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Vol. 75/No. 2      January 17, 2011

Recalling U.S. detention
of Japanese Americans
Leader of draft resisters, Frank Emi, dies at 94
SAN FRANCISCO—The last surviving leader of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, an organization of interned Japanese Americans who resisted being drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, died on December 1 in West Covina, California. Frank Seishi Emi, who died at the age of 94, was among the Japanese Americans who stood up for their rights and dignity during the war and afterward.

His life also stands as a reminder of the U.S. government’s systematic racist policies while it was claiming to be the defender of “democracy” during the second inter-imperialist slaughter.

Some 120,000 men, women, and children were evacuated from the West Coast three months after Tokyo attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. They were incarcerated behind barbed wire in 10 concentration camps in remote inland areas. Two-thirds of the evacuees held illegally without trial were citizens of the United States. Their sole crime was their Japanese ancestry.

The Fair Play Committee (FPC) of Heart Mountain directed the only organized draft resistance among Japanese Americans in the camps. More than 300 men from all 10 camps resisted and were jailed for draft evasion.

After Executive Order 9066 ordering internment was issued, Japanese Americans were given 72-hours notice to dispose of their property and to pack only what they could carry in two bags per person. The evacuees lost their farms, fishing boats, small businesses, and homes. Emi, a Los Angeles grocer, had to sell the family business for six cents on the dollar. He and his family were first imprisoned at the Pomona Assembly Center while the concentration camps were being built, and then shipped to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Authority camp in Wyoming.

The U.S. prison camps were established in isolated, inhospitable areas such as deserts and swamps. Guarded by armed military police and surrounded by barbed wire, the inmates maintained the upkeep of the camps under the supervision of white personnel.

The common Japanese phrase shikata ga nai (it cannot be helped) expressed the resignation of many. As Emi later stated, “The military escorted us to the camp with their guns and bayonets, so there really wasn’t much thought about standing up for your rights at that time.”

But later some organized to resist. Protest rallies, demonstrations, work stoppages, and even general strikes of evacuees took place at all the camps around the issues of living conditions, especially food and housing, the availability of work, wages, and working conditions.

Emi quietly drove a truck and made tofu each day until early 1943 when the government began to distribute questionnaires to all adult internees. Question no. 27 asked: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” Question no. 28 asked: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”  
Gov’t questions spark controversy
This compulsory questionnaire sparked widespread confusion and sharp controversy in all the camps, sometimes leading to physical confrontations. If you answered “yes” to question 27, it appeared that men, women, and elderly all were volunteering to serve in the army. Many asked how they could be loyal enough to fight for the U.S. while imprisoned in the camps as a “military necessity.”

None of the Nisei (American-born Japanese) had ever sworn allegiance to Japan, although this was one of the racist rationales cited for putting them behind barbed wire. The Issei (Japanese-born immigrants) were forbidden by law from becoming U.S. citizens but were still citizens of Japan. They were being asked to renounce their Japanese citizenship without American citizenship to replace it.

Few in the United States spoke out against the evacuation and internment of the Japanese Americans. Most liberals supported the war drive, as well as the majority of groups calling themselves socialist or communist. There were only a few notable exceptions who opposed the incarceration of Japanese Americans—the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Socialist Workers Party, along with a scattering of civil libertarians and intellectuals.

The Communist Party supported the internment and deregistered its Japanese American members. “The Party suspended all Nisei from membership saying that ‘the Party was the best place for any Japanese fifth columnist to hide and we don’t want to take any chances,’” noted CP member Karl Yoneda in a 1972 party resolution. This position was an integral part of the CP’s policy of subordinating all struggles to the U.S. war effort in compliance with Moscow’s wartime alliance with U.S. imperialism.

In part because of the overwhelming support for internment, as well as the institutionalized racism Japanese had faced from the moment they arrived, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the largest political organization of the Nisei, had a policy of cooperation with authorities to “turn the tragedy of evacuation into a display of loyalty.” They urged people to answer “yes-yes” and Nisei men to volunteer in the armed forces. They backed the formation of segregated Japanese American units on the grounds that Japanese Americans “were inconspicuous scattered throughout the Army.” Because of this “individual records would not prove much,” they argued, and it was therefore necessary “to have a demonstration in blood.”

Frank Emi took a different course: “No more shikata ga nai.” He posted his answers on the mess hall doors that said, “Under the present conditions and circumstances, I am unable to answer these questions.”

He was not alone. Of the 77,957 detainees who were eligible to register, 5,300 answered no. An additional 4,639 either failed to register, didn’t answer both questions, or qualified their loyalty in some way. More than 20 percent of Nisei men answered negatively.

The U.S. government was shocked by the response. The War Relocation Authority had initially projected as many as 2,000 volunteers from Heart Mountain alone for a segregated army unit commanded by white officers, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. But only 1,181 men from all 10 camps volunteered.

This was in sharp contrast to Japanese Americans in Hawaii, who had never been deported and interned. The original quota had called for 1,500 from Hawaii, but nearly 10,000 volunteered.

After devastating casualties suffered in Italy, the War Department began drafting the interned Nisei in January 1944.

Some 33,000 Japanese American citizens served in the U.S. Army in segregated units under white officers during World War II. The most famous formation, the 442nd, was consistently used as the first wave of assault troops. They suffered some 9,500 casualties, more than three times the unit’s size, and were the most decorated unit in the Army during the war.  
Detainees resist draft
While individuals at every camp decided on their own to resist the draft, at Heart Mountain resistance was organized by the Fair Play Committee. Emi was among the group’s seven leaders. For more than a month, the FPC held a series of meetings nearly every night in different mess halls in every block of the camp. Typically there were speeches by a couple of FPC leaders about the unconstitutionality of the internment and the injustice of applying the draft to internees, followed by rebuttals and questions from the audience. Meetings often lasted hours.

Hundreds attended the meetings and 200 paid the $2 membership dues, which paid for a mimeograph machine to print a bulletin. The FPC restricted membership to those who stated loyalty to the United States and readiness to serve in the military once their civil rights were restored. They sought to differentiate themselves from pro-Japan nationalists, who were also resisting the draft. By the end of March 1944, 54 of the 315 detainees ordered to report for induction had failed to do so.

In their March 4 statement the FPC declared:

“Until we are restored all our rights, all discriminatory features of the Selective Service abolished, and measures retaken to remedy the past injustices thru Judicial pronouncement or Congressional act, we feel that the present program of drafting us from this concentration camp is unjust, unconstitutional, and against all principles of civilized usage, therefore, WE, MEMBERS OF THE FAIR PLAY COMMITTEE HEREBY REFUSE TO GO TO THE PHYSICAL EXAMINATION OR TO THE INDUCTION IF OR WHEN WE ARE CALLED IN ORDER TO CONTEST THE ISSUE.

When the Fair Play Committee began to agitate for a general strike at Heart Mountain, the government arrested two of the leaders and shipped them off to Tule Lake. In a series of court cases, the backbone of the resistance was broken. The Heart Mountain draft resisters, whose numbers had grown to 63, were tried in June 1944 in the largest mass trial for draft resistance in U.S. history. They were found guilty by the judge and sentenced to three years in jail; their appeal was denied by the Supreme Court.

Most of the 300 draft resisters from the other nine camps were also arrested, convicted, and served jail time for draft evasion. They lost their appeals but all were later pardoned by President Harry Truman in 1947.

In October 1944 the seven leaders of the Fair Play Committee were found guilty of conspiracy to counsel draft evasion. Five, including Emi, were sentenced to four years in prison and two others received three years.

They were sent to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth in Kansas. To protect themselves in prison, Emi, holder of a judo black belt, led the Nisei in a martial arts exhibition on “Sports Day.” One of the smallest Nisei went up against a much larger white inmate, whom he easily flipped. After that none of them were bothered by the general inmate population. In December 1945 a federal appeals court overturned their convictions. They were released from prison, having served 18 months.

After the war Emi worked for the postal service and later for the state unemployment office. For decades he was silent about his controversial past, facing disapproval from other Japanese Americans, particularly among those who fought in the U.S. military. During the war, the Japanese American Citizens League demanded that the government charge the draft evaders with sedition, calling them “cowards” and “hooligans.” They were left out of most history books.

In the 1980s Emi joined the redress movement, the term used by Japanese Americans to describe their fight for official recognition of the injustice they suffered. The movement originated in the early 1970s under the impact of the Black rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Emi began to speak publicly about his wartime civil disobedience, and other draft resisters became emboldened to speak up as well.

Congress at last passed the Civil Rights Act of 1988, which officially apologized to Japanese Americans and provided reparations of $20,000 to each of the 56,000 survivors of the concentration camps.

After years of acrimonious debate, the JACL finally passed a resolution in 2000 publicly apologizing to the resisters “for not acknowledging the resisters’ stand of protesting the denial of constitutional rights, and for the pain and bitterness this caused.” Emi was one of the major speakers at the “recognition and reconciliation” meeting organized by the JACL to deliver this public apology.

Emi’s candor, courage, and calm reasoning earned him much respect. Frank Abe, who produced a documentary on the FPC called “Conscience and the Constitution,” wrote:

“He was an ordinary young man, but a man of conviction who rose to the occasion when faced with the injustice of the camps.”  
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