THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Mich Kunitani and the Nisei Young Democrat movement


bioline_Greg RobinsonArguably the most dynamic Nisei political force in the later 1930s was the Nisei Young Democrat movement. Founded by a set of liberal intellectuals and activists, notably Nichi Bei Shimbun editor Larry Tajiri, the Young Democrats formed chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. By 1940 the Oakland branch had established itself as the most active and visible chapter. Its members organized support for labor unions, civil rights efforts and open housing.

Michio (Mich) Kunitani was the leader of this remarkable political group from 1941-1942. Working through Democratic Party channels, he used his connections to assist Japanese Americans. His efforts culminated in a visit to the White House in the fall of 1943, where he had a private meeting with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on behalf of the resettlers. Kunitani was born in Los Angeles in 1918, and grew up in Boyle Heights, where he attended Roosevelt High School. Following his graduation in 1936, he took a trip to Japan to visit his paternal grandmother. He was troubled by the militaristic society he observed. That September, following his return to the United States, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley.
As early as the mid-1930s, Kunitani became politically active as a supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. During his undergraduate years, he joined the UC Young Democrats. In April of 1940, he attended the California Youth Legislature, representing the college’s Democrats.

In the fall of 1940, Kunitani enrolled in a master’s program at Berkeley. Meanwhile, he joined the Oakland Nisei Young Democrats. In 1940-1941, he served on the group’s membership committee. In the spring of 1941, he reported to the group on bills in the California legislature pertaining to the welfare of the Issei and Nisei. During this period, he became involved with another local activist, Anne Saito. The two were married in March of 1941. After working for a time as a laborer in a warehouse, Kunitani was hired by the State Department of Employment.

In the fall of 1941, Kunitani was elected president of the Young Democrats. He was just 23 years old. Soon after, following the U.S.’ entry into World War II, West Coast white nativist and commercial groups pressured political leaders to support the mass “evacuation” of the region’s ethnic Japanese population. With help from local “do-gooders” such as YMCA activist Henry Kingman, Kunitani responded by contacting local Democratic Party figures to lobby against the forced removal.

One of those Kunitani contacted was Bob Nisbet, general assistant of Rep. John Tolan, head of the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration (commonly known as the “Tolan Committee”). According to Kunitani, Nisbet confided to him that Tolan had been asked by Roosevelt himself to investigate the “Japanese question”: “Now John, you go out there and hold those hearings to get the facts.”

In February of 1942, just days after Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, Kunitani, joined by his wife Anne and by acting Young Democrat President Ernest Satoshi liyama, traveled to San Francisco to testify before the committee. Technically, Kunitani spoke as a private individual. After the federal government took over the California Employment Bureau, Kunitani became a federal employee, and was required by the Hatch Act to withdraw from partisan groups. In his presentation, Kunitani underlined that the club was “consistently opposed to Japanese aggression,” and in the prewar years had sent resolutions to Tolan, as their Congressman, calling for an embargo on sales of oil and scrap iron to “the Fascist warlords of Japan.”

In his testimony, Kuntani took a middle ground between the full support for the “evacuation” offered by the Japanese American Citizens League at the hearings, and the outspoken opposition expressed by Current Life editor James Omura. Kunitani testified that his group would favor the “evacuation” if the nation’s military authorities deemed it necessary, but issued several recommendations: first, that Japanese Americans be treated no differently than “Italians, Germans, Finns or Yugoslavs”; secondly, that the federal government handle any such action, preferably through the Federal Security Commission; next, that those Japanese Americans who were moved away, “whether it be North Dakota, Arizona, or Florida,” be supplied with food, shelter, and clothing”; and finally, that Nisei be permitted to participate in the defense effort, and that professionals such as doctors, opticians and lawyers be permitted to continue practicing their trades.

Kunitani centered his testimony on the loyalty of the Nisei group. In a much-quoted comment, he expressed his vision of Nisei Americanism: “We are Americans not by the technicality of birth, but by all the other forces of sports, amusement, schools and churches, which are in our communities and which affect our lives directly. Some of us are Yankee fans; some of us are Dodger fans; some of us like to sip beer; some of us like to go to the Top of the Mark once in a while. We enjoy Jack Benny; we listen to Beethoven. Some of us even go through the Congressional Record.”

In later years, Kunitani referred to his statement as “rather flabby,” and blamed his failure to take a stronger civil rights stand on the need to compromise with a faction of Nisei Democrats attached to the Communist Party, which favored 100 percent support for the war effort. However, it may be that Kunitani, with his contacts in the government, had been tipped off that mass removal was a fait accompli.

In mid-1942, the Kunitanis were confined at Tanforan, Calif., where Kunitani was hired by the camp Employment Service. He wrote a series of reports on life in camp for the Japanese Evacuation and Relocation Survey. During this period, Kunitani developed a lasting friendship with artist Miné Okubo. In August of 1942, the Kunitanis were sent on to Poston, Ariz. There Kunitani became a close associate of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was based there. He also met John Collier, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who had formal jurisdiction over Poston.

In March of 1943, Anne and Mich Kunitani left camp and resettled in Cleveland, Ohio. There he took a job with the Federal Council of Churches, aiding Nisei resettlement. He spoke to church and union groups about Japanese American resettlers, and in 1944 he and JACL secretary Masao Satow addressed the National Conference on Social Work on resettlement, and predicted wider opportunities and better lives for Nisei once outside the “Little Tokyos” of the West.

Meanwhile, Kunitani began a formal study of the problems of resettlement. On the suggestion of John Collier, who was friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt, Kunitani sent summaries of his findings to the First Lady. To his surprise, he received a response from Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary Malvina Thompson, informing him that the First Lady would be pleased to meet with him to discuss the subject. Thus, Kunitani set off for Washington. He later recalled that, just before he left home, his wife sent him a newspaper column revealing that Mrs. Roosevelt was deaf in her left ear. “So I made sure to stay on her right side!” On Nov. 20, 1943, Kunitani was granted a 30-minute one-on-one meeting with Mrs. Roosevelt.

After his return from Washington, Kunitani followed up with a three-page written report to Mrs. Roosevelt on the specific problems that the Nisei faced as they left camp, and the lack of official support. He hastened to declare that he viewed the problems of the Japanese Americans as only “a very small band of the social spectrum” compared to the plights of the Jewish people in occupied Europe, the homeless and fatherless victims of war, and Southern Blacks. Nevertheless, anti-Nisei discrimination was pernicious to democracy. “The American citizen of Japanese ancestry is an American and he has great potentialities of becoming an alert liberal American if he is given the opportunities to contribute to the mosaic of American life.” Kunitani described the troubles of resettlers debarred by the Provost Marshal General’s office from employment in war industries, and their exclusion from civil service jobs. Mrs. Roosevelt sent Kunitani’s letter to War Relocation Authority Director Dillon Myer, and proposed he contact Attorney General Francis Biddle to resolve such conflicts.

In October of 1946, following the end of World War II, Kunitani enlisted in the U.S. Army.

The following year, following his discharge, he and his wife returned to the San Francisco Bay Area (the two divorced a few years later). Thanks to his old political connections, Kunitani was invited to return to the California Department of Employment, as a Fair Employment Practice Commission specialist handling labor relations and coordination with minority groups. In 1963 California Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown appointed Kunitani manager of the Department’s Oakland office, where he handled State unemployment insurance. He later worked for SamTrans. Kunitani died in Berkeley in 2004.

The coming of World War II sealed the demise of the Nisei Democrats. However, the story of the group and its leadership merits greater attention among scholars and the general public.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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