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Taking a Stand

More than 300 men of Japanese descent refused U.S. government orders to enter the military in the 1940s. Only in recent years have these men gained recognition for their actions.

By Lydia Lum

Every December, the nation pauses to remember Pearl Harbor, the site of the 1941 Japanese surprise attack that propelled the United States into World War II. Now, as the GI generation fades away, the stories of their battlefield accomplishments live on.

But for another group of Americans, it has taken more than half a century to begin to gain recognition for their wartime actions and decisions. Controversial and divisive at the time, this group is still generating debate in the context of the post-Sept. 11 climate and the Iraq War.

More than 300 men of Japanese descent refused to be drafted into the U.S. military in the 1940s, contending that they shouldn’t risk their lives for a country that had forced 120,000 Japanese-Americans, including them and their families, into internment camps. They would be willing to fight in World War II only after Japanese-Americans were released from the camps, they said.

Their stand led to prison terms for draft dodging and ostracism by other Japanese-Americans, even some of their family members. Critics accused draft resisters of cowardice, laziness, lack of patriotism and even harboring pro-Japan loyalties.

But University of North Carolina law professor Eric Muller believes the men were largely pure in their motives. He points out that some of the resisters could have made themselves ineligible for the draft by merely disclosing disabilities and chronic conditions. They knew that their imprisonment for draft dodging would create even greater financial and emotional hardships on their families. Some of the draft resisters eventually did don uniforms and fight for the United States during the Korean War, which began after the internment camps closed, says Muller, who has extensively researched government records and interviewed surviving members of that group.

Muller’s 2003 book, Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II, details the resistance movement of those men. He says many of the men will take their stories to the grave with them, having never told anyone about their role in history. While Muller was able to track down and interview 10 of the survivors, he had nearly as many decline his interview requests because they were reluctant to re-live the past. In fact, one of the men “chewed me out over the phone for 45 minutes,” Muller recalls. “He wanted me to drop my project.

He kept asking me, ‘Don’t you realize all the people you’re going
to hurt?’”

That hurt began almost immediately after Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Panicked, angry Americans reacted quickly and indiscriminately. Within a month, the U.S. government had changed the classification of all “Nisei” Selective Service registrants to 4-C, the category for “aliens not acceptable.” This offended the Nisei, who were the U.S.-born children of Japanese immigrants. The first internment camps would be set up later that year, under the command of the War Relocation Authority. Ten hastily arranged camps, located in remote parts of the country and guarded with barbed wire, watch towers and armed soldiers, were built to warehouse people of Japanese ancestry. Charged with suspicion of disloyalty, the vast majority of the internees came from the West Coast, and more than half were American-born citizens. Entire families spent years trapped in the cramped communal spaces.

As the war dragged on, government officials saw the Nisei as a source from which to tap more troops. They encouraged them to volunteer, advertising it as a chance to prove their patriotism. In 1944, the government reinstituted conscription of the Nisei. Afraid that White soldiers wouldn’t tolerate living and fighting alongside Japanese troops, the government planned a segregated battalion, patterned after the Black-only military units still operating at the time. That plan was the genesis of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which went on to become one of the military’s most highly decorated units and was soon joined by the 100th Infantry Battalion, a segregated volunteer unit of Nisei from Hawaii.

But the question of whether to fight sparked heated disagreements in the internment camps and even in individual households. Elders not only feared what would happen to draft resisters, but as traditional Japanese, they shunned anything that would bring shame or negative attention on their families. As a result, young men from the same family often found themselves making vastly different decisions, says Dr. Lane Hirabayashi, a University of California, Los Angeles professor.

For instance, his father’s cousin, Grant, served as a translator in theMilitary Intelligence Service in Burma. Ingratiating himself behind enemy lines, Grant eavesdropped on Japanese battle plans and attempted to disrupt their communication and supply lines. Another paternal cousin, Henry, served in the 442nd. But a third cousin, Hank, was imprisoned for being a “no-no boy,” the nickname given to those who defied the draft orders. Finally, there was Hirabayashi’s uncle, Gordon, the plaintiff in a famous lawsuit argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Gordon was also imprisoned after refusing to report for service, and his lawsuit challenged the very constitutionality of the internment camps.

“This gamut of experiences was not unusual in extended families,” says Hirabayashi, who holds the George and Sakaye Aratani chair in Japanese American Internment, Redress and Community at UCLA.

In all, 320 men were arrested and tried under felony draft dodging statutes. Most of the men were convicted and spent anywhere between a few months and five years imprisoned alongside hardened criminals at Fort Leavenworth and McNeil Island. Also arrested and charged with conspiring to counsel draft evasion was the Denver-based editor of a newspaper that covered the resistance, but he was acquitted at trial. Charges were dismissed only once, when a judge freed 27 resisters after describing the government’s decision to prosecute as “shocking.” The 27 men avoided prison only to return to the Tule Lake Internment Camp in Northern California.

In December of 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the internment camps were illegal. The military reopened the West Coast to the Japanese, and the camps began to close. By September of 1945, the war was over, but it wasn’t until December that an appeals court overturned the draft resisters’ convictions. By then, their families were already struggling to salvage the remnants of their pre-war lives. Many of them had lost homes, jobs, life savings and all worldly possessions amid the mass roundup and internment. Veterans of the 442nd, empowered by their excellent performance record during the war, led efforts to rebuild life for all Japanese-Americans.

Meanwhile, the resisters were buried in the shadow of the veterans, so they buried their stories from that period, not even telling their own children for many years, if at all. Dr. Roger N. Buckley, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the founding director of its Asian American Studies Institute, says it’s easier to locate veterans to speak to his classes than it is to find former resisters. For more than 10 years, Buckley has taught an undergraduate course on the wartime experiences of Japanese-Americans.

Dr. Kyoko Kishimoto, an assistant professor in ethnic studies at St. Cloud State University, recalls not even learning about the draft resisters until she was well into her graduate studies. “It’s empowering to know that Japanese-Americans before me were involved in civil disobedience, and in lawful ways,” she says.

It took decades for attention to shift towards the resister’s actions. The Sansei, children of the Nisei, began taking an interest in what happened to their fathers, especially in the context of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. A handful of historians have included their story in the annals of the Japanese diaspora, and the work of Muller, who’s descended from Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, is believed to be one of the few published works devoted specifically to the subject. Documentaries such as “Conscience and the Constitution,” which both Hirabayashi and Kishimoto have shown in their classes, have helped bring the resisters’ story into college classrooms.

Kishimoto uses the resisters’ legacy as a tool to steer classroom discussion about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I want students to think about what it means to be a patriot, and what freedom really is. And I want them to understand that the singling out of Middle Easterners these days is similar to what happened long ago,” she says.

Hirabayashi says the current case of U.S. Army Lt. Ehren K. Watada also mirrors the debate about the resisters more than 50 years ago. Watada, who is of Japanese and Chinese descent, is the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, calling the war illegal and immoral. He faces court-martial and a possible prison term.

“To me, discussion about the World War II draft resisters isn’t history, but contemporary,” Hirabayashi says.

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