Symposium examines wartime scars

More than three quarters of a century since the forced removal and incarceration of some 120,000 people of Japanese descent in American concentration camps, the Japanese American community still has not fully recovered from the trauma.

The day-long event entitled “A Community Fractured: Compliance & Resistance” explored the rifts within the Japanese American community that formed through the incarceration and the ensuing years as Nikkei sought redress.

Held May 11 at Futures Without Violence in San Francisco’s Presidio, the symposium explored the Japanese American Citizens League’s compliance with the U.S. government’s orders during the wartime incarceration, the conflict and resistance inmates exhibited during the war, and the post-war activism that eventually won an apology and token compensation from the U.S. government in the 1980s.

Chizu Omori, a Japanese American writer and activist, served as the symposium director. Omori, who was 12 years old when she was incarcerated in Poston, Ariz., said she is sometimes overcome with sadness or anger when she thinks about the divisions formed within the Japanese American community.

“I feel that huge damage was inflicted on us,” she said. “We still haven’t been able to process that damage completely.”

The first session focused on the “Beginnings of Resistance,” with John Tateishi, head of the JACL’s redress campaign and later its national director during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Tateishi spoke on the background behind the organization’s decision to comply with the U.S. government’s plans to forcibly remove people of Japanese descent from the West Coast.

Tateishi, who joined the JACL in 1975, said he spent years questioning why the JACL endorsed the incarceration while working on the redress campaign. Starting with the organization’s Seattle roots as the “American Loyalty League,” founded in 1929, Tateishi explained how the JACL became the government’s mouthpiece for the Nikkei community as an English-speaking American-citizen-run organization.

“When the war started, the JACL found itself in a position of having to answer to the government on Japanese Americans, where we were, what we were doing and — most importantly — our loyalty to this country,” Tateishi said. Fearing violence directed at Japanese Americans, Tateishi said the organization’s wartime leaders advocated for compliance over defiance. Later, to further prove their loyalty, the organization also advocated Nisei volunteer for the military. Tateishi concluded the organization did its best, but still had “a lot to answer for.”

Arthur Hansen, professor emeritus of history and Asian American studies at California State University, Fullerton, took a more critical perspective on the organization, speaking about the JACL’s wartime role. Hansen outlined the resistance and frustrations of James Omura and Harry Ueno, two Nisei who vocally opposed the JACL. Hansen particularly noted the resentment harbored by Kibei, Nisei educated in Japan, such as Ueno.

Following a lunch break, the event resumed with its second session, “Conflict, Protest and Organized Resistance,” detailing three unique ways Japanese Americans protested their treatment during the war. Takashi Hoshizaki, one of the last surviving draft resisters from Heart Mountain, Wyo., recounted how he and 62 other men refused to report to the draft while they and their families were incarcerated. Robert Rusky, member of the Fred Korematsu coram nobis legal team in the 1980s, described the nuanced differences among the supreme court challenges to the wartime incarceration. Barbara Takei, Tule Lake Committee board member, explained how mass resistance led to the creation of the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

Finally, four speakers presented on the final session in “Postwar, Redress and Activism.” Alice Yang, provost of Stevenson College and associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explained the foundations of the “model minority,” which were built from the belief Japanese Americans had quietly gone along with the wartime incarceration. Yang noted how Sansei and Nisei activists pushed back, denoting how Japanese Americans had fought incarceration. “In fact (activists) argued the very silence … was in fact a reflection of damage and suffering within the community,” she said.

Following Yang, Tateishi gave a second talk on the Japanese American Redress Movement from within the JACL while Susan Hayase detailed her perspective from the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations. Tateishi explained how the JACL worked with Congress to lobby for the apology and the contentious issue of debating whether the apology should include a monetary compensation. Hayase, meanwhile, spoke about how her organization sought to independently unify disparate groups seeking an apology.

At the end of the third session, Kimiko Marr spoke briefly on the continued relevance of pilgrimages that tie in Japanese American wartime experience to modern-day issues.

Divisions within the community, however, ran further than some expected. Omori noted that the symposium could very well have taken place over a week. Grace Shimizu, director of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project, confronted Tateishi over the omission of Japanese Latin Americans from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 during a Q-and-A format session. Tateishi said he had asked the JACL and Congressional leaders to “come back” to the JLA issue after the redress bill was passed, but nothing was done. Tateishi said the JACL decided to not push for compensation for Japanese Latin Americans abducted from South America since their inclusion in the redress bill, according to the Nikkei congressional leaders, could “jeopardize” the bill.

At the conclusion of the event, Nancy Ukai of the Berkeley chapter of the JACL and Josh Kaizuka of the Florin chapter presented a draft resolution apologizing to the resisters at Tule Lake “who suffered shame and stigma during and after the war due to the JACL’s attitudes and treatment towards individuals unfairly labeled ‘disloyal.’” The resolution is planned to be discussed at the JACL national convention in Salt Lake City, Utah this coming August.

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