"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."

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