"no more shikata ga nai": frank emi, japanese-american war resister

One of the most shameful episodes in both US and Canadian history is known in the US as Executive Order 9066: the treatment of citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. Innocent citizens, with no recourse to due process, were rounded up, forced into concentration camps where they lived in barracks, surrounded by barbed wires and armed guards, their homes and property confiscated. Executive Order 9066 is a chilling story of scapegoating and a cautionary tale of how easily democracy can be smashed in the name of security. And this while the country was at war, supposedly to defend democracy!

Heaping insult onto injury, young Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian men were drafted into the war while their families were still being held in the camps. The majority rushed to join the war effort to prove their patriotism. But some did not. Some resisted.

Frank Emi was one such resister. He was also an organizer: he helped others to resist, too. He and others formed a committee to protest the draft, saying they would serve only after their rights had been fully restored. More than 300 detainees in the 10 concentration camps joined. Later in his life, Emi would say, "We could either tuck our tails between our legs like a beaten dog or stand up like free men and fight for justice."

They had little support from their own community, and certainly no sympathy from the larger culture. Emi was sentenced to four years in federal penitentiary for "conspiracy to counsel draft evasion"; he served 18 months.

Researching this post, I discovered a documentary chronicling this Japanese-American draft resistance, screened on PBS, called Conscience and the Constitution. The companion website, where you can read much more about Frank Emi and the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, is here at Resisters.com (not to be confused with our own Resisters.ca).

Frank Emi died this past December at the age of 94. Here is his obituary from the New York Times; many thanks to Mike from VFP for sending it to me. I have a few Canadian friends whose lives were affected by this - one whose husband (now deceased) was interned, and two whose parents were in the camps. Janet, Kim and "Malory," this is for you.
For nearly four years, through scorching summer heat, dust storms and frigid winters, 11,000 residents of the United States were forced to live in barracks, surrounded by barbed-wire fences, guard towers and searchlights at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in the northwest Wyoming desert.

They were among more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, most from the West Coast, who were herded from their homes to inland detention centers after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, within three months of the attack on Pearl Harbor, issued Executive Order 9066, deeming them threats to national security.

“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,” one internee, Frank Emi, later told the Japanese-American oral history project at California State University, Fullerton.

The phrase he heard among the detainees was “Shikata ga nai” — it can’t be helped.

That would change two years later, after the government had begun drafting detainees into the military. Ordered to fight for the country that had imprisoned them, many were defiant, Mr. Emi (pronounced EH-me) among them. At Heart Mountain they formed a committee to organize a protest, arguing that they would serve only after their rights had been fully restored. More than 300 detainees in all 10 detention camps joined their cause.

For Mr. Emi, the mantra became “No more shikata ga nai.”

Mr. Emi, the last surviving leader of the committee, died on Dec. 1 in West Covina, Calif., said his daughter Kathleen Ito. He was 94 and lived in San Gabriel, Calif.

Not all Japanese-Americans were opposed to serving in the military. After the War Department, at the urging of Japanese-American leaders, decided in 1943 to allow detainees to volunteer for an all-Japanese-American unit, many signed up. Their unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, went to Europe under the rallying cry “Go for broke.” The 442nd would become one of the most highly decorated regiments in United States history, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts and 21 Medals of Honor.

But when the government decided to start drafting Japanese-Americans in January 1944, scores of internees saw it as the last straw.

“Many of the internees took the reopening of the draft as an unwarranted test of their patriotism,” Eric Muller, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina and the author of “Free to Die for Their Country” (2001), said in an interview. “Some young men decided they had had enough. Why should they and their families, who had lost all of their rights and privileges of citizenship, be asked to shoulder its greatest burden?”

Mr. Emi and six other internees at Heart Mountain formed the Fair Play Committee. They held meetings in mess halls, distributed fliers throughout all the camps and sought to initiate a court case to re-establish their rights as citizens.

To those who believed that they were doing harm to Japanese-Americans over all, the resisters became known as the “no-no boys.” Some, particularly those so proud of the volunteers in the 442nd Regiment, called them cowards and traitors. But as far as Mr. Emi was concerned, he told The Los Angeles Times in 1993, “We could either tuck our tails between our legs like a beaten dog or stand up like free men and fight for justice.”

Charged with draft evasion, all of the more than 300 resisters were sentenced to prison terms of approximately three years.

In separate indictments, Mr. Emi and six other leaders of the Fair Play Committee were charged with conspiracy to counsel draft evasion. Four, including Mr. Emi, were sentenced to four years; two received two-year sentences, and the seventh was acquitted. They were sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., where they were surrounded by hardened criminals.

“Frank was a black-belt judo expert,” Professor Muller said. “The first thing they did at Leavenworth was stage a judo exhibition in which the little guys threw the big guys. After that nobody bothered them.”

Three months after the war, the convictions of the committee leaders were overturned by a federal appeals court; they were released after serving 18 months. The 300 charged as draft resisters lost their appeal, but on Christmas Eve 1947, President Harry S. Truman pardoned them all.

Frank Seishi Emi was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 23, 1916. His parents owned a food market. When his father was injured in a car accident, Mr. Emi dropped out of college to run the business.

He was married and had one child when Executive Order 9066 was issued. The business and the family home were never recovered after the war. He later worked as a postal clerk.

Besides his daughter, Mr. Emi is survived by his second wife, Itsuko; another daughter, Eileen Tabuchi; a stepdaughter, Rie Nishikawa; a sister, Kaoru Sugita; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

For decades, Mr. Emi and other draft resisters faced disapproval from other Japanese-Americans. During the war, the Japanese American Citizens League had called for them to be charged with sedition. But in 2000, at its national convention in Monterey, Calif., the league formally apologized.

And two years later, at a league ceremony honoring the resisters, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, a veteran of the 442nd Regiment and a Medal of Honor recipient, addressed the crowd in a videotaped message.

"Some young men answered the call to military service," Mr. Inouye said, "and they did so with honor and with great courage. Some young men chose to make their point by resisting the government's order to report for the draft. They too were honorable and courageous."


Kev said...

Great post, Thanks for returning the spotlight to this important chapter in our history.

One small clarification though Canada didn't have a draft, in fact Japanese were barred from serving at first so they volunteered for the British military, eventually we relented and allowed them to serve.

Here are a couple of resources that tell the Canadian story.



laura k said...

Ah, thanks for that, Kev, much appreciated.

It was the same in the US, only w/ the draft. Originally Japanese Americans were prohibited from serving, then when that changed, they were eligible for the draft. For Emi and others, that was the last straw that led to their resistance.

Thanks for the vids, too. Many people (long ago on this blog) recommended a novel about this. I can't find the title right now, but someone reading this thread is sure to know it.

laura k said...

I believe it was "Obasan" by Joy Kogawa.

Kim_in_TO said...

Thank you for posting this, Laura! I've never heard this story before, and was unaware that the Japanese Americans were drafted.

The stories seem the same, but the lack of a draft in Canada makes a big difference. In the Japanese Canadian communities inside the prison camps, the attention was focused on the men (including my Father and uncles) who wanted to prove their loyalty to Canada by fighting for their country. The opposition to their fighting in the war came from within the community, out of worry for the men's safety and the idea of their potentially fighting against friends and relatives. They debated the issue and then voted on it.

I'd heard the history before. I thought I had understood the facts, but then in the late 70s or early 80s, a friend of my older siblings put on a play about our history in Canada. This debate was depicted in the play very well. It was a difficult and emotional time. Among the Japanese Canadians in the audience, there wasn't a dry eye in the house by the end of that scene.

Anyway. It's nice to know the Japanese Americans had their own war resisters!

laura k said...

Thanks for that, Kim.

You point out a significant difference in the two histories. In the US, as I understand it, the opposition to drafting Japanese Americans was from the military and government - questioning whether they could or would be loyal troops.

laura k said...

After 9/11, the US made a big deal about not rounding up Muslim Americans - that they weren't making that mistake again. IIRC, the Resident announced it like it was something to be proud of. "We're not putting citizens in prison camps! Aren't we great!"

Of calls there were calls to do so, including from within Congress.

Instead they just made do with rounding up "others"... who are still there.

Kim_in_TO said...

After 9/11, the US made a big deal about not rounding up Muslim Americans - that they weren't making that mistake again.

In Canada, we are rounding up Muslims - just not the entire community, because the government at least realizes they can't get away with that again. The 5 security certificate victims, 24 students under Project Thread, Maher Arar and the other "extraordinary rendition" cases, and the Paintball 18.

laura k said...

Oh yes, that's true in the US, too, of course. And in the US, that's been the case for African-Americans, Latinos and low-income people of all backgrounds. The makeup of the enormous prison population shows that.

Malory said...

Hey, an excellent post, Laura. I had heard of the "no-no" boys but didn't know much detail.

In the West (in a society focused on the rights of individuals), we say, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," while in the East (or at least in Japan's group society), they say, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." So the idea of a resistance movement in my parents' generation during that time was hugely radical.

laura k said...

That's really interesting. The cultural context makes these resisters' actions even more courageous.

Thanks for that, Malory. Nice to see you here!