Accessibility links

Breaking News

Japanese-American Group Apologizes to Wartime Draft Resisters - 2002-05-11


A dispute among Japanese Americans is seeing a partial resolution this weekend, as a national organization apologizes to men who resisted military service during the Second World War. A ceremony Saturday may help heal a rift that has lasted almost 60 years.

Frank Emi, a second-generation Japanese American, spent much of the Second World War in an internment camp with his family. He was held with more than 100,000 fellow Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, under an order signed by President Roosevelt in 1942.

In 1944, the young men in the camps became subject to the draft into the U.S. Army. They were asked to sign a loyalty oath, but two questions on the form bothered Mr. Emi. One asked if he was willing to serve in the armed forces, and he said he was not as long as he was unjustly incarcerated. Another asked if he would forswear any loyalty to the emperor of Japan. As a U.S. citizen, he considered the question insulting. He wrote on the form, "Under the present conditions, I am unable to answer these questions." "It was unbelievable," he says. "We didn't think that was very fair."

Mr. Emi was married with two children and not subject to being inducted into the army. But he helped form a group of war resisters at his internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. It was known as the Fair Play Committee. His actions would lead to a court conviction for conspiracy. The conviction was later overturned, but not before he had served a term in prison. More than 300 people in eight internment camps refused to enter the army, and many were jailed. Saturday, the organization that once called the men disloyal is apologizing at a ceremony in San Francisco.

Japanese-American filmmaker Frank Abe has chronicled the dispute in a documentary called "Conscience and the Constitution." He says young men in the camps were divided over military service. "Many of them were glad to serve. They wanted to show that they were just as American as anyone else," he says. "And to take some active role in the war, and that's as it should be. But a smaller number chose a different battlefield for their fight. And that was by going to court in an attempt to clarify their rights as U.S. citizens, to clarify their U.S. citizenship, in fact."

In 1947, President Truman pardoned the war resisters. More than 40 years later, the U.S. Congress apologized for the internment, and gave survivors $20,000 in partial compensation for their years in the camps.

The resisters were reviled as traitors by some and later largely ignored in Japanese American histories. But some in the community thought they were owed an apology. Former internee Paul Tsuneishi is a member of the Japanese-American Citizens League, the group that once condemned the war resisters. An army veteran himself, he notes that a number of veteran groups now understand the wartime protests. "All together there are four Japanese American veterans organizations which passed resolutions recognizing as a matter of principle, that those who resisted the draft had a right to their stand on constitutional grounds," he says.

Mr. Tsuneishi spearheaded the drive that, after nearly 10 years, has led to the apology by the influential Japanese American organization. Still, the controversy continues. Loren Ishii heads a Japanese American post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Sacramento, California. He opposes the apology to the wartime resisters. "Over the years, the veterans have come to accept that the resisters did whatever they did for whatever reason they did, but they're drawing the line at the apology as the ultimate insult," he says.

Mr. Ishii says an apology is unfair to those who were killed or maimed while fighting for their country. A Japanese-American regiment, the 442nd, was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history.

Paul Tsuneishi says resisters like Frank Emi were fighting in their own way for the U.S. constitution, which guarantees political freedoms. He says the Japanese-American Citizens League, as a civil rights organization, has come to realize that.