The Japanese American Citizens League voted Aug. 3 at its 50th National Convention in Salt Lake City to offer an apology to the “Tule Lake resisters” for its past ostracism of the group of protestors in the Northern California barbed wire concentration camp during World War II. The contentious resolution addressing the national civil rights organization’s wartime past passed with strong support among the voting members after nearly three hours of debate, but some within the Japanese American community questioned the concessions made in order to garner that wider support.
Difficult to Address History
Haruka Roudebush, JACL vice president of membership, who was part of the committee who authored the resolution, told the Nichi Bei Weekly the resolution had around two-thirds the support it needed to pass going into the convention. Many other voting delegates were unsure of or outright opposed to the resolution because of the apology being made to those incarcerated at Tule Lake Segregation Center, where many Nikkei deemed “disloyal” were segregated from other camps for being “No-Nos” or inmates who had refused to respond to the so-called “loyalty questionnaire’s” questions 27 and 28 with unqualified “yes” answers.
Of the 12,000 Nikkei who were “No-Nos,” more than 5,000 became renunciants after renouncing their American citizenship. The renunciants would eventually regain their U.S. citizenship largely through the efforts of attorney Wayne M. Collins after the war.
According to those at the National Convention, the debate on the resolution lasted nearly three hours, including an hour-long panel discussion moderated by the Philadelphia chapter’s Paul Uyehara to help educate delegates with former JACL national president and substitute parliamentarian Floyd Shimomura and filmmaker and activist Satsuki Ina. Speakers including former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta spoke against the resolution, while Karen Korematsu, daughter of civil rights icon Fred Korematsu, supported it.
“We needed to hear people. It was to honor the opinions and thoughts of everyone that was there, whether they were a delegate or not. There were many delegates that ceded their time to others so they could speak,” David Inoue, national executive director of the JACL, said.
“The question that a lot people had, revolved around who exactly the apology from the JACL would have been addressed to,” Roudebush said. “There were a lot of questions regarding whether or not the apology was inclusive of those at the Tule Lake Segregation Center …, those who had been identified as ‘pro-Japan’ and also those who exercised violence against JACL leaders.”
Many within the JACL pointed to Uyehara as a key figure between those for and against the resolution. Uyehara told the Nichi Bei Weekly he was on neither side of the resolution when he arrived at the convention, but realized the opposition needed to better organize in order to negotiate with the resolution’s proponents.
“(Uyehara) took a really prominent role in trying to provide space for the opposition to have meetings at the convention to at least get a consensus on the points that they were willing to make concessions on or to clarify the concerns of the opposition,” Roudebush said. “Once it became clear that we could make progress, or make adjustments, that really paved the way for actual consensus to be built, so that was instrumental to getting this passed and something that came about without planning on the part of the resolution’s committee.”
“When I got on site, it was pretty apparent that this was gonna be an extremely controversial and contentious resolution with a significant potential to cause damage to JACL regardless of the outcome,” Uyehara told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I put out a call to have a meeting for people who were opposed to the resolution so we could figure out what their issues were.”
“There were a lot of sentiments all over the place and it took some time to organize them and draw some lines,” Uyehara said.
Ultimately, several key changes were made to the resolution first shared among JACL chapters in May. Convention delegates ultimately made a slew of amendments that chiefly added four additional clauses and substantially tweaked others. Two paragraphs addressed the wartime contributions of Nisei serving in the military and the JACL’s role in laying a foundation to future advocacy that ultimately won Redress through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Another took out reference to a 1946 JACL action that had condemned Tule Lake resisters, which Uyehara noted was unsubstantiated with the information he was given.
While the amendments made to the first action clause raised some concern among Tule Lake resister supporters, Seattle JACL chapter member Stanley Shikuma — who originally introduced the resolution — and Roudebush maintained the language was satisfactory. While the final wording removed “all” and added a stipulation that the apology went toward “non-violent” acts of dissent, Shikuma noted the wording does not necessarily preclude the people the apology is meant for.
“So my reading of that is, those imprisoned in Tule Lake for non-violent acts of resistance and dissent are primarily those who answered the ‘loyalty questionnaire’ in an unsatisfactory way from the government point of view,” said Shikuma, who also serves on the board of the Tule Lake Committee. “So, filling out the questionnaire wrong or not filling it out at all is a non-violent act of resistance. So I feel that’s fine and ‘those who suffered shame and stigma during and after the war due to JACL’s attitude and treatment of those unfairly labeled disloyal’ — to me that covers everybody else who was sent to Tule Lake.”
Ina also noted the apology is far too late to mean anything for her late father and many other Tule Lake resisters who have since passed on. She, as a person born in Tule Lake, felt the issue lay more on JACL needing to address its own historical issues as it looks toward the future.
“I don’t think the question is about who deserves (an apology), I think it’s about contrition or acknowledgment by the JACL of their own errors that they made, their own stigmatizing and that as an organization they … negatively characterized all people at Tule lake,” she said.
Though some within the JACL expressed the apology should explicitly not be addressed to those who acted in violence, Shikuma said the JACL as an organization should not single them out when offering an apology. He said individuals harboring prolonged trauma from the camp may not be able to forgive or forget the violence enacted against them, nor does he condone personal violence against anyone, but said the civil rights organization should ultimately apologize to everyone incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center.
“We should apologize to the entire 18,700 people who were at Tule Lake,” he said. “(The U.S. government) said, ‘we violated the constitutional rights of an entire class of people, and so we should apologize.’ I feel JACL should take the same approach.”
Wanting to Pass a Resolution
While the apology was maintained intact, Shikuma and other proponents expressed they had failed to properly vet two of the amended clauses in the resolution. The additional language noted that while the United States government had used repressive violence against detainees, it also stipulated incarcerees themselves had acted in violence, including “extremists” who attacked “those they suspected of being informants, including some JACL leaders, pro-government individuals, and communists.” The resolution went on to point out some of those incarcerated were “aligned with Japan and against the U.S. armed forces.”
Roudebush said it was ultimately unavoidable for the resolution to address the violence and anti-American sentiments based on the primary criticisms the resolution’s opponents expressed even if proponents felt the arguments were “non-sequiturs.”
“We wanted to pass this resolution without opening more cans of worms that could have stalled out the debate,” Roudebush said.
“In retrospect, I think we would have preferred to have kept out those amendments,” Shikuma said. He went on to say the final amendments Uyehara drafted were introduced around 11:30 a.m., half an hour before the session would have been cut off and tabled to a future date. “That probably added into not reading it carefully enough.”
Uyehara, who had met with Shikuma and Roudebush the night before, told the Nichi Bei Weekly their meeting had gone into the early hours of the morning and that he drafted the final set of amendments after that.
“I didn’t finish writing them up until way into that night, going into Saturday morning when we’re going into the National Council Meeting,” he said.
Only after the resolution was passed, did critics begin to question the final language. Arthur Hansen, professor emeritus of history and Asian American studies at California State University, Fullerton, said the addition of these clauses “drastically compromised and confounded the sincerity of their apology” and said too much of the amended resolution is “an apologia” or a defense of the JACL’s conduct during the war.
“If anything, the JACL should be apologizing not only to the Tule Lake resisters, but to the entire Japanese American population for their failure of community leadership that helped bring about the unjust and onerous eviction and imprisonment of 120,000 Nikkei,” he said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Ina felt the amended language creates an unnecessary conflation with the Tule Lake resisters and served to save face for the JACL, but said she thinks the attempt at reconciliation is sincere. She said she is interested in working with the JACL in the future to educate people about the Tule Lake story.
“I feel like it’s not about the perpetrator apologizing to a victim. I think it’s a perpetrator or an organization acknowledging the mistakes of their historical leaders,” Ina said.
Beginning of a Process
For those in the JACL, the resolution’s passage was a starting point for a difficult reconciliation process.
Uyehara said he was happy his amendments passed since they helped garner greater support to allow for a strong vote in favor of the resolution. “Whether it was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, if it was a closely divided vote, there would be a lot of fallout from that,” he said.
Proponents meanwhile said the formal reflection on what the JACL did during the war would come through the ensuing work required by the resolution. Through the development of the educational materials to be added into the JACL’s curriculum guides for teachers, Roudebush and Shikuma both expressed hope that the organization will learn and implement an honest accounting of the JACL’s past history.
“I think we all see this as a starting point that we need to do a better job at this. This is something that should have been happening as a result of the first apology 20 years ago,” Inoue, said, referencing the Nisei draft resisters were ostracized by JACL leaders during the war, although they took a stand against a military draft imposed upon the young men behind barbed wire, citing constitutional principles.
“This is part of a process, and 75 years of pain is not gonna heal overnight just because of a single resolution,” Inoue said. “This is something that we need to work on as a community — not just JACL, not just the Tule Lake Committee, but I think bringing in a lot of the other members of the Japanese American community.”