In part 3 of the series "Prisoners in Their Own Land," KING 5's Lori Matsukawa explores the question: When the federal government began putting Japanese Americans into concentration* camps, why didn't they object? Some Japanese Americans did object, while others volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army. Warriors and resisters divided the Japanese American community, even to this day.
Within the Japanese American community, they were called “No No” Boys by how they answered a couple of loyalty questions while locked up in concentration camps.
Question 27 asked: Will you volunteer for combat?
Some said: No! Not until you release my family.
Question 28 asked: Will you swear allegiance to the United States and forswear any obedience to the Japanese Emperor?
Some said: No! I never swore allegiance to the Emperor. I'm American!
Warriors and resisters during the Japanese internment
Even one "no" could raise eyebrows in the Japanese American community. Jim Akutsu was a University of Washington sophomore in 1942 when he tried to enlist, but was classified 4-C "Enemy Alien."
“I had never pledged allegiance to Japan, flag or the emperor,” Akutsu said in 1988. “And I felt if I had answered it "yes" I would be incriminating myself.”
When the government reversed course and began drafting Japanese Americans again, some incarcerees resented having to prove their "American-ness."
In various camps, hundreds of draft-age men protested. Men like Frank Yamasaki were tried as draft resisters and sent to federal prison for two years.
“These things hurt and it still hurts,” Yamasaki said, speaking through tears of frustration. “How could I possibly conform to somebody saying, ‘Let's prove you're a loyal American.’ My word! I've been a loyal American!”
Seattle journalist Frank Abe documented the resisters. He says at the time, society, in general, was willing to go along with the U.S. government and not challenge it. A minority group like Japanese Americans was even less likely to question authority.
“For decades growing up the only accepted response to incarceration was two phrases: 'Shikata ga nai' Japanese for 'It can't be helped," passive resignation in the face of oppression. The other was Go for broke,' Hawaiian pidgin for 'Give a 110 percent.' There was no room for a third reality, which was resistance in the face of oppression,” Abe explained.
"Our community did not acknowledge nor honor the courage that it took to protest," added Barbara Takei of the Tule Lake Committee. “And that's the tragedy. “
Those who answered "Yes Yes" went on to volunteer for the U.S. Army or Military Intelligence Service, becoming the most decorated segregated unit in Army history.
Roy Fujiwara was just 26 when his squad was sent to rescue a battalion from Texas, pinned down by Germans. It was a daunting assignment. In 1994, Fujiwara recalled one officer’s reaction.
"Sir, this is suicide! This is suicide!" the one officer said.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team rescued 211 Texans, but 216 Nisei soldiers were killed and more than 600 wounded.
And in a cruel irony, Nisei soldiers, who were born in the U.S. and whose own families remained locked up in America, helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau in Germany.
Meanwhile back in Seattle, a 23-year-old UW undergraduate named Gordon Hirabayashi challenged the curfew imposed on Japanese Americans in 1942.
“I had some kind of student idealistic notion that the Constitution meant something, “ he said in 1985.
His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost. He spent months at the King County Jail, McNeil Island, and assorted lock ups.
In the early 1980s, new evidence of a government cover-up emerged and a team of young, volunteer attorneys took up Hirabayashi's case. This time, a federal judge in Seattle vacated his conviction.
In 2012, Hirabayashi was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. Warrior or resister?
In the end, those who occupied prison cells, as well as those who died on the battlefields, received medals from the U.S. government. Among the 21 Niseis who received Medals of Honor in 2000 were Medic James Okubo of Anacortes and PFC William Nakamura of Seattle.
Veteran and artist Michael Reagan of Edmonds has sketched fallen heroes for years, including all of the Nisei Medal of Honor recipients.
“You can’t argue with the Medal of Honor,” he said in 1994. “You can’t argue with how brave these men were. You can’t.”
While some warrior families kept their distance from resister families over the years, others have sought and achieved reconciliation.
Part 4: Fight for Redress
For decades, those who were locked up in American wartime concentration camps knew it was wrong. It took a Boeing engineer from Seattle and a cohort of civil liberties friends to stand up and seek redress.
Related links and resources:
*Internment Camp vs. Concentration Camp
Some viewers may be wondering what to call these wartime camps. The words "internment camp" are considered imprecise by scholars, since those were used for holding dangerous aliens and prisoners of war. I use the words "concentration camp" in my reports because that's what the people I interviewed called them and, by definition, that's what they were, according to history website DENSHO: “Prison camps outside the normal criminal justice system, designated to confine civilians for military or political purposes on the basis of race and ethnicity." This is not meant to take away from what happened to Jews and others in Europe, who were imprisoned in "concentration camps," which some now acknowledge was a euphemism for Nazi "death camps." - Lori Matsukawa