OUT OF THE SHADOWS OF INFAMY: Nikkei resistance during World War II

Contrary to the stereotype that Japanese Americans during World War II never questioned the constitutionality of the United States concentration camps and willingly went in to the camps and even served in the Army from the camps, hundreds of Japanese Americans took part in all forms of protests, including legal, as well as physical ones.

Riots/Unrest

At the same time that legal challenges were being filed in the courts, Japanese Americans were organizing mainly to protest living conditions in the different camps.

One of the earliest incidents involved the strike at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in California in June of 1942, where workers employed in the camouflage net operation participated in a sit-down strike to protest working conditions.

A more violent confrontation occurred at Santa Anita in August of 1942 when a suspected informant was beaten by the inmates after the internal police engaged in a routine contraband search. As a crowd gathered, more than 200 military police were called in and martial law was declared.

The late Joe Yamakido, who would go on to become the lone draft resister from the Jerome War Relocation Authority concentration camp in Arkansas, was among those arrested during the Santa Anita melee. He was rounded up and placed into a make-shift jail inside the men’s restroom under the grandstands at the Santa Anita racetracks before he was transferred to an outside jail and then shipped to the Tule Lake, Calif. camp. The rest of Yamakido’s family was sent to the Jerome concentration camp, and it would be months before Yamakido could join his family at Jerome.

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The three earliest WRA camps to open — Manzanar, Tule Lake and Poston (Colorado River) — also witnessed unrest.

For the most part, Japanese American Citizens League leaders were the targets of intimidation and beatings in the camps by other inmates because the organization advocated cooperation with the government.

The greater Japanese American community also suspected JACL leaders to be government informants. Decades later, unclassified FBI records would confirm the other inmates’ suspicions that JACL leaders had, in fact, served as government informants.

Additionally, animosity toward the the JACL intensified when the organization advocated the re-opening of the armed forces to Japanese Americans.

An all-camp strike occurred in November of 1942 at Poston Camp I after an alleged Nisei informant was beaten up and two men were arrested and scheduled to be taken out of camp to stand trial. Most camp inmates did not feel these two popular men could get a fair trial outside of camp, and the Issei organized a committee in an attempt to negotiate with the administration. However, following two unsuccessful meetings, the Issei committee called for an all-camp strike, which lasted about 10 days and shut down the entire Camp I.

Minoru “Min” Tajii was an active participant in the Poston Camp I strike. He was among the hundreds of inmates who surrounded the camp jail to prevent the two men from being taken out of camp.

Like others, Tajii was fed up with his treatment by the government. His father had been taken away shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and his family lost most of their belongings as a result of their imprisonment.

“I was very angry,” Tajii said. “I stayed 24 hours a day (guarding the jail). The young kids like us had it surrounded. And somebody brought us things like musubi to eat, so the only time I left was to go back to the barrack to take a shower.”

Tajii said, had the government sent in the Army, he was ready to lay down his life.

“We were ready to fight,” Tajii said. “They weren’t going to push us around. I wasn’t afraid. We only had sticks but if the government brought in the Army, I was prepared to die. I took kendo so I could use a stick but I know a stick couldn’t beat a gun but for some reason, I felt to heck with them. Let them come and we’ll give ’em a fight.”

Fortunately, the Poston strike ended with no casualties when the camp project director chose the negotiation route, rather than brute force. The project director agreed to release one of the two men outright and to have the second man tried in camp.

But Tajii’s protest against his treatment by the government didn’t stop with the strike. When the poorly-worded loyalty questionnaire came out in early 1943, Tajii answered “no” to questions 27 and 28, the two most controversial questions. He was called in twice by the administration in an effort to change his “no” answers, but Tajii didn’t budge.

“They told me the second time I was called in that they could put me in a federal prison,” recalled Tajii. “I said what’s the difference between a federal prison and being in Poston? Then, the guy says, ‘What are you, a wise guy?’ I told him, ‘I’m mad.’ They should know what’s right.”

Meanwhile, Tajii learned through letters that his father, who had been transferred from one Department of Justice camp to another, desired to return to Japan so Tajii and his family were reunited with their father at the Crystal City, Texas DOJ camp before being shipped to Japan. Tajii, however, did not renounce his U.S. citizenship and as a result, was able to return to the U.S. with little problem after the war. His parents, however, decided to remain in Japan.

Military Resistance

Cedrick Shimo is one of the few Japanese American veterans to speak publicly about his protest in the U.S. Army.

Shimo received his draft notice on Dec. 8, 1941, one day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. At that time, the Boyle Heights native was attending the University of California, Berkeley.

When Shimo attempted to get on a bus to report to his draft board in Los Angeles, he was prevented from getting on due to his Japanese face. As a result, Shimo hitchhiked from Berkeley to Los Angeles to report for his physical.

Since Shimo entered the Army early in the war, the Army had not yet segregated the Japanese American soldiers, and Shimo even headed his integrated unit since he had ROTC training.

When the government put out a call for bilingual soldiers to join the Military Intelligence Service, Shimo volunteered. All during this time, Shimo was also writing to various people in Washington, D.C. in an effort to get his father released from various DOJ camps. His father had been picked up shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor since he was a kendo teacher. His mother, meanwhile, had to enter the Manzanar concentration camp by herself.

Before shipping out overseas, Shimo requested a visit with his mother. “I had graduated from the MIS school, and we had a furlough, so I applied to see my mother in Manzanar,” said Shimo. “In those days, California was still closed, even to Japanese Americans serving in the Army. That got me very angry. Here I am ready to go overseas, and I can’t even go to California. I made some very strong statements, and that’s why I was expelled from the Military Intelligence Service.”

Shimo had also answered “no” to question 27 on the loyalty questionnaire, and when questioned about which side he would be fighting for if Japan invaded the U.S., Shimo answered that he would be supporting whichever side was protecting the camps.

After his MIS expulsion, Shimo was transferred to various units, including the 525 Quartermaster Service Company, and eventually ended up in the 1800th Engineer General Service Battalion, which the government had created to watch over soldiers of Japanese, German, Italian ancestry and a few others, whose loyalty was suspect.

If given another chance, Shimo said he wouldn’t change a thing. “Under the same circumstances, I’d do the same thing,” said Shimo. “I have no guilt. I figured I was right and I still do.”

Tule Lake Block 42

In early 1943, the War Department and the WRA issued a separate but similarly worded loyalty questionnaire to Japanese Americans imprisoned in the camps.

The goal of the War Department was to identify alleged “loyal” Japanese Americans to conscript into the Army, while the WRA’s goal was to start releasing those Japanese Americans who answered the questionnaire to the government’s satisfaction.

Answering the War Department’s form was voluntary but filling out the WRA’s form was compulsory.

However, the different titles of the two forms, the wording of the questions and issues over whether the forms were voluntary or compulsory caused confusion among Japanese Americans in all the 10 WRA camps.

At Tule Lake, the administration failed to answer basic questions such as the necessity of the loyalty questionnaire and further exacerbated relationships with the Japanese Americans by announcing through the camp newspaper that anyone who interfered with the registration process of the loyalty questionnaire would be fined up to $10,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 20 years under the Espionage Act.

To underscore their point, the administration made an example of Block 42, which had a high number of Japanese American men refusing to register.

About 35 men were rounded up from Block 42 on Feb. 21, 1943. One group was sent to the Klamath Falls jail, and the other, to the Alturas jail. The men were imprisoned for about seven days without any charges, hearings or trials.

After a week, the two groups were reunited at Camp Tulelake, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, located about 10 miles from the Tule Lake WRA camp. One night, during the men’s stay, they were forced out of bed and ordered to stand outside the barracks. A flood light focused on the Block 42 men, while soldiers with rifles stood on both sides of the flood light.

Brothers Mamoru “Mori” and James Tanimoto, two of the detained Block 42 men, thought they were facing a firing squad but the situation ended with no casualties.

The Tanimoto brothers theorized that the soldiers had intended to scare the Block 42 men into filling out the loyalty questionnaire since informal hearings were held shortly after this incident. But both brothers stood their grounds.

“We refused to sign the loyalty questionnaire because we were labeled enemy aliens, and I didn’t like being put into a camp,” said Mori. “I was a loyal citizen, and we were expressing our rights as an American citizen.”

Jim voiced similar sentiment. “Why did we even have to fill out a loyalty questionnaire?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m an American citizen. I was born in this country. They didn’t pass something like this to other groups to fill out, so why was the government passing this to me to fill out?

“When the people at the CCC camp asked me, ‘Will you fill out these papers now?’ I told them, ‘No, I won’t. I’m an American citizen but you’re only asking people of my ancestry and not people of German or Italian or other ancestries to fill this out. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence says we’re all equal but you’re treating me differently. I’m not signing this. This is not the American way.’”

Shortly after these hearings, the Block 42 men were returned to Tule Lake.

Draft Resistance

The Japanese American men of draft age that answered “yes” to the two controversial questions on the loyalty questionnaire usually received their draft notices in camp.

Those who refused to serve in the military unless they were released from the camps became known as draft resisters.

Yosh Kuromiya was involved in the only organized draft resistance movement from within the 10 WRA camps as a member of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. Kuromiya said he protested because “I felt I had to.”

“Our situation involved killing, and I didn’t feel that I had that prerogative,” said Kuromiya. “Justifying any killing has to be for a humanitarian effort to save the world, but we were the ones who were being victimized, and we were expected to go out and kill other people? To ignore what was happening to us so that we could fight somebody else’s war is absurd.”

Jimi Yamaichi’s decision to resist the draft was partly influenced by how the Army had treated his brother, who had his weapon taken away and been placed into a segregated unit shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

By the time Yamaichi received his draft notice at Tule Lake, he felt no obligation to serve a country that discriminated against him and the general Japanese American community.

“We’re behind barbed wire fences,” Yamaichi said. “How could we be drafted and not the guys in the penitentiary? It didn’t make sense.”

The 27 Tule Lake men, however, were the only group of draft resisters to go before a federal judge who understood their situation. U.S. District Judge Louis E. Goodman dismissed all charges against them, saying, “It is shocking to the conscience that an American citizen be confined on the ground of disloyalty and then, while under duress and restraint, be compelled to serve in the Armed Forces or prosecuted for not yielding to such compulsion.”

Federal judges that presided over the cases of the Nikkei draft resisters from the other WRA camps either handed down fines or prison sentences of between two to three years.

Although Harry Yoshikawa moved out of the military exclusion zone in California to Colorado, he became a draft resister because he was upset about being forced out of his home in California, having to leave behind his farm crops and his belongings, and then, being confronted by a racist police officer at the border of New Mexico and Colorado, who reported them to the FBI office in Denver.

As a so-called “voluntary evacuee,” Yoshikawa did not have to enter a WRA camp, but unlike those in camp, he had to constantly hustle to find someone who would employ a Japanese American and make enough money to support himself and his mother.

“You know, they took my rights away,” said Yoshikawa. “I can’t live in my own home and had to endure harassment. And it wasn’t just me, it was all the Japanese Americans, so I protested. What I learned in school about equality and what happened to us were two different things.”

Yoshikawa would join more than three dozen Nisei draft resisters — mostly from the Granada (Amache) concentration camp in Colorado — in being sentenced to a federal labor camp in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Arizona. This is the very camp that civil rights icon Gordon Hirabayashi — who resisted the curfew and relocation orders, and would later become a Nisei draft resister himself — would be sentenced to. In 2000, the “Tucsonian” resisters, as they called themselves, would join Hirabayashi in the dedication of the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site. A historical kiosk, highlighting the Japanese American experience including Hirabayashi and the resisters, stands at the former camp site near Tucson.

Tule Lake Renunciation

Japanese Americans, who refused to answer the loyalty questionnaire or answered “no” to the two most controversial questions or wrote in a conditional clause or left either question 27 or 28 blank, were labeled “no nos” and for the most part, shipped to Tule Lake. The site was converted from a WRA camp into a segregation center for those whom the government labeled as “disloyal.”

However, when Tule Lake became overcrowded and reached a peak population of more than 18,000, the government stopped shipping “no nos” from the other camps.

As the war wound down, the government passed Public Law 405, which allowed a U.S. citizen to renounce their citizenship in time of war, upon the approval of the attorney general. With this law, the government could legally deport people of Japanese ancestry, once they were convinced to renounce their U.S. citizenship.

When the war started, Bill Nishimura never dreamed that he’d end up renouncing his U.S. citizenship. However, Nishimura’s father was taken away by the FBI shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. When the government issued orders to enter a camp, Nishimura and his mother moved to Central California, in an effort to avoid going into a camp. That area had not yet been declared a military exclusion zone for Japanese Americans.

Eventually, however, Nishimura and his mother were forced to enter Poston. Nishimura ended up at Poston, Camp III, which was not affected by the Poston Camp I strike since they were located a few miles away from Camp I.

Nishimura first voiced his protest against the U.S. government’s treatment through the loyalty questionnaire. Nishimura answered “no” to question 27 and left question 28 blank.

“When I was growing up, Sei Fujii (Kashu Mainichi publisher) told me that my citizenship was very important simply because the Issei were unable to naturalize,” said Nishimura. “With that feeling, I grew up in the 1930s, and so at school, I was also taught that whenever my civil rights were questioned, it was my duty as a citizen to stand up and fight for his or her rights.

“So when I was in camp, I simply refused to answer that question (question 28) on the loyalty questionnaire, although I didn’t want to go to Tule Lake. I was really disappointed in my government. The government forced me to become an alleged disloyal by transferring me to Tule Lake.”

Nishimura’s continued racist treatment by the government angered him enough that he eventually renounced his U.S. citizenship and ended up at the Santa Fe Department of Justice camp. Ironically, Nishimura experienced better treatment at Santa Fe.

“When I was in a concentration camp, I was being trashed, even though I was a loyal citizen, but when I became a non-citizen, now I was being protected under the Geneva Convention,” said Nishimura. “That was really something.”

Although Nishimura was prepared to go to Japan, his father fell ill, which prevented the family from making the overseas trip.

Nishimura said he would take the same action had he had a chance to do things over again. 

“It was my duty as a citizen to stand up for my rights,” said Nishimura. “No, shikata ga nai (‘it cannot be helped’). I would do it again.”

Arthur Ogami renounced his U.S. citizenship to keep his family together. His father, who had lost everything as a result of the camps, was determined to return to Japan since his family had a small farm and house to return to in Japan.

“The United States is where I grew up so I owe a lot of my life to the United States but during the war, my parents’ desire was to go to Japan,” said Ogami. “So being the oldest son, I made my decision to keep the family intact by choosing to become a renouncee.”

Ogami has no regrets over his action or the seven years he spent in Occupied Japan, working for a military hospital before he was able to return to the U.S.

“Given the chance to do things over again, I’d probably do the same thing,” said Ogami. “I always wanted to keep the family intact, and it was my parents’ wishes to go back to their home country. If I didn’t have to think about my family and if they were not involved in my decision, I would have stayed in the United States.”

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While draft resister Kuromiya is grateful that the younger generation has shown interest in learning about the various protests that occurred within the Nikkei community during World War II, he cautions that merely learning about it does not deal with the problem.

“We have to recognize that the problem is not out there some place but that the problem is right within our own community,” said Kuromiya.

“What happened during the war years is a microcosm of what’s happening today all over the world. We’re behaving exactly the same way so that’s why it’s still happening. So just understanding the resisters’ problems or the other protesters isn’t the solution. It has to really do with everyone’s social responsibility — to accept that responsibility and to see it as our own personal responsibility and stop pointing fingers as though the problem existed outside of ourselves.”

For more information on the various forms of Japanese American resistance during World War II, visit UCLA’s Suyama Project at http://suyamaproject.com/. This year’s Day of Remembrance in San Francisco will focus on camp resistance on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2 to 4 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown.

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