Densho Digital Archive
Frank Abe Collection
Title: James Omura Interview II
Narrator: James Omura
Interviewers: Frank Abe (primary); Frank Chin (secondary)
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: August 1993
Densho ID: denshovh-ojimmie-03

[Ed. note: Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]

<Begin Segment 1>

FC: Tell us about... when were you put in solitary, and why?

JO: Well, I was put into solitary within three minutes of my being arrested -- jailed in Cheyenne.

FC: Could you repeat that? Sounded a little, not clear. You were arrested, you were put in solitary within three minutes?

JO: Yeah, three, four minutes.

FC: Being processed in Cheyenne.

JO: Well, I could go back a little further.

FC: Yeah, and so, to your arrest then, you were picked up in Denver?

JO: I was picked up in Denver and taken to Cheyenne. And let's see... how was it? Originally I was placed into the regular hold, but in three or four minutes they took me out again and put me into solitary.

FC: And what did you have in solitary, TV set, no, radio?

JO: We didn't have anything in solitary except a pitcher of water and a basin, no towel.

FC: Shaving material?

JO: No shaving, no nothing. I wasn't allowed to have anything except just cigarettes.

FC: You weren't allowed reading, you weren't allowed to have anything. Books, pencils, paper?

JO: I asked them for reading materials which was denied me. My wife left some magazines on the reception desk for them to give it to me. We don't know what happened to them. She also bought me a razor, a new razor, and left it there. We don't know whatever happened to that, and I had nothing.

FC: Did you smoke at the time?

JO: Yes, that's the only thing they allowed me to have, a cigarette if I asked for it. I never asked for it. But when the Fair Play Committee leaders came in, they asked for me and they sent me up a pack of cigarettes and a bar of candy. [Laughs]

FC: Were you allowed to have candy?

JO: Well, they gave it to me so... [laughs]

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

FC: When you were arrested, what time of day did they come by to pick you up, and where and how many?

JO: They arrested me real early in the morning. So happened that I got up at 4 o'clock that morning thinking that I would go to work and finish my route and then take my dog up in the mountains that weekend. And so I was up and I had just finished feeding my dog when heard a knock on the door, outside was all dark. When I opened the door, why, it was, I could see only one man who identified himself as the agent of the FBI. And it was so dark I couldn't see but there were three other men behind him. But I couldn't see them, see. And then this FBI took out a paper and started to read the indictment to me. Just before he started, another FBI man, I guess, flashed a flashlight on the piece of paper from behind. And they didn't read the whole thing, they only read part of the first paragraph which indicted me.

FC: Were you handcuffed?

JO: No, never handcuffed.

FC: They took you by car or bus or train to Cheyenne?

JO: Well, they took me by car to the marshal's office and I was fingerprinted and placed in a upstairs, top floor is holding cages and I was placed in that. And I asked if I could make a phone call. Phone call was denied me. Each time they came to see me I told them I'd like to make my phone call, because I knew I had a right to make one phone call. But each time they denied me.


FC: Were you allowed to make a phone call?

JO: Not until after I was arraigned. And that was, I was taken to, to the municipal building and it was a funny deal there, very funny because it was a hot day, the sun was out, and part of that courtroom was in sunshine and the other half was in darkness. And just before it got dark, they put, asked me to sit down so I sat down, then the marshal went forward and all I could see is somebody on the bench. I couldn't see him clearly but I could see him because he had a white shirt on. And they had a conference, a long conference down there with someone, I don't know who, but there must have been three or four people. And after the conference, the fellow on the bench asked me, he says, "Do you know what the charge is?" I says, "Yes." And he says, "How do you plead?" "Not guilty," see.

FC: What was the charge?

JO: Conspiracy to vio-, conspiracy to...

FC: Violate the Selective Service law?

JO: No, to... how was it now? How did they say that?

FC: Conspiracy to cause violations of the Selective Service Act?

JO: Yeah, more or less, yeah.

FC: Could you say that? "I was charged with..."

JO: I was charged with conspiracy to violate the Selective Service law.

FC: And you felt you were not guilty.

JO: I said I was not guilty, yeah. And they, and as I said, this was a strange thing because I wasn't told if there was any bond or anything. They conferred by themselves and decided and pretty soon took me out.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

FC: So take us back, several times you asked to be allowed to make a phone call.

JO: That's right. Several time I asked them to let me make a phone call, and each time I was denied.

FC: So when did you secure a lawyer or contact a lawyer to help you?

JO: I never said that. I never directly contacted because I was not able to.

FC: So how did a lawyer get to you?

JO: Well, they finally let me have, make one phone call after my arraignment. As we were going out of the building, there's a bank of telephone and they says I can now make my phone call. So I called my wife and asked her to get in touch with the lawyer. And in the meantime, I was taken back to the marshal's office. Within twenty minutes, twenty-five minutes, I was hustled out of the building, put into a car and taken to Cheyenne.

FC: And do you think this was going to make it difficult for your lawyer to find you?

JO: It made it difficult so that we couldn't challenge, challenge their transferring me to another state.

FC: So you were arraigned, you were formally charged and arraigned without the benefit of counsel?

JO: That's right. And not only without the benefit of counsel, but without telling me what was happening, whether, what the bond was. It was only when I was in the jail about ten days that I learned that the bond was five thousand dollars. We didn't even know this.

FC: Could you say, "I was arraigned without a lawyer present," or arraigned... just say those words in a sentence.

JO: I was arraigned without any counsel, without being allowed to speak with a counsel, and without being informed of what the decision was.

FC: Were you, when you were transferred from the general holding tank to solitary, what reason did they give you?

JO: They gave no reason. I mean, I was just taken out of the general holding tank and they put me into what was regularly a women's quarter, which was barred, and it was barred all the way around. And that was the solitary I received.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

FC: How did you find out Min Yasui was an informant for the FBI?

JO: Well, we always knew that there was something wrong with him. And actually, what made us very suspicious of him was that he came to the Rocky Shimpo to complain about the Rocky Shimpo's emphasis upon the Fair Play Committee, and the fact that, like he said, the Rocky Shimpo don't publish anything contrary. So, so we had a long talk, and during that talk, he seems to accept everything I told him, that we can't publish anything if we don't have anything. And I invited him if he would write an objective article, that we would give him just as much importance to that as anything else, which he did, and which we published. But just before he left -- I thought everything was in good shape, but just before he left, I was holding the door open to the street, he turned around and says, "I'm going to see you go to prison one way or another." Over the weekend I thought about that, that bothered me a great deal, and on Monday morning I came to work and I told the publisher, "I think this man is a, an informant, and so we ought to try to confirm it." So the publisher says that she had a direct line to the FBI agent, so she would call the FBI, which she did, and she passed the information to me that the FBI says that he's not in yet, and for her to call the marshal's office.


FC: You asked your publisher to call the FBI. Okay, let's take it, pick up the story there again.

JO: I didn't ask the publisher to call the FBI, she volunteered to call the publisher, because she knew an FBI agent. And she made the call and they told her that Mr. Yasui isn't in yet, that he's a little bit late this morning and that we should try the marshal's office. So I decided to call the marshal's office. And when I called, they told me that, "Mr. Yasui is very late this morning. It's possible that he sometimes goes to the FBI first before reporting in." And by that we already knew that he was an informant, that he was making these scheduled stops from the marshal's office to the FBI as a rule and so forth.

FC: You suspected Yasui, you felt Yasui was an informant, and yet he had violated the curfew, created a test case, had presented himself to the world and Japanese America as a resister. What happened?

JO: I looked into Min Yasui's case, and after reading his case I decided that this man wasn't doing this for the benefit of the Japanese Americans, he was doing it for himself. His case clearly shows that within forty-eight hours he changed his mind, and when asked if he regretted doing it, he says he regretted what he had done. But he had already done it so naturally he was tried.

FC: Who asked him?

JO: Two FBI agents who incidentally were his former classmates at the university.

FC: University of Oregon.

JO: Right.

FC: Could you say that?

JO: University of Oregon.

FC: Say, "Coincidentally were his former classmates at the University of Oregon."

JO: Coincidentally, they were former classmates at the University of Oregon.

FC: And how did you know this conversation took place?

JO: It's in the records.

FC: The transcript of the trial?

JO: Transcript of the trial, and previous to the trial. It's all in the record.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

FA: You were in Denver, you were editor of the Rocky Shimpo, how did you receive the bulletins from the Fair Play Committee? Did they come through the mail or how did you get them?

JO: I believe the, the bulletins from the FPC came through the mail.

FA: Okay, what role did any go-between play in your receiving the bulletins of the Fair Play Committee?

JO: The first time that I ever heard about the Fair Play Committee was on March 3rd. It so happened that on February 28th I had written the editorial "Let Us Not Be Rash," and I took it as a response to that editorial. I was approached by a hakujin woman who was very edgy. She came up the stairs, the office told me they were sending up someone, you know, and she was very edgy and she looked behind her, the side of her, to see if she was being followed. I noticed all this because I was waiting for her. And when she arrived at the desk, why, she told me that she was a good friend of Kiyoshi Okamoto, and that she thought he was a genius. And later on I read what I received and I didn't think he was a genius at all. [Laughs] But anyway, she pushed, she suddenly pushed all this material she was carrying in her hand into my hand and says, "I'll have to go, I'm double parked outside." Actually, I don't believe she even had a car, but that's the excuse she gave me, that she was double-parked, and she took off, and here I have this material and I start reading it. I read about thirteen pages of the biggest one which was his declaration of policy or something to Attorney General Francis Biddle. And I, after reading it, that's when I decided this man was no genius. He wrote some real nice words and sentences, but he kept repeating himself. Not repeating in the same way, but in various different ways, eventually coming down to the same doggone thing. And it gets monotonous when you do that, see. And I said to myself, "I can't see any busy person like the attorney general having the time and the patience to go through this thick of a declaration."

FA: So what did you do then about the Fair Play Committee?

JO: Oh, I decided then to take the whole darn shebang home and study it over the weekend. And that night after supper I decided to start with the easy one, which was single page or double page or something of that sort. And here I ran into this, this deal about the Fair Play Committee, the formation of the Fair Play Committee. Now, that was news to me. And so I wrote an article on the formation of the Fair Play Committee and published it.

FA: What did you think of the Fair Play Committee?

JO: Their purpose as declared in these documents was to protest the constitutional right, and I thought that that was exactly what I was protesting from way before. So I liked it.

FA: And had you ever met Kiyoshi Okamoto, Frank Emi, Paul Nakadate, any of these men before?

JO: I had never met any of the members or leaders of the Fair Play Committee.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

FA: And "Let Us Not Be Rash," what prompted you to write that editorial?

JO: Well, we were receiving very negative reports in the newspaper, in the Denver Post, of these five Amache boys who refused to go to their induction. And they were making very outlandish statement about being disloyal or being loyal to the emperor or some other things like that. I didn't believe that they meant it, they were saying that because they were frustrated, I would say. And at the same time, we got an AP report, and the report was on Minidoka. It was stated that thirty at Minidoka have refused to report because they wanted to protest, not exactly to protest, but I imagine it was to protest, and asked expatriation, which meant giving up the citizenship and everything else and leaving the country, I suppose. I didn't believe in that. And so one of the things I noticed is that everybody was jumping on the people who were resisting. No one was offering any alternative. So I scratched around, anguished over it, and finally came up with the idea that if I throw out the constitutional theme, maybe they would grab it. So that's what I did. "Let Us Not Be Rash" was no ordinary editorial. I had to write it carefully because of the situation. And it turned out that the editorial became probably one of the most read, most analyzed, most summarized editorials during the war years.

FA: Jimmie, spell it out for me. What was the tightrope you had to walk when you were writing that editorial? You knew you were walking a thin line. What was that thin line, one side or the other?

JO: Well, we couldn't say directly anything that would be critical of the United States government policy, so we had to be oblique about it. And that's the approach we took. For instance, I couldn't tell the people to organize, but in essence I was telling them to organize.

FA: And several days later, you received this notice about the Fair Play Committee from Sylvia Toshiyuki?

JO: No, I received the notice about the Fair Play Committee on March 3rd from her. And then Kiyoshi Okamoto wrote directly to me, and he was under the impression that I already knew about it because he says he sent the material to the Rocky Shimpo in December, but in December I was not connected with them, so I didn't know anything about it.

FA: As you continued following and printing stories, printing the releases from the Fair Play Committee, were you aware that you were risking yourself as a journalist for prosecution by the government?

JO: I was aware all the time because I wasn't some wet-nosed kid out of the country. [Laughs] I was in journalism.

FA: So why did you keep doing it?

JO: Well, it's a matter of conscience. We believed that the, that the government was wrong and I did from before, since the Tolan Committee, it was obvious there. And actually, through the period between, why, I was very much disappointed that the Japanese Americans didn't stand up for their rights. I wasn't exactly thrilled about their taking up the draft case because I knew the consequences of a draft case, but I also understood that that was the last hitch that they had left that they could hold to, or become a part of, and so I supported that.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

FA: At that time, what was your opinion of the Japanese American Citizens League, the authorized representatives of the Japanese American people?

JO: Well, personally I didn't think much of them. I thought they were a confused bunch of leaders and they didn't seem to have the intellectual quality necessary to lead any group that I could see.

FA: The leader of the Japanese American Citizens League, Mike Masaoka, you saw him in San Francisco right before evacuation at a community meeting in San Francisco. You were standing... well, tell me Jimmie, what was your impression of Mike Masaoka at that meeting?

JO: Well, Mike Masaoka was a young man, had wavy hair, very attractive to the girls, you know, and to the public I imagine, but what he was saying, he was using slogans, various slogans, such as "the end justifies the means." And if you analyze that, you know right off the bat that that sounds screwy. Well, that was an old Jesuit saying way back, and the Jesuit was using that to bribe the people so that they would become Catholics. This happened all over Europe, and I'm a student of European history, and they were driven out of England --

FA: Jimmie, let me interrupt you. What else did Jimmie, what else did Mike Masaoka say to the people at the San Francisco meeting?

JO: Oh, he used various other slogans like...

FA: "The greatest good for the greatest number."

JO: "Greatest good for the greatest number," and numerous other things like that, "for the evacuation is good for, for the people to save them from guns and tanks," which I disagreed with.

FA: Tell me, Jimmie, did Mike Masaoka talk about the threats of violence, tanks, guns, against Japanese Americans on the West Coast? Tell me what he said about that and what you thought about that.

JO: Well, he says if we all didn't evacuate, that the army would come in with men, with guns and tanks and assassinate us. I didn't believe that was possible, because the United States government was very sensitive about relations with Japan, Imperial Japan. If any incident occurred of that sort, there was bound to be reprisal and it was afraid of reprisal, and I knew this and I believe that it would have never happened.

FA: You were standing next to Mike Masaoka, you told me?

JO: Eighteen inches behind him.

FA: What did you think about his attitude at that time, at that moment?

JO: I felt at that time... I saw his body tremble as he related about night riders shooting into homes of Japanese and of two aged Japanese couple, farm couple being murdered by Filipinos in the Imperial Valley, and as he related these stories, which was no, it was old story to me because we've already read that in the newspaper, his body was trembling and I thought to myself, "This man is scared."

FA: This man is what?

FA: Scared. Terror-stricken. And he used his fear to encourage the Japanese public to follow the JACL line.

FA: What did you think of that kind of strategy?

JO: Well, fear is something that everybody understands at that period because people were being arrested left and right. There was over five thousand people, Japanese Americans, that were arrested at this time, and even the one who were released were again called back and eventually some of them were arrested and put into internment. So naturally, even the neighbors hearing about these things would be afraid even though they were not directly affected.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

FA: You told us you were arraigned in Denver.

JO: Right.

FA: Then you went to Wyoming and you had to be re-arraigned, and tell me who you went before, and what he said to you when he heard your case.

JO: I forgot his name.

FA: No, it doesn't matter his name, but it was a U.S. commissioner.

JO: Yes, I was re-arraigned in Cheyenne before a U.S. commissioner and he told me that he had read my case and if it was up to him, he'd throw it out of court.

FA: And why did he say that?

JO: He volunteered it.

FA: Yeah, but I mean, okay, so what did you gather from that?

JO: Well, I knew they didn't have any evidence of the charge, so I was happy that someone else also agreed with me. [Laughs]

FA: When you received your indictment, or when you were arrested, when you first learned that the government was going to indict you and arrest you for the charge, what did you think about that, being a journalist? Being a journalist, how did you react to the fact that they were going to charge you for...

JO: I always knew that eventually they would come around to something like this, so naturally through all this I was very careful that I didn't step over the line. But, so therefore they had to come and manufacture something to tie me into it, and when they indicted me, well, I said, "This is stupid." The grand jury that did it -- the only thing I could think at the time was that it was a matter of racism, and I worried a great deal about racism, about going to trial. That's the only thing that worried me, whether I would be convicted on this type of evidence simply because I was a person of Japanese ancestry.

FA: You knew they had no evidence against you, but what was the principle that you relied on? In the back of your mind, Jimmie, that you knew that they could not convict you on?

JO: Well, the only thing I could rely on was the freedom of the press, and I instructed the lawyer through my wife to put up a defense for freedom of the press.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

FA: At your trial, you were tried along with the Fair Play Committee but you had different attorneys. When the verdict comes down, they were convicted, you were acquitted. How, at that moment, do you remember, how did you feel? What thoughts went through your mind?

JO: When I was acquitted, I felt I was justified. But before I went to trial, there was a letter from the prosecuting attorney to the FBI branches, Denver, stating he had no evidence, and yet he went to trial because he was being pushed by the assistant attorney general Tom Clark.

FA: When the verdict came down, can you give me any sense of how you felt, your feelings? Happy, sad, angry, mad, glad?

JO: Well, I just felt like I, that the verdict was just.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

FA: For the trial, you were interviewed several times by an FBI agent about your writing. He didn't testify against you, he had no documents to introduce, but after the verdict, did you... tell me about your contact with him afterwards. Tell me his name and what happened.

JO: Well, we were having a recess and we were out there in the back there and the jury was right next, next to me. And I forgot his first name, but his last name was Lawrence. He stepped out of the judge's chamber to get a smoke and happened to look up the hallway and see me. He put away his cigarette, came rushing up the hallway, which is quite a long ways, you know, and when he came to the back, he says to me, "Congratulations, I'm glad you were acquitted." I felt very good about that because this was the FBI agent who had been interrogating me about four or five times in Denver.

FA: And during the trial there was a journalist from the Cheyenne Eagle, Vern Lechliter, who covered the trial. Tell me what happened with him after the trial.

JO: Well, he came to Denver and looked me up and... where I was working, and we had long talk, and he himself was in Denver because he had just got his call, draft call. And I had written a letter to the Wyoming Eagle thanking them for the very unbiased coverage that they gave us, which I consider was helpful to the case. And the Wyoming Eagle wanted to publish it and I gave my permission and they published it. And Lechliter, Vern Lechliter was a person who covered this event and every day, why, he was very close to me and he talked with me after each trial. And at the end of the trial when I was acquitted he says, "If you were convicted," he says, "I wouldn't know what justice was." So he was very sympathetic to us.

FA: Didn't he also make some reference to freedom of the press?

JO: Well, yes he did.

FA: Tell me again, Jimmie. After the trial he said what to you?

JO: Well, he says that... actually, what he said was he wouldn't, he wouldn't know what freedom of the press was. And later on, later on when I was in California, he wrote to me about the disposition, well, about the reversal of the Fair Play Committee case. He was the first one to let me know.

FA: Final question before Frank jumps in. At the trial, tell me about your relationship with the jury, just physically your presence with the jury, and what happened when the jury finally came out with the verdict acquitting you. Tell me that story.

JO: Well, I was very encouraged because during recess, the foreman of the jury smiled and winked at me and I knew I had somebody in the jury room who was influential in my favor. From what I understand, there was only one juryman who was strongly against it, but the rest were very supportive and... otherwise I had no direct connection with the jury. They always passed by and he, the foreman always smiled at me as if encouraging me.

FA: Don't you remember the one juror who wasn't on your side, did you talk to him after the verdict?

JO: I talked to all of the jurymen.

FA: Okay, what was the one thing that the one juror against you say to you? He shook hands, did he shake hands with you?

JO: Yes, he shook hand with me but he said to me... let's see... I think he said, "You're lucky you weren't a member of the committee," something like that.

FA: Okay, he did say that.

JO: Yeah.

FA: "You're lucky, you're lucky that you weren't in camp."

JO: Yeah, that's it.

FA: Can you tell me that again? After the verdict, one of the members of the jury, tell me what happened.

JO: He said to me that, he wasn't very pleasant but he shook my hand and said, "You're lucky you weren't in camp."

FA: Why?

JO: Well, why, so that I wouldn't be part of the committee, Fair Play Committee.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 1993, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.