A letter from James M. Omura to Professor Roger Daniels, April 12, 1983
In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 we present an excerpt from our forthcoming book Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura. The Civil Liberties Act granted long overdue amends to Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated by the U.S. government in WWII. Omura, a vehement and dauntless opponent of the incarceration, was among the first to seek governmental redress and reparations for wartime violations of civil liberties and human rights. This excerpt, a letter from James M. Omura to the historian Roger Daniels, exemplifies both his conviction and his commitment to justice.
Dear Prof. Daniels:
I did not return to Denver until evening of March 26th, having been routed to Seattle for a two-day meeting on request and remaining a full week for additional research.
Now that I have caught up with the most pressing portion of three weeks of neglected mail and have put my annual tax duties to bed, I shall endeavor to respond to the question you posed.
It would seem to me that the appearance I made before the Tolan Committee in San Francisco in 1942 has received greater recognition than it ordinarily should deserve. Of course, it cannot be said that I am not flattered by the attention it has received in the literature of the Evacuation. I thought then and I believe today that this was a monumental tragedy that was unnecessary to the security of the Pacific Coast and the action violated our fundamental concepts of constitutional government.
At the 1983 Relocation and Redress conference at Utah University, I was asked if it did not take “courage” to oppose the Evacuation. The thought never occurred to me in that term. I felt it was a natural thing to do. I was at work at the Amling Corporation when I was urged to hasten to the hearings to testify following Masaoka’s provocative testimony. I had been certified to appear as the final witness. In Seattle later, a committee member stated that I was asked to testify by request.
I believe unequivocally that the position I took was the only proper stance to take by those who avow their Americanism and profess their loyalty to Old Glory. I had no illusion about my place in America. As a small boy of six years old I had been given a choice of being a Japanese in Japan or an American in the United States. I chose America. I remembered that every morning we would begin our class exercises by facing and saluting the Stars and Stripes and with our hand over our heart pledging allegiance to the United States. I suppose it imbued me with a feeling that the Constitution embraced all of us.
I remembered, even after the Evacuation, when I went to watch the El Toro Marines play at Folsom Field in Boulder how emotionally I felt when the National Anthem was sung as our flag fluttered in the breeze. It never entered my mind that our constitution, imperfect as it is, was anything else but color blind. I believed we all enjoyed its protective shield to individual liberties. In that belief, I saw the only proper response to the uprooting of resident people of Japanese ancestry who habited the Pacific Coast was to protest.
The position I took at the Tolan Committee should not have been an exception. There should have been a multitude of similar objections. In reading the testimonies of my fellow Japanese Americans, I am struck by the uniformity of attitudes implied and it evokes a painful feeling of sadness that such negative idealism should endure as a stark reminder of the Nisei heritage. That we should be remembered in our darkest and most critical hours [for] our docile and spineless acceptance of tyranny. It forever tarnishes our image in the historic context as free men.
The only mitigating factor that evolved was once the shock of Pearl Harbor and parental concerns wore off in the concentration camps, there came an awakening and an assertive protest of their plight. Most significant of Nisei protests was the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee which advocated refusal to take physicals unless their constitutional rights were restored. By this militant stand, the honor of free men was salvaged to some extent and reduced the sting of shame that followed its bartering away by those who professed to furnish leadership and who functioned as such by the grace of an oppressor government.
I do not believe patriotism demands or requires that any group of people, whatever their race or ethnic background, yield up their rights that are embodied in the Constitution even in times of national peril.
The [Japanese American] Citizens League exercised no real impact in the Japanese American society at the time of Pearl Harbor. It was an ineffectual organization, primarily viewed as a social group engaged in perpetuating a Nisei elite class. It is not surprising, therefore, that its leadership was demonstratively weak and its belief in the basic tenets of our democratic system was fragile at the most. The Citizens League was not representative of its racial society but demanded conformity to its policy of collaboration and the oppressor.
I do not believe patriotism demands or requires that any group of people, whatever their race or ethnic background, yield up their rights that are embodied in the Constitution even in times of national peril. The call for national unity should not and must not be premeditated on the use of scapegoats for the creation of a war psychology through racial animosity as was carried out in 1942. We should learn, if we have not yet learned, to march shoulder to shoulder in mutual comradeship to thwart all enemies of our nation.
The Evacuation is an historic blot upon democracy. It cannot be removed. But the honor of the nation can be assuaged through monetary redress.
It is abhorrent and de-humanizing to realize that we were spurred on into internment camps with such guileless expressions as “cheerfully” by Jimmy Sakamoto; “gladly” by Tokie Slocum; and “willingly” by the national field secretary, Mike Masaoka. Those words stand as a hallmark of our shame. It remains as incontrovertible proof of Japanese America being sold down the river. The march to the internment camps proceeded with a sense of betrayal and the recognition of the futility of resisting at that late hour General DeWitt’s armed military. They had been sold like cattle for what Masaoka characterized as vague “future considerations” and the presumed safety of protective custody which he touted.
The Evacuation is an historic blot upon democracy. It cannot be removed. But the honor of the nation can be assuaged through monetary redress. It is true that money cannot bring back those lost years, the sufferings from physical and mental anguish, and the monetary losses stemming from lost properties and economic opportunities. But money, however insufficient, can serve as a symbol of a nation’s regret and remorse for wrongs committed against its innocent citizenry and resident aliens. It can restore to the Japanese Americans, who were affected, its pride and a feeling of human dignity re-conferred.
This is probably not what you wanted but it speaks my own personal sentiments. Perhaps I am a rebel or a nonconformist in the tradition of Emerson. I was interviewed for a radio newsletter after the meeting in Seattle and have accepted a taping session for an Oral History Project in California. Perhaps if I participate in such affairs sufficient times I will be able to boil down my thoughts in lesser words.
James M. Omura
Reproduced by permission of the Omura Papers, Green Library, Stanford University.