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Peculiar Odyssey: Newsman Jimmie Omura’s Removal from and Regeneration within Nikkei Society, History, and Memory - Part 6 of 7

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Between Hosokawa’s Nisei in 1969 and his East to America in 1980, American society and culture, including the Nikkei community, underwent a tumultuous upheaval. As the mounting protests against the Vietnam War, racism, and sexism evinced, passivity and obedience to authority had ceased being admired.

Historians were drawn to outspoken individuals and activist groups who had stood up for social justice and enlarged democratic rights. Moreover, they used this tradition of dissent to promote contemporary developments and personalities. Conversely, they subjected the past’s sacred cows—whether individuals, institutions, movements, or events—to rigorous and skeptical scrutiny and, if necessary, strong criticism, and this legacy, too, was put into the service of present-day politics.

This development vis-á-vis Japanese American history was evident in seminal books by Roger Daniels and Michi Nishiura Weglyn.1 Daniels’s Concentration Camps USA appeared in 1971.2 As Moses Richlin’s Foreword to Daniels’s Concentration Camps USA noted: [He] has given special attention to the resistance and protest of the evacuees, an aspect neglected or glossed over by others.”3

Daniels’s Acknowledgments discreetly intimated his break with the JACL interpretation: “The late Joe Grant Masaoka…would not have agreed with some of my strictures about the Japanese American power structure, but would, I am sure, have defended my right to make them.”4 Devoting considerable space to the Heart Mountain draft resistance movement and Omura’s correlated role, Daniels contrasted his perspective with the WRA-JACL one.

This account of the “loyal” Japanese American resistance…calls into question the stereotype of the Japanese American victim of oppression during World War II who met his fate with stoic resignation and responded only with superpatriotism… The JACL-WRA view has dominated the writing of the evacuation’s postwar history, thereby nicely illustrating E. H. Carr’s dictum that history is written by the winners… But] there are those who will find more heroism in resistance than in patient resignation.5

Community historian Michi Weglyn used similarly bald terminology in her title and text for Years of Infamy (1976).6 That book’s dust jacket featured the Manzanar camp’s controversial plaque blaming “hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation” for the ten WRA “concentration camps.” As Raymond Okamura’s review stated, Weglyn wrote “from the perspective of an outraged victim.” She relied heavily on primary sources and “discarded preconceptions” such as benevolent administrative-inmate cooperation and invested her data with experiential meaning. Her selection of opening photographs coupled “WRA brutality” and the Nikkei response of “defiance and resistance” to such oppressive actions.7

Weglyn was mute about the draft resistance movement at Heart Mountain, but for one chapter’s epigraph she summoned Omura’s Tolan Committee testimony: “Has the Gestapo come to America? Have we not risen in righteous anger at Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews? Then, is it not incongruous that citizen Americans of Japanese descent should be similarly mistreated and persecuted?”8 Moreover, Weglyn provided copious, empathetic coverage to camp resisters in all of the WRA camps (including the Moab and Leupp isolation centers for “troublemakers” and the Tule Lake segregation center for “disloyals”).

Even her dedication—“To Wayne M. Collins, Who Did More to Correct a Democracy’s Mistake Than Any Other One Person”—conveyed the book’s resistance motif. A civil rights lawyer-social crusader, Collins had been instrumental to the notorious Tule Lake stockade’s closing,”9 and also spent many postwar years restoring citizenship rights for nearly 5,000 Tuleans who had renounced them.

Jimmie Omura was oblivious to this new resistance historiography. But as a 1980s retiree he began reflecting on his journalistic past, including his war against the JACL leadership. Plagued by a cardiac condition, Omura decided to write his memoirs and to emphasize the wartime years. Perhaps, in so doing, he could vindicate the Japanese American community and himself for the damage the U.S. government and the JACL had inflicted on both.

His decision coincided with the Nikkei community’s campaign to achieve redress and reparations for its wartime mistreatment. Aware that the congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) had scheduled hearings in ten U.S. cities, Omura resolved to testify.10 He chose to bypass Washington DC, where Mike Masaoka and Min Yasui (JACL’s National Committee for Redress chair) testified, and his prewar journalism beats of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and selected his “home town” of Seattle (where the hearings were sited at his high school alma mater). Seattle appealed also because it would allow Omura to visit people and places from his Bainbridge Island boyhood and do background research for his book.

Redress was rooted in Omura (and Seattle). As one redress leader, William Hohri, states unequivocally, “James Omura was the first Japanese-American to seek redress from the United States.” Indeed, on May 1, 1942, Omura had written to a Washington law firm seeking their representation, only to discover that the firm’s start-up fee was more than he could afford.11

Omura was among 150 plus individuals to speak at the three-day hearings.12 Within a four-person panel addressing “economic loss and harassment,” he was granted a five-minute presentation. Hugh Mitchell, chairing the proceedings, twice abruptly cut him off. Omura made two points: 1) CWRIC should broaden its inquiry to encompass “voluntary evacuees” like himself; and 2) he was speaking as “one of the chief targets of the JACL,” who he had “fought…from start to finish.” He requested the opportunity to submit a fuller report to the Commission (which he subsequently did on October 16, 1981).13

Testifying in Seattle, too, were several Nikkei destined to play a significant role in Omura’s remaining lifetime: Frank Abe, Lawson Inada, Chizu Omori, and Rita Takahashi. Yet, the CWRIC testifier having by far the biggest future impact upon Omura was not any of these second- and third-generation Japanese Americans, but a fifth-generation Chinese American—Frank Chin.14

A California native, Chin came to Seattle in the mid-1960s and exploded on the Asian American and mainstream literary scene in the next decade as an innovative dramatist.15 He was one of four editors—another being Sansei poet Inada16—of a landmark Asian American literary anthology.17 Chin’s search for an Asian American literary and historical tradition led him to Nisei writers like Toshio Mori18 (whose earliest work Omura had published in Current Life). But for Chin the most potent Nisei writer had been Seattle-reared John Okada. In his 1957 novel No-No Boy, which had been largely neglected, Okada modeled his protagonist on Jim Akutsu. He was a Seattle Nisei who as a Minidoka camp draft resister had corresponded with Omura in 1944,19 and who also testified at the Seattle CWRIC hearings. Pronouncing No-No Boy the most significant prose ever produced by a Japanese American, Chin and Inada collaborated editorially to have it reprised as a self-published volume.

In the late 1970s, Chin got immersed in the redress movement. Abetted by onetime Sansei actor Frank Abe, Chin in 1978 conceived Seattle’s Day of Remembrance and, under the aegis of the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee, staged a Thanksgiving weekend evacuation reenactment.

Although never a member, Chin played a key role in the May 1979 formation of the Seattle-based National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR). Upon Michi Weglyn’s urging, he convinced Nisei William Hohri of Chicago to assume NCJAR’s leadership. Afterwards NCJAR, to quote Hohri, “gravitated towards Chicago,” but it retained a core of Seattle supporters, such as Nisei Chizu Omori and Frank Abe. They agreed with Hohri that CWRIC was a “cop-out” and had developed because of “the JACL’s unwillingness to demand redress directly from the United States Congress.” In spite of NCJAR’s 1980 decision to seek judicial rather than legislative redress, Omori and Abe, like Hohri, decided to participate in the CWRIC hearings.20

Chin’s Seattle CWRIC testimony indicted the JACL for its incriminating role in “the formulation of the infamous loyalty oath” administered at the camps in early 1943 and for its “intention to use the camps to modify Japanese American society, culture, history, and individual behavior.” Concluded Chin: “The greatest damage…that the government inflicted on Japanese Americans was the imposition of the Japanese American Citizens League as the leaders of the Japanese Americans inside the camps.”21

Such a position naturally commanded Omura’s attention, and he asked Seattle redress activist Henry Miyatake to introduce him to Chin. Hearing Omura’s name, Chin remarked, “Not the James Omura,” to which Omura responded, “the very same.” Chin and Lawson Inada then conversed, off tape, with this “long lost uncle” about his remembrance of things past, particularly the Heart Mountain draft resistance movement.22

Then, Chin’s “The Last Organized Resistance” appeared in the 1981 Rafu Shimpo’s holiday issue.23 It led to Chin being contacted in early 1982 by Frank Emi, a surviving Fair Play Committee leader,24 and in that year Chin and Inada, along with allies, started collecting oral histories about this forgotten historical event. As Chin later recalled, “men who had never spoken of their resistance jail terms, appeared in broad daylight to meet James Omura.” These interviews also catalyzed, a decade later, two well-attended resisters’ reunions and reader’s theater presentations, in San Jose in May 1992 and in Los Angeles in February 1993.

Part 7 (Final part) >>

Notes:

1. See Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, s.v., “Daniels, Roger (1927-  ) pioneering scholar on the history of Japanese Americans,” 148 and “Weglyn, Michi Nishiura (1926-1999) historian, activist,” 411. Also influential were Gary Okihiro’s articles on Nikkei; see, “Japanese Resistance in America’s Concentration Camps: A Re-evaluation,” Amerasia Journal 2 (Fall 1973): 20-34, and “Tule Lake under Martial Law: A Study of Japanese Resistance,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 5 (Fall 1977): 71-86.
2. Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).
3. Ibid, x.
4. Ibid, vii-viii.
5. Ibid, 128-29.
6. Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps (New York: Morrow, 1976).
7. See Raymond Okamura, “The Concentration Camp Experience from a Japanese American Perspective: A Bibliographical Essay and Review of Michi Weglyn’s Years of Infamy, in Emma Gee, ed., Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America (Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California, 1976), 27-30.
8. See Weglyn, Years of Infamy, Chapter 3, “’So the Army Could Handle the Japs,’” 67.
9. Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, s.v., “Collins, Wayne Mortimer (1900-1974) attorney,” 140-41.
10. For the summary of the hearings, see Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982).
11. William Hohri, Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese-American Redress (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press), 30.
12. Yasuko I. Takezawa, Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 51.
13. See transcription of “Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians” (Wednesday, September 9, 1981, Seattle Central Community College, Seattle, Washington) and email correspondence from Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig to Arthur Hansen, 15 May 2001, in James M. Omura Papers. The author thanks Yoshinaga-Herzig, a key CWRIC research associate, who supplied both the transcription and the explanation for the context of Omura’s panel testimony. See ibid, “Written Submission by James M. Omura, Seattle Hearings, CWRIC, 16 October 1981.
14. For a biographical overview of Chin, see Shawn Wong, ed., Asian American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 15-16.
15. According to Shawn Wong, ibid, 15, “Chin’s The Chickencoop Chinaman was the first Asian American play performed on a legitimate New York stage when it was produced in 1972 by the American Place Theatre.”
16. See Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, s.v. “Inada, Lawson Fusao (1938-  ) poet, writer,” by Emily Lawsin, 207-8.
17. See Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, eds., AIIIEEEEE! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974).
18. See Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, s.v., “Mori, Toshio (1910-1980) writer,” 283-84. In 1985, the University of Washington Press republished, in its Asian American series, Mori’s 1949 classic collection of short stories, Yokohama, California, with a new introduction by Lawson Inada. This edition also included the original introduction by William Saroyan, a staunch supporter and contributor to Omura’s Current Life.
19. For the context of this wartime contact between Akutsu and Omura, see Omura to Hansen, “Resisters,” 300. As recalled by Omura in 1984, the situation forty years earlier was this: “Because he [Akutsu] was searching for an answer [about how to deal with the draft], he went to…Min Yasui [at Mindoka], feeling that, since he had violated a curfew, he was a champion of civil rights. He looked up to someone like that, see? Then he talked with Min… He wrote me about this: ‘I’m so disappointed.’”
20. See Hohri, Repairing America, 48-50, 87, and 83. In Mitchell T. Maki, Harry H. L. Kitano, and S. Megan Berthold, Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 122, the authors claim that NCJAR pursued redress via the courts partly because it “and William Hohri in particular were motivated by an intense dislike of the national JACL.”
21. See Hohri, Repairing America, 125-29.
22. See Frank Chin, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Rafu Shimpo, 25 June 1994; this account in Chin’s obituary of Omura was amplified by him in personal conversations with the author.
23. See Martha Nakagawa’s entry on “draft resisters” in Niiya, ed., Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, 153-54.
24. Ibid., 154.
25. The Frank Chin Oral History Collection is the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections department at Washington State University.
26. Chin, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.


* Arthur A. Hansen, “Peculiar Odyssey: Newsman Jimmie Omura’s Removal from and Regeneration within Nikkei Society, History, and Memory” in Louis Fiset and Gail Nomura, eds. Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005, pp. 278-307.

@ 2005 by the University of Washington Press

jacl journalism newspapers pacific citizen redress World War II