resourceful engagement with the pertinent primary and secondary sources bearing not merely on Kurihara’s actions at Manzanar, but on his entire life.

A second point relates to the nature of the sites where Kurihara was confined before renouncing his U.S. citizenship and moving to Japan: Manzanar (1942), Moab/Leupp (1943), and Tule Lake, Calif. (1943-1945). While the government assigned them the respective euphemistic labels of “relocation center,” “isolation center” and “segregation center,” all were, in fact, War Relocation Authority-administered concentration camps. Although dissent/protest/resistance occurred in every one of the WRA prisons (and dramatically so at Poston, Ariz., in 1942 and Heart Mountain, Wyo., in 1944), the most spectacular inmate opposition to oppression arose in those facilities impounding Kurihara. Even before Tamura’s book, this defiance at the California camps of Manzanar and (most especially) Tule Lake had received substantial (if often fitful) critical attention, but in the case of the Moab, Utah and Leupp, Ariz., isolation centers, documentation and interpretation was minimal. Now, thanks to Tamura, much of the mystery associated with all these penal sites and, particularly, the inmate resistance enacted at them has been eradicated.

Point three pertains to the place where Kurihara spent his life’s final 20 years: Japan. Recently, some scholars ― most notably historian John Dower in “Embracing Defeat” (1999)  ―  have written about the Allied Powers Occupation of Japan (1945-1952), under U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s military leadership. But aside from a 2009 “Journal of American-East Asian Relations” article by transnational historian Eiichiro Azuma and a few studies on the Military Intelligence Service’s role in Occupied Japan, very little scholarship has examined the vital involvement of Japanese Americans (including renunciants), both from the mainland and Hawai‘i, during this transformative interval of postwar Japan. In Tamura’s brief and plainly titled “Japan” chapter, she considerably illuminates this topic through her narration of what Kurihara experienced in the process of being transformed from an American national into a Japanese national.

With the above three points as a contextual framework for discussing my lofty evaluation of “In Defense of Justice,” we can now discuss each point in order through specific examples and elaborations. Regarding Tamura’s lessening of the limitations in Kurihara’s existing life history ― heretofore largely restricted to his rebellious actions at Manzanar ― it can be prudently declared that she has expanded considerably our knowledge of her biographical subject. To be sure, Kurihara’s tempestuous time at Manzanar is at the heart of Tamura’s book, taking up as it does two meaty chapters (“Resistance in Manzanar” and “Stepping Back”).

However, before even getting to these chapters, Tamura provides three others (“Growing Up American,” “A Yank in France, a Jap in America” and “To Manzanar”) that fortify readers with crucial background information about Kurihara’s family, educational, and religious (Catholic) background in Hawai‘i; his pre-World War I mainland sojourn and military training in the Midwest; his short wartime tour of duty in France and his postwar year of extended Army service in Germany; his 1920s-1930s interwar living, educational and vocational activities in Los Angeles; his pre- and post-Pearl Harbor undertakings and misadventures; and his emerging antipathy toward both the U.S. government and the Japanese American Citizens League while preparing to depart Los Angeles for Manzanar.

Then, too, Tamura follows up her Manzanar chapters with four others encompassing the balance of Kurihara’s World War II incarceration experience, as well as his postwar East Asian life (“Isolating Citizen Dissidents,” “Turmoil at Tule,” “Renunciation” and “Japan”). But even Tamura’s two Manzanar-based chapters greatly enhance our insight into Kurihara, for in them he is brought into sharper focus by being considered in relation to both those at the camp who were his allies (primarily Harry Ueno) and those Manzanarians with whom he clashed (Fred Tayama, Togo Tanaka, Karl Yoneda, and fellow WWI vet Tokutaro (“Tokie”) Nishimura Slocum).

As to what readers can learn from Tamura’s book about the three sites of shame where Kurihara “did time” during World War II and the nature and degree of the dissent-protest-resistance played out within their corresponding inmate populations, the simple answer is: a great deal. Although it is too great to even attempt to tackle in this review, its extent and richness can be hinted at by selective illustrations. For instance, in connection with the Manzanar Revolt, Tamura offers a footnote juxtaposing two explanations by historians for what underlay the conflict between the anti-administrative protesters and the pro-administrative JACL leadership that precipitated the explosive event, and then provides her own interpretation. Writes Tamura: “Lon Kurashige (2001/2002) challenges the emphasis on cultural differences [by Arthur Hansen and David Hacker, 1974] and instead highlights differences in class backgrounds. … My view is that social class interacted with and fed into the different cultural perspectives of the Nikkei.” In respect to the Moab and Leupp “isolation centers,” I have recommended Tamura’s book to a filmmaker, Claudia Katayanagi, who is doing a documentary film on these facilities established by the WRA for so-called “troublemakers.” One thing she will learn from Tamura is the exceedingly deep and very dangerous divide at Moab separating the Harry Ueno-led anti-administration faction of former Manzanarians and those ex-Manzanarians, including Joe Kurihara, who cooperated with Moab’s director, Raymond Best (who would later assume the same position at Leupp). Regarding the Tule Lake Segregation Center, what readers of “In Defense of Justice” will derive from reading Tamura’s book (aside from the fact that at this high-security prison Ueno and Kurihara became reconciled as friends and both pledged their cooperation with Best, who left Leupp to direct Tule Lake), is being treated with a cogent overview of both Tule Lake’s complex and conflicted political environment and its attendant resegregation and renunciation movements.

It is obvious from what Tamura writes about Tule Lake that she has capitalized not only on such classic works on this camp by Weglyn and Drinnon, but also newer studies such as those by Barbara Takei, Martha Nakagawa and Sachiko Takita-Ishii — all of which appeared in “A Question of Loyalty,” the 2005 anthology on Tule Lake published by the Shaw Historical Library. For this reason, I have urged filmmaker Brian Maeda to consult the Tamura volume as part of his preparation for his forthcoming Tule Lake documentary.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate what readers of “In Defense of Justice” can gain about the part played by Japanese Americans in Occupied Japan is to share some relevant quantitative and qualitative information offered by Tamura. “From August 1945 to April 1952,” she states, “the U.S. Army recruited as many as six thousand Nisei and Kibei-Nisei civilians from the U.S. West Coast and Hawai’i. … and many like Kurihara who had only recently renounced their citizenship. In all, a total of almost 10,000 Nisei and Kibei-Nisei ― soldiers and civilians ― worked at some point for the U.S. military during the occupation” (p. 137). The employment of these Japanese Americans in postwar Japan ― in what can plausibly be argued to have served as a (semi-colonial) resettlement area for Nikkei in the same way (though far better) as mainland cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Denver and Salt Lake City ― allowed Japanese Americans (and to a lesser extent those who had renounced their U.S. citizenship) to enjoy “abundant nutritious foods, get their hands on all they wanted in the form of commissary supplies, and visit places of recreation and entertainment,” while Japanese nationals “lived their everyday lives in hunger and deprivation” (p. 139).

Beautifully written in accessible language and elegantly and efficiently organized, “In Defense of Justice” is much more than the biography of Joseph Kurihara. Rather, what Eileen Tamura has achieved in her powerful and persuasive book, which is by turns passionately partisan and objectively balanced, is to clearly set forth the importance of one notable dissident leader as a quintessential personification of the transformation of Japanese Americans from patriots to protestors as a consequence of their unjust World War II eviction and imprisonment.

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