Suyama Project seeks stories of WWII protests


Historical photo of Tule Lake Block 42, courtesy of brothers Mamoru “Mori” and James Tanimoto

Historical photo of Tule Lake Block 42, courtesy of brothers Mamoru "Mori" and James Tanimoto
Historical photo of Tule Lake Block 42, courtesy of brothers Mamoru “Mori” and James Tanimoto

LOS ANGELES — United States residents of Japanese ancestry, who reportedly endured without protest the forced relocation from their West Coast homes and incarceration in U.S.-style concentration camps after Japan’s December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, have been stereotyped for decades as “quiet Americans.”

Contradicting this image were the hundreds of Nikkei who protested against the U.S. government’s policy in numerous ways, including legal challenges to the forced relocation, resistance to the military draft by concentration camp inmates, protests by Nisei already in the Army at the outbreak of the war, strikes and riots in various camps, refusal to answer the government’s controversial “loyalty oath” questionnaire, renunciation of U.S. citizenship for some Nisei, and other acts of defiance.

Preserving History

Stories of hundreds of Nikkei wartime protesters are now being collected by the Asian American Studies Center of the University of California at Los Angeles in the Suyama Project. That undertaking aims to preserve the history of Japanese American resistance during World War II. The project is named for the late Eji Suyama, a 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran who wrote numerous letters to the editor in the Japanese American vernacular newspapers supportive of the wartime protesters.

David Yoo, director of the UCLA AASC who spearheads the Suyama Project, commented to the Nichi Bei Weekly via e-mail that the significance of the story of protests by Japanese Americans against various forms of U.S. government oppression during World War II is that “a broadly understood notion of resistance represents more complete understanding of what happened during World War II and how resistance also formed an important dimension of the rights and freedom of Japanese Americans.”

Tritia Toyota, adjunct professor of the departments of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at UCLA, stated in an e-mail that the project’s Archival Collection Endowment is “an enormously important contribution to the study of Americans of Japanese ancestry — in particular those who protested and resisted their incarceration in myriad ways during World War II.”

“UCLA’s AASC is grateful for this generous donation by an anonymous donor that will focus on a more complete historical record of this often unacknowledged and overlooked activism,” the academic adviser and former local television news anchor remarked. “We hope others in the community will also support this endowment both in donations and memories in assisting the Center to build the collection.”

Lane Hirabayashi, another academic adviser, disclosed in a telephone interview the Suyama Project’s donor wanted to set up a special endowment with the AASC to collect primary materials about the stories of Japanese American resistance during World War II.

Among the Nikkei protesters were more than 300 Nisei men who refused to serve in the U.S. Army unless their families were first released from the camps. Most of these draft resisters were convicted and served two to three years in federal prison. Only Federal District Judge Louis E. Goodman, who presided over the Tule Lake draft resisters trial, dismissed the charges.

‘Voluntary Evacuee’

One such draft resister was Harry Yoshikawa, now 92. He was a “voluntary evacuee” who relocated with his family to Colorado in early 1942 after the outbreak of war with Japan but prior to the mass incarceration of Nikkei.

When Yoshikawa heard the news about Japan attacking Pearl Harbor, he said, “That was not good. I knew we were going to get it.”

And he was right. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Pacific Coast Nikkei — U.S. citizens and legal resident aliens alike—into concentration camps. “We really got it,” he remembered. “They put the screws to us.”

Yoshikawa, who was not imprisoned, received his draft notice while in Chicago. Returning to Denver, he refused to report for Army duty and was locked up in the county jail for six months awaiting trial. There were about three dozen draft resisters from the Granada (Amache) camp in Colorado.

He resisted because he was a U.S. citizen not free to live at home in California, Yoshikawa explained. “Why should I go serve? They were jacking me around like a pinball machine. The government reclassified my draft status as 4C (enemy alien). Then they turned around and gave me a 1A classification again. So I refused everything.”

He was convicted and served 17 months and 10 days at the Tucson Federal Prison camp. Gaining his release after the war ended, Yoshikawa returned with his family to the Los Angeles area, and found work as a mechanic. Asked would he resist if he had to do it over, the Gardena resident exclaimed, “You bet, I would do the same things again! I’ve got no regrets.”

Seeking Archival Materials

The Suyama Project seeks other resistance stories from families who may have scrapbooks, letters, photos, diaries (in English or Japanese), old newspapers and manuscripts, for archival materials about the resistance, in order to collect, copy or borrow and scan.

“These things could be very valuable for Japanese American history, they should be preserved,” Hirabayashi emphasized. “The idea is to get as many documents as possible online ( so colleagues, students and community members could have 24/7 access to understudied dimensions of the Japanese American experience.”

photo by Greg Robinson
The Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site dedication in 1999 near Tucson, Ariz. photo by Greg Robinson

Hirabayashi said he has a personal investment in the history: his uncle, the late Gordon Hirabayashi, challenged the government’s forced relocation order in court and got a U.S. Supreme Court hearing. Gordon Hirabayashi finally won his case in the 1980s when a federal court vacated his conviction due to government misconduct. Other Nisei with legal challenges to the forced relocation included Mitsuye Endo, Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu.

There are different aspects to this history, Hirabayashi mentioned. “There were major strikes, for example, at the War Relocation Authority camp at Manzanar in the Owens Valley and also at the Tule Lake WRA camp in Northern California. Those are fairly well-known to historians.”

There are lesser-known acts of resistance following the 1943 transformation of Tule Lake into a “segregation center” for persons over the age of 18 who did not answer the so-called “loyalty questionnaire’” to the government’s satisfaction, he explained. “After 1943, all those people considered ‘suspicious’ and possibly ‘disloyal’ to the United States were taken from whatever camp they were in and sent to the Segregation Center at Tule Lake … Some resisters actually wound up being deported to Japan, including Nisei who renounced their U.S. citizenship in disgust and were sent to Japan, a country they may not have ever visited. I think some of these Nisei didn’t speak Nihongo very well. It’s kind of a gauge of their anger, their mistrust, and their disgust over how they had been treated.”

Refused Overseas Duty

Nisei soldiers already were serving in the Army before the U.S. declared war on Japan. Some were reclassified as 4C (enemy alien) and discharged, while others were retained by the Army, Hirabayashi noted.

A number of Nisei soldiers protested the forced relocation and incarceration of Nikkei, the UCLA professor pointed out. “They didn’t want to continue in the Army if this was how the government was going to treat their families … A number of protesters were summarily court-martialed and some got very stiff penalties.”

One protester was Cedric Shimo, now 93, who refused orders to go fight overseas during World War II until his family’s constitutional rights were restored.

The El Centro-born Nisei grew up in the Los Angeles area and received his Army draft notice the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. Joining the Army, he completed basic training during the early part of the war before the Nisei were being reclassified as enemy aliens.

After completing Military Intelligence Service training, Shimo tried unsuccessfully to visit his mother at Manzanar camp in California, which was in the restricted zone for all persons of Japanese ancestry. “I was ready to go overseas but I couldn’t visit my mother. That really pissed me off … That’s when I protested, and I was expelled from the MIS, he recalled. “There was a questionnaire that asked, ‘Are you willing to serve wherever ordered?’ I answered that I wouldn’t serve wherever ordered until my parents were allowed to go home.”

As punishment, Shimo was transferred to the 1800th Engineer Battalion, a unit comprised of U.S. soldiers of German, Italian and Japanese descent. “We were considered potential troublemakers,” he recalled. “Our role was to follow combat troops during stateside training and do maintenance and repairs on roads and bridges.”

The Japanese American Citizens League had encouraged all Nikkei to cooperate with the government, Shimo recollected. “But under my circumstances, I think I had a legitimate right to protest.”

Talking Openly

Since the passage of the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, more resistance stories have surfaced, Hirabayashi said, and more Nikkei — even the “No-No Boys” — are willing to talk openly about what happened, why they made their choice and the price they paid.

The Suyama Project hopes it will be a useful resource for students, the professor added. “We’re hoping the Nikkei students will look into that history and write a paper or two to get their degrees.”

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