Densho Digital Archive
Frank Abe Collection
Title: Art Hansen Interview
Narrator: Art Hansen
Interviewers: Frank Abe (primary); Frank Chin (secondary)
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: February 22, 1998
Densho ID: denshovh-hart-01

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

<Begin Segment 1>

FA: Art, just tell me about Jimmie Omura.

AH: Well, Jimmie is one of the most enigmatic people I, I've ever met. I met him in 1983, I met him in Salt Lake City, and we were both attending a conference that was put on over there by the Center for the Study of Demography. And it was put together by Roger Daniels and Sandra Taylor and Harry Kitano and it later became a book, the proceedings. And it was From Relocation to Redress --

FA: Well, Art, tell me about Jimmie --

AH: Yeah, but I met Jimmie when we were going out from the hotels in Salt Lake City out to the campus of the University of Utah and he was sitting on a mini bus with me. And I was just making chit-chat with somebody on the bus and he turned around and he had a name identification and it said "James Omura." And I couldn't believe it, because I didn't know he was still alive. And so I said, "Are you, by any chance, the Jimmie Omura?" and he said, he said, "Yeah," he said, you know, he said, "I am." He said, and I said, "I thought you were dead," and he said, "No, I'm very much alive." And apparently others have had the same conversation with him because we all felt that he was kind of consigned to oblivion, that he wasn't around anymore. And so then I decided that I would like to interview him. And he told me that he had already done a lengthy interview with Frank Chin, but he would be happy to come out to California, he came out on a regular basis, and we did an interview. So I interviewed him for about four days. And that's where I got my first reading of him. And by the time I picked him up at a motel in Hollywood 'til the time that I took him back four days later it was almost non-stop. I mean, he, and he had already done this same sort of thing with Frank, and we just talked for four days. And he, you know, in the mornings when I would get up he would be sitting on the couch down in our living room and he was ready to start at like 7 o'clock, he was ready to start being interviewed. And one time even the tape recorder broke and he continued to talk right through the time that I was trying to fix the tape recorder. So, I mean, he had a real need to be able to tell his story. And even when I took him back to his motel the next day I got a postcard and he said, "Oh, there's some other things I forgot to tell you," and he writes this thing out: people who he should have mentioned in there, and one of them was Michi Weglyn. He said, "I wanted to..." 'cause I had asked him a final question about which people had, you know, been very important to him.

FA: Well, Art, who, who was Jimmie? Who was Jimmie Omura?

AH: A very lonely sort of person of, of enormous self-regard. He had, in some ways, even though you might think of him as a person who didn't think well of himself, I thought he had a very inflated, actually, opinion of himself. And he was so self-encapsulated because of living an effectively orphaned kind of life that he was able to be Thoreauvian and act like Thoreau when he, when he had to. He was the sort of person that was, was so unsocialized that I think he could steel himself for the kind of actions that he later took. So, I mean, I think that was Jimmie Omura, but he was also desperate -- increasingly so as his life went on -- for affirmation from other people. And I think one of things that, that was really important for him was, you know, getting the sort of applause that he did. But, you know, when he had his picture in the Broadway High School yearbook, underneath it the editors of the yearbook had said, "Jimmie Omura I, I, I, I, I, I, I." And he said, "Well," he said, "It's better to be recognized than to be ignored." So, I mean, you see it there. He is self-focused but at the same time, you know, he wasn't easily hurt by those kinds of things because it fed his ego a lot.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

FC: Why are we interested in Jim? Why would someone just reading be interested in James Omura?

AH: Because I think that he was the most important sort of voice against, raised against the Japanese American evacuation during World War II. He's a heroic figure. I mean, he took a course that was highly atypical and that it was a, that it was a course that, you know, has had tremendous implications since that time. And he paid a steep price for it in terms of being marginalized by his own, own community, but as I told people up in Bainbridge Island that as you make light of Jimmie Omura, he's probably going to be emblematic of the Japanese American evacuation along with a couple of other, other people. He's an important native son.

FC: What was the medium of his voice? How did he, how did he spread his voice around? How did he express himself to reach the people?

AH: He was a journalist. And he was a crusading journalist, and he had a lot of models in that sort of area. But what he liked to do was to be able to use the columns of the various vernacular newspapers he worked for, the most famous one being the Rocky Shimpo in Denver. And this is the place where he registered the strongest voice, not against the evacuation alone, but really against those people who were trying to impose an unconscionable burden on people behind barbed wire, and that was to have them, you know, be drafted and to accept the draft in the name of patriotism. And when there were people at Heart Mountain who were opposed to that, he gave over his newspaper to be able to allow them to have their announcements and he provided tacit support for them and came out with some very, very strong editorials. He was a warrior with his, with his pen and with his conscience. And so I think that was the thing that was important. And then after going into relative oblivion for forty years, he came back very strongly at the time, after his retirement, when the redress movement was going, he became a strong voice in that. And again he uses his pen. When the Smithsonian Institution put up a exhibit on the Japanese American evacuation and he looked at the, you know, the exhibit script, he felt that it did not encompass certain groups, it was driven by certain political ideas, some collective memory ideas within the Japanese American community that he felt were narrow and restraining and so he entered into the record things about people who had resisted.


FC: Were there consequences for his being the conscience and spreading the news about the resistance?

AH: Yeah, there were, there were consequences that were negative for him and very positive, I think, for the rest of the society. And the negative consequences for him was that in a sense, his career of choice as a journalist was pretty much, you know, scrapped. He did come back after World War II for six months and served as the editor of the Rocky Shimpo, but again he was just a constant source of community disdain and criticism. And eventually he turned to landscape gardening and he became, you know, quite a successful landscape gardener, but this is not really what he set out to do. But even when he tried to play in bowling leagues, and he loved sports, he absolutely loved sports. Even in bowling leagues he was made to feel very uncomfortable. And even within the context of his own family, that he was made to feel uncomfortable. That his wife, who had been interned when Jimmie hadn't, did not want to hear about internment. And after the war when Jimmie used to come out to the coast here, his wife felt, according to Jimmie, quite resentful that he would come out here and thought he was doing it for an ego trip. And she was right in a sense, that it was an ego trip. He had an ego that hadn't been fulfilled and a recognition that hadn't come about, and he was getting it now. He was coming out and participating in these dramatizations that were being put on on the coast and it filled him up. Now, the good consequences, of course, of him registering his voice of dissent was that we have a usable past to be able to draw upon when we think about, you know, the refurbishment of American and constitutional ideals. And if he hadn't registered that voice, it would have been lost. And so it was very important in the same way that the draft resisters' actions were very important.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

FC: Dramatizations of what?

AH: Well, when Jimmie came out, there, a number of people, including Frank Chin and Lawson Inada and Frank Abe, put on dramatizations of the draft resistance. And that a number of the draft resisters participated in it as did, as did Jimmie Omura. And these were held in San Jose and in Los Angeles among other places. And there were different reunions for the resisters. And this was important, too, because instead of having to mute the things that they did, they could vocalize them and actually receive affirmation and applause for what they accomplished. I only attended the reunion in Los Angeles at the Methodist Church in the early '90s, but I've read about the other ones in the vernacular newspapers and elsewhere.

FC: The effects on you of attending, your opinion as a historian, as a social critic.

AH: Of attending the one at the Methodist Church?

FC: The one that you saw.

AH: I was really impressed by that particular event because I could see that there were still some of the draft resisters whose wife resisted the fact that they were going public with their story. And that in spite of that strong family resistance, people still came out. The other thing that struck me was the fact that if there were some family inhibitions, there were also some intergenerational kinds of affirmations. That we have three generations of some of the families all speaking out with pride about the role that their father had, you know, been involved in in World War II. And so to see somebody like Grant Emi, you know, linking with his father Frank in a reading, I thought was extremely powerful. To see people like Hannah Holmes, who had been dragged out of a school for the deaf in Berkeley, want to go and have her picture taken with Jimmie Omura. How much she loved what Jimmie represented as well as what she loved about Harry Ueno, people who did have the courage of their convictions. And here is a person who is literally deaf and yet somebody else is giving voice through their actions, through their words, to the sting of what she had felt as a result of her situation. I mean, here's a person that goes to Manzanar, there's one other deaf person there. One person reads lips, the other signs and their parents disallow them from, from interacting with one another so she's not in any community at all.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

FA: What is your observation of the Japanese American community and the way that it has treated draft -- Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, Jimmie Omura, draft resisters?

AH: Well, I think that my opinion is that some of these things take a long time to get over and if your community is beholden to a line, etcetera, that seems to have plus and minus signs where the plus is military service and the whole basis for the so-called success of the community is because of that military service, somebody who resisted, there's no room for them really except to demonize them and put 'em in the opposite valance, which is what I think happened to Jimmie. Now, no community is monolithic and there have been lots of pockets of people who -- and the pockets have gotten larger in which people have moved towards a reconciliation with the idea that there are different ways in which people can express their patriotism, and some of 'em did it by fighting the good fight on the battlefield and some of 'em did it by fighting the good fight sometimes in Leavenworth prison or in a courtroom in Cheyenne, Wyoming, wherever it happened to be.

FA: As a historian, is there -- [laughs] -- as a historian, have you observed that there is a party line, if you will, in Japanese America? And now things are changing? I'm trying to get the historiography aspect.

AH: Yeah, I think that there was a very strong party line and I think it was sort of driven by the major spokespeople in the community, and was the leadership of the Japanese American Citizens League. And I think they had a story, a version, a narrative, a master narrative that they guarded. And people who violated that got punished. And I think they had access to publishing houses largely because they told the story that the country wanted to hear told. It resonated with what they wanted to believe about America. America did not have concentration camps. You know, America was the home of the free and the brave and etcetera. And so these other sort of narratives were extruded because the master narrative was there. And so, but I think this again is changing. We are having a poly-vocal situation there where lots of different voices are coming out, lots of different narratives. And there have been so many contradictions to the master narrative that it's collapsing. And that it's being replaced by a richer, fuller, truer, I think, narrative. And...

FA: As a historian, isn't, but isn't this what some people call "historical revisionism"?

AH: It is, which is a very healthy sort of thing, in the sense that the past is always being revised because of the changing nature of the present. The past is written from the standpoint of the present; it's not written from the standpoint of the past, and so we see different things. When Jimmie comes out or is brought out, etcetera, his story then which has been suppressed and forgotten, etcetera, reenters the data that people look at and so what they have to do is to rearticulate a different story or set of stories. And so when the resisters are silenced and sometimes are complicit in their own silence because of different kinds of community and family pressures, then their story's not there. But when people bring them out or when circumstances like the redress movement bring them out, then all of a sudden we have the basis for a retelling, a recasting.

FA: Which is -- but which is, which is real? We've changing representation of past reality. Which is real?

AH: To whom? Actually, I mean, in other words, what is real? There is, there is no sort of absolute truth that we have in history books or films or anything else because what happens is reality occurs, but only so much of reality is seen and only so much of what is seen is documented and then only so much of the documentation gets salvaged, etcetera. So what's happening in oral histories, like people did with the resisters and with Jimmie, is that we're reconstituting data, etcetera, and this data is being reconstituted retrospectively but it enters into that story and everything. And so it's not simple to say that this, this story replaces that, but now we have a new set of perspectives.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

FC: What is the difference, or is there a difference between the JACL's vision of the issues facing Japanese America at World War II and Jimmie's?

AH: Well, yeah, I think the differences are -- and I hate to be so heavy-handed in it -- but I think the JACL was acting to a large degree under a cloud of false consciousness and I think that Jimmie didn't have those kinds of pressures. Because he was so marginalized, etcetera, he was, you know, outside of the, of the network and as a result, could go his own way. And his own way was more authentic in that he could take the readings from what he was seeing directly rather than to try to take his readings so that they're satisfying somebody else so that you get considerations after the war.

FC: In the issues being raised at the time of the war, both the issues of civil rights, Japanese American civil rights and proof of loyalty, demonstrating loyalty to America, seem to be issues everyone felt were current, or threatened Japanese American security. Could you tell who chose what issue and how they pursued them?

AH: Uh-huh. I think that Jimmie could see through the brittleness of the concept of loyalty as it was being marketed at the time, and I think he focused his attention more on civil rights and civil liberties. I think that the JACL focused more of their attention on loyalty and made that, the way they defined it, a litmus paper test as to who was loyal and who was disloyal. If you protested the evacuation itself, you had questionable loyalty. If you protested the set of arrangements and actions that prevailed in the camps, you could be construed as disloyal. If you didn't go into the military service readily, you were disloyal. And I think that same state of mind persisted after the war for half a century. It's still there. I mean, there are still people that are there -- yesterday in the session that we had on who writes Japanese American history, an older Nisei raised his hand and said, "I'm a little concerned about using that term 'concentration camp.'" So, I mean, you thought that that discussion within the community was well over and here it was sort of lurking its ugly head again.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

FC: Could you go back just a bit, and how the JACL perceived, what JACL perceived as acts or attitudes of disloyalty.

AH: Well, at the beginning, even before the war, when the JACL is, is, I mean, before the evacuation, after, after Pearl Harbor, when the JACL becomes the spokespeople for the community, one of their preoccupations is with the fact that they have citizenship. They may not have the things that give them leadership within the Japanese American community because they don't have so much money and they don't have age and they don't have experience. But what they do have is the ear of the American government and the cooperation of the American government so they're empowered by them to do certain things. So one of the first things that they do is to start doing the bidding of the government in helping to run down information on so-called "disloyal people." And this is where the trouble really gets started for the JACL because they're somewhat flagrant in being able to cast dispersions at different people. Now, so this sets them on a course and especially when they start a committee within the JACL called the Anti-Axis League. And they have what they call muscular patriotism. And muscular patriotism is, is a hyper form of chauvinism, etcetera, that makes them better patriots by the number of people who are on their hit list almost. It's sort of like doing battle in war only it's being able to gratify your overlords by giving them quote/unquote "useful information in a crisis situation." And the amount of names that were turned in might have been significant in itself but then the rumors even about what they were doing, I think, escalated reality to the point that people perceived them in a very, very dangerous way. And I think that they had a, something of a honeymoon within the camps up until the end of 1942 when almost simultaneously in three different camps you have the Manzanar riot, and the Poston strike and you have an incident at Gila that almost becomes a bloody strike or a protracted, a bloody riot or a protracted strike. And this is, again, at the center of it is suspicions about the JACL.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

FA: Tell me what happened in November of 1942.

AH: In November of 1942 there was an all-camp conference in Salt Lake City. And Salt Lake City is important because it's where the JACL moved its headquarters during World War II. And as it turned out, these people who went were not popularly elected by the communities that they so-called represented, and almost all of them were JACL. None of them would have won representation if there had been any kind of democracy at work. But they went back there, and what they did was represent the community, not necessarily their interests, their desires or anything else, but they represented the community in terms of their own likes. And their own likes happened to be likes similar to the government and the War Relocation Authority. And the bottom line from that whole thing that came out of it, which set in motion the trouble, is the idea of drafting the Nisei. Or starting some kind of combat team, segregated combat team. I mean, the draft thing really doesn't get instituted for another year but immediately what they want to do is to get the Nisei into the armed forces. Now this is very interesting because after Pearl Harbor the Nisei who had been in the armed forces are all of sudden getting cashiered out and given a new sort of designation, which makes them into effectively "enemy aliens" even though they're American citizens. So when the representatives from this conference come back to their camps, etcetera, they get a very warm reception.

And the most dramatic example of it is the Manzanar riot, because one of the representatives there was Fred Tayama. And Fred Tayama was somebody who was already not liked because of his prominent role in the leadership of the southwest district JACL, and when he gets back there he ends up being beaten almost to death. And then the arrest of the person that was charged with leading the attack on him, Harry Ueno, a kitchen worker, led to a series of mass demonstrations, and these demonstrations curdled into a, a confrontation whereby military police who were called onto the camp ended up being trigger-happy, shooting a couple of people, two of whom died, nine others who were wounded, and all reports that I've been able to ascertain was that these people were shot in the back, they weren't shot in the front. Teargas had been, had been released, the people ran away from the teargas and they were shot as they were running away. Dr. James Goto, who is now the late James Goto, testified at the redress hearings but he would not say anything about this. And Frank Chuman, who was the head of the hospital, the administrator of the hospital, has told me and others in published interviews that he saw the reports and what they wanted Goto to do was to sign a report, you know, which contradicted the very facts of the thing and say that they, the bullet entries were frontal rather than, than the opposite. I've never been able to get an interview, I was never able when he was alive to get an interview although I persisted over the years to try to get an interview with Dr. Goto. After the riot, Goto was transferred to another camp.

FC: At that all-camp meeting in Utah, did the delegates address the issue of restoration of civil rights for the internees?

AH: Yeah. I think that, in fact, I was a little surprised. I had not read the proceedings of that all-camp conference until recently. It was probably about three or four months ago I got a copy of the whole transcript of it and read through it. And I was a little bit surprised that first of all, more variety in the point of view of the people who were representing the JACL, which goes back to the idea that this organization is not monolithic. They represent the social context of wherever they come from. And there were a number of people who felt that the restoration of rights was important, but they were overwhelmed by the way in which Mike Masaoka, the executive secretary, ran the meeting. It seemed that debate oftentimes was stillborn because he had an insistent voice about moving the thing along, or a loud voice in being able to say, you know, "We don't want to raise these things now." So, I felt it was a managed meeting. It was a very managed meeting. And so dissent that was there got orchestrated into assent by the way in which the meeting was operated.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

FA: The all-camp meeting in November, who led the meeting and what was his message?

AH: The leader of the meeting was Mike Masaoka, and he was the executive secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League. He had not been in that position very long, and he was the first paid employee for the JACL. He came from Utah and he was a Mormon by religion and he was a well-connected person with politicians and professors over at the University of Utah because he had been a debater and a golden-throated speaker. And he was somebody who had not been brought up around too many other Japanese Americans and yet he was catapulted into this position of the head of the Japanese American Citizens League. Which means that he did not have a lot of community restraint, and he did have -- because of his Mormonism -- a hyper Americanism. And because of his speech background he also had a tendency to be able to sacrifice descriptions of reality for rhetorical flourish. And when the meeting was held in November of 1942 there was an urgency and an insistence and a manipulation in the way that the meeting was conducted. In reading over the transcript, I thought that there were some interesting debates starting about the various dimensions, but when the debate started to move in a direction that was unfavorable to the pre-debate question, then Masaoka brought closure on the debate using one or another techniques. And so I didn't think it was the kind of discussion that should have prevailed, given the seriousness of the issues that they were discussing.

FA: That person, what, what was his message... what was Mike Masaoka's message at the November 1942 meeting?

AH: I think his message was --

FA: Could you say his name?

AH: Uh-huh. I think Mike Masaoka's message, more than anything else, was that we have a contract with the government. And that contract, not legally or economic things, but an understanding that we will do our part and make any sacrifice that needs to be made. And one of the best things that we could do at this particular time is to be able to be willing to shed our blood for the United States. And even though we have been mistreated in the army as well as generally, we need to be prepared to be able to serve, and if necessarily, if necessary, to serve within a segregated unit. Because if we had a segregated unit there would be more attention to us as a group and it wouldn't be diffused if we were in an integrated group. So this was a strategic kind of consideration. And this was what they were supposed to go back to their respective camps and sell to the camps. And it did not sell very well.

FA: How was that message received by, in the camps?

AH: Poorly, because within a couple of months -- I'm not just talking about the "Manzanar riot," other kinds of, you know, resistance outcroppings -- but in a couple of months they were approached by the military to try to get them to agree to volunteer for the army. And they expected to get 3,000 volunteers out of the camps and they ended up getting 800. And they got a lot of flack, they, they ended up having the camp all riled up over the situation. So it didn't play very well at all.

FA: What about Mike Masaoka? What did Mike Masaoka do in the middle of 1943, his own service?


FA: Mike, of course, having set this policy in motion, was obliged to be able to sort of deliver the goods in the terms of his own. So he was the first person to volunteer for the, for the military, and he and his brothers all served. And the difference was that Mike never served in a combat position. Mike was, by his own acknowledgement, a person cut out to be a, not cut out to be a soldier, and that anybody who put in a press release that he was fighting in the war was providing misinformation, that he was definitely a desk jockey. And this is his own description and he didn't try to glorify, I didn't think, from reading the stuff, he didn't try to glorify what his role was in the military.

FA: What was Mike Masaoka's role, mission in the 442?

AH: In the 442, he was, he was just basically just a publicist. He was not a, he was not any kind of combatant.

FC: Never under fire?

AH: No, never under fire. Not even close. I think one time when he was in a jeep somewhere going from one place to another, a shot grazed the jeep, but that's as, that's as close as he got to it. I'm not quite sure on the details on that, but, but that's pretty much it.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

FC: Tolan Committee, Mike Masaoka, Jimmie Omura, tell me about that.

AH: Well, the Tolan committee was in February of 1942. And by the time they had the so-called hearings to gather information on which they were going to allegedly decide if they were going to have an evacuation or not, they'd already made a decision to have an evacuation. So the Tolan Committee hearings were at bottom, a farce. But they were interesting nonetheless for some of the things that came up at them, and Mike Masaoka and Jimmie Omura both testified at the San Francisco hearings. And Mike testified very early in the hearings and was not as embarrassing as Tokie Slocum was when he testified in Los Angeles at the Tolan Committee hearings, but was fairly embarrassing in the sense that he was so obsequious and so accommodating to the, to the testifiers and gave out the idea that Japanese Americans would do anything. Anything.

Jimmie Omura was not even originally scheduled to be in the hearings and he was working for a florist and he was in his work clothes and he got a, he got a call to come to the hearings and his wife and he came to the hearings and he did testify. And it was at the end of a long day of testifying, and the most famous statement attributed to Jimmie Omura was not really said: "Has the Gestapo come to America..." was not said at the hearings itself. It was written into the record afterwards because he hadn't had a chance to be able to finish his, his testimony. But it's still a part of the record. Everybody else had the chance to put things into the record, too, which they did.

FC: Could you please go back to the most famous statement that was not in the record?

AH: His most famous statement, which is in the record for the Tolan Committee hearings was, when Jimmie said, you know, that, here we are raising a protest of what is going on in Europe with the Jews and yet it seems as though the Gestapo has come to America. He asked the question, "Has the Gestapo come to America?" And it was, it was a powerful sort of question. It did not receive an answer because, as I say, it was entered in after the actual hearing was held. But it still hasn't received a satisfactory answer fifty years later.

FA: How many voices at the Tolan Committee hearings were raised in protest to the evacuation?

AH: One.

FA: Who was that?

AH: Well, actually, James Omura. His wife, Carole, you know, her testimony was so brief and it wasn't pointed like Jimmie's. So a person who said, "This is wrong and we should protest it," there was one voice that said it, and it was Jimmie Omura.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

FA: Tell me about Mike Masaoka and Jimmie Omura, Mike being, what Mike's position was, what Jimmie's position was when the talk of evacuation started coming down.

AH: Well, Jimmie's position was that people needed to get together and to discuss this and to be upfront about what it was that they thought was, was a policy and they should discuss this importantly. And they had this Bay Region Committee for Unity and there were some famous people represented there, most notably Isamu Noguchi and then Lincoln Kanai, and Karl Yoneda and James Omura. And at first they protested the fact that Omura was even there because they only wanted representatives from organizations, and Omura was from Current Life. And then Karl Yoneda said, "Well, I'm a representative from a publication Doho," which was a communist newspaper, and so they decided, well, they could all stay. And they had a couple of meetings but at the most important meeting that they had, Mike Masaoka came in in the middle of the meeting and the meeting was starting to have an interesting discussion with different points of view. And he came in and when he came in to the meeting, he essentially took over the meeting. And he hob-goblinized the people that were at the meeting, he gave the "inside dopester" sort of information and that he was, he was certain that there was going to be a mass slaughter of people of Japanese American ancestry and that therefore what they needed to do immediately was to demonstrate their, their allegiance to the U.S. government in as vocal and as forthright a way as possible. You know, and he and Jimmie got into a little bit of a difference but he just overwhelmed Jimmie, and I think the sense of the meeting overwhelmed Jimmie, and Lincoln Kanai also sort of ended up leaving the meeting because he thought that Masaoka had buffaloed the other people that were there.

FA: So the two, Masaoka and Omura show up again at the Tolan Committee hearings.

AH: I don't think that Masaoka was still at the hearings when Jimmie got there. Jimmie came, as I say, very late in the day, and it was at the end of about eight hours. Masaoka spoke much earlier in the proceedings so there was no confrontation between the two of them at the meetings. But when they had the account in the papers after that of what had happened at the meetings, it was obvious that the JACL leaders were outraged over Omura's statement, thought he was grandstanding, and that he was creating a rift instead of closing ranks. And so there was, there was a bad taste in their mouth after the hearings, but nothing specifically.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

FA: Tell me about Current Life. Tell me about Current Life. We were showing it on screen, what was Current Life?

AH: Current Life was a Nisei magazine of politics and letters. And it was edited by Jimmie Omura and it started in 1940, was operated on pretty much of a shoestring. He paid for virtually everything out of the money he was making working in the florist industry, so it was never a full-time sort of job for him. But he felt that the Japanese American voice was a provincial one. And what he wanted to do was to make it more cosmopolitan. And he wanted them to talk about more important things, he felt that the discourse in the community was dominated by triviality, and he thought the JACL was chiefly responsible for this. He saw them having social butterfly type parties and hobnobbing with people and not really addressing the winds of change that were going on that were bound to affect the community. I mean, Jimmie was smart enough to be able to see that the situation in the world was deteriorating, that eventually there was going to be some kind of fireworks between Japan and the United States.

But he was also very, very driven by the fact that -- and in some of it, he wanted to elevate, and it was almost like a Victorian, he wanted to elevate the tastes of Japanese Americans. He wanted to introduce them to opera. I mean, he was a very kind of mixed person because on the one hand he wants to get in the voice of people like Saroyan and he wants to get in Carey McWilliams and he wants to get in this, you know, ethnic diversity and everything, and he wanted to have cross-cultural sort of things. And this was sort of populistic but then at the same time he also would have these reviews in there of a violinist concert and things like that, that seemed almost stilted. I mean, you know, so when I read the back issues of that publication, I see its, its strengths, but I also, you know, sort of see its limitations. It still was quite provincial, striving for something more, but... he, the best thing about the whole publication and probably the reason it existed at bottom was the fact that it gave him a forum for being able to address some things. And some of the things that he addressed most urgently was who is taking, who is leading the Japanese American community and where are they leading them to? And this got him into the battle with the JACL. If you go back through and do a qualitative sort of assessment of what's going in those, in those editorials, you'll see that the most insistent kind of thing that he talked about was that very question. So I mean, this, this goes back to the early '30s, this running battle that he has with the JACL. So it's nothing new at the time of World War II.

FA: And yet Frank Chin observed that Omura seemed to like Masaoka in the late '30s.

AH: Well, yeah, even the one copy of, if you look at Current Life out of Chicago they had this award for the outstanding Nisei of the year and it was Mike Masaoka. And he runs this picture of Mike Masaoka as a real comer in the community and everything, and probably it was somebody that he admired. I mean, until you know the person and you just know their sort of achievements... I mean, Jimmie was really very, very patriotic. And I think Masaoka's success was something that he admired. It was when he started to scratch the surface of Masaoka and he saw something else there, a sort of hunter after publicity, a manipulator, these were the things. He didn't know Masaoka. He knew him less than the Japanese American community and they didn't know him very well. I mean, this is what is really incredible, that the Japanese American Citizens League was led by, in World War II, by somebody who was not organically part of that community, who was a rank outsider, really, and it was unfortunate. I mean, that really, somebody else would have felt more constraints from the community, would have taken things slower, would have taken more counsel with other traditional leaders in the community, he didn't. He proceeded in a veritable cultural vacuum. And as a result, they made some decisions that were totally out of character for the community to make.

FC: Wasn't that why he was chosen to lead the JACL, though?

AH: I'm not sure about that, actually. I'm not sure if that was, that was a cause or a consequence, I really don't. I'm not, I haven't settled on that.

FC: How did he get the job?

FA: How did Mike Masaoka get the job?

AH: I'm trying to remember how Masaoka got that job.

FC: Saburo Kido.

FA: Oh, yeah.

AH: Well, oh, I do know a couple of things about it, yeah I do. I don't know what Kido's relationship was to Masaoka, how well he even knew him before that, but I know that the JACL put out a call to try to get somebody to be the executive secretary and there were a couple of candidates. And the one that almost got the job was Togo Tanaka. And they wanted somebody who they felt was articulate, highly Americanized and... I can't remember, I'm sorry, I really can't, I'm blanking on why, why it was that they...

FC: Take, take a sip of coffee.

AH: Okay.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

FC: Tell us how long Current Life lasted, how many issues and how many months and how many years.

AH: You want me to talk about that right now? Well, Current Life lasted from late 1940 to late 1942. And they had an issue that was going to come out at the time that the evacuation came along. And Jimmie's plan was to quote/unquote "voluntarily evacuate" to Denver and then start up Current Life over there. And that was something that never came about, that was the end of Current Life. So it's a two-year sort of run that it has. And it was getting better with each issue. I think if you look at the longitudinal sort of development of it, it got to be a much better publication at the end. At the beginning, most of the things that he had by people like Saroyan and everything I thought were, were really just the kind of thing when you open up a magazine and you ask a lot of prominent people to write a letter to the magazine, there wasn't anything really substantive. The substantive thing started to come about from people within the Japanese American community, and he went away with a lot of different manuscripts. Toshio Mori, who became a quite well-known writer, he had him -- I even have in his papers right now a manuscript that he had by Charlie Kikuchi that was never published. Other people, Kenny Murase was writing for the paper and people like James Sakoda. And all these people either became social scientists who worked in the evacuation for the Japanese Evacuation Resettlement Study out of Berkeley, or in the case of Kenny Murase later on, would become, you know, the head of the social work school at San Francisco State, still alive.

FA: How about poet and fiction writers?

AH: Poet and fiction writers, let's see, who were the people that he... I know that the... I've mentioned Saroyan already, but you mean of the Japanese Americans? Well, Toshio Mori had stuff in there and then... what's the women writer?

FC: Toyo Suyemoto?

AH: Yeah, he had actually had a long relationship with Toyo Suyemoto. And so she had some poems that were in there. And I can't think of all of the other people that had those in...

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

FA: Before I move on, quickly, you told us Mike Masaoka, his feeling about mass evacuation was "we'll be slaughtered," tell me what was Jimmie Omura's thought, his reaction to the idea of mass evacuation?

AH: He thought it was a disaster. He thought that was a slaughter in itself. The slaughter...

FA: Jimmie... say his name.

AH: Yeah. I think Jimmie Omura thought that mass evacuation really was a kind of self-annihilation and, by the community. And that he felt that the very least that should be done is to register dissent and say this was wrong and to fight this situation so that you established a precedent, you went on record, you didn't just cave in as accommodationists and sort of aid and abet the evacuation, you said, "This, you know, was constitutionally wrong, this was morally wrong." And he also felt that the assessment by Masaoka was one of convenience. That he did not see the hysteria, he did not see the danger coming from the larger community. He thought that this hobgoblinization was imposed upon the situation by Masaoka. And I think he took a much more sober look and probably in part it's because he knew the pulse of the community through working as a, as a newspaper man in the community.

FA: Great.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

FA: Omura went to Denver like you said, couldn't start Current Life again, so what did Jimmie Omura do in Denver?


FA: Jimmie Omura did a couple of things once he got to Denver. And I think one was to figure out a way to stay alive. And so his wife started a malt shop called Carole's Malt Shop, and there was a burgeoning community of Japanese Americans in Denver. I mean, it swelled from less than 2,000 to 8,000 really quickly. So there was needs that they had and services that they needed. But Jimmie Omura more importantly, I think, realized that what these people needed was employment. And so he started an employment bureau, and it was a voluntary thing. There was no charge assessed to people who used that service. And so it was really a free gift of grace to try to put these people who had come to Denver in touch with employers so that they could be gainfully employed. And then he made an attempt to broaden this to camp populations. And he only went to one of the camps the whole time, and he was never in a camp except for this time. He went to the Amache camp outside of Granada, Colorado, and he was there for a short while and they basically ran him out of the camp. So that was, he was disallowed from coming back in again and disallowed from, by the WRA, of entering any of the other camps. And he was sure and I'm pretty sure, too, from looking at what evidence I have which is largely circumstantial, that this was the action of the JACL. Said, "This is a troublemaker, keep him out."

FA: Almost a year prior to editing Rocky Shimpo, what was Jimmie's -- we heard Mike Masaoka supported the Nisei combat unit because it was segregated and they wanted to prove loyalty. What was Jimmie Omura's response to the idea of a Nisei combat unit?

AH: He was totally against it. He was against it from the time it was first announced. I mean, he wrote an editorial about it. He wrote a, he was a, not an editorial. It was a guest, he sent a letter into one of the --

FA: Let me stop you. Can you say --

AH: Jimmie said --

FA: No, just tell me, I don't have -- tell me, what was Jimmie Omura's response to the Nisei combat unit?

FC: And use the word "combat unit," "segregated combat unit."

FA: Jimmie Omura's response to the segregated combat unit...

AH: Jimmie was against a segregated combat unit, and he went on record explaining how he was against it and he even wrote directly to Secretary of War Stimson to tell Stimson that he was against it.

FA: Why was Jimmie against it?

AH: Jimmie was against the segregated combat unit because it ran in the face of several things. One is that it ran in the face of the fact that here were people who were stripped of their rights as citizens and it ran in the face of common sense and common decency. But also, he was against it because it was a retro-, retrograde measure. That what they were doing, these were people who before the war and after the Selective Service Act had been passed in 1940, Japanese Americans were in integrated units, and all of a sudden they were going into a segregated unit. He was virtually sure that it would be used as a suicide squad. And it was, they were going to be fodder in the war. So he, on all sorts of grounds, on civil rights grounds, on common sense grounds, etcetera, it was anathema to him.

FA: Did he think it was a symbol of racism?

AH: Of course. I mean, it was... the thing that he was using Current Life to do was to propel the Japanese American community out of the ghetto intellectual and otherwise and this was bringing 'em right back into it through segregation.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

FC: What was JACL's stand on test cases? Mike Masaoka's stand on test cases?

AH: JACL was adamantly opposed to test cases. It was sort of starting trouble at a time when what they needed was peace and calm and cooperation. Test cases were something that he wanted no part of, and he gave no support to 'em and the JACL gave no support to test cases. People had to raise funds separately to get it. The JACL distanced themselves from it as forcefully as they could.

FA: What was Jimmie Omura's stand on test cases?

AH: He thought test cases were very valuable things. That's the way in which you brought, you know, perceived wrongs to the attention of people and you had them deliberated upon. He wanted to have test cases. Test cases were, you know, instruments of social change, and also of social justice. So he wanted test cases.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 16>

FC: You said Omura, you described him as Thoreauean, living like Thoreau. Any other similarity or did he take actual inspiration from any of Thoreau's works?

AH: In my conversations with him and in reading the stuff, I never heard him talk at length about Thoreau as a source of inspiration. What he talked about more was the transcendentalists, and he lumped Thoreau in with Emerson and Alcott and others. And in the 1930s, I think he hitchhiked back across the United States and it's kind of interesting the places that he chose to go and the reasons he chose to go there. One of the places he went was Washington, D.C., and he went and paid homage to all the pantheon of American heroes. You know, Lincoln and Washington, Jefferson, it was very important. He also goes to Greenwich Village. Because here was another pantheon of people who talked about, you know, freedom of expression, who were artists and writers and there was always that side of Jimmie. I don't think it was one of his better sides. I read some of his poetry and it probably was something that he had a higher opinion of than other people. But he also went up to New England, and he went to see Walden Pond and he went to the patriotic sites up in that area where the "shot heard round the world" was at the Concord bridge. He went there, I believe he said that he went to Emerson's home and everything. So it's kind of an index of what he found really very important.

The thing about Thoreau that -- and the reason I used it was not just because of the direct inspiration but just that Thoreau himself was, was a very singular person and a person who was self-focused and self-concerned and everything, but had the strength of his convictions. And I would suspect that if I keep digging into the records I'm going to find some more things about Thoreau's impact on Jimmie, I just haven't found it yet. But there's a lot to wade through.

FC: Jimmie's best, you said Jimmie's poetry was so-so to not very good. What do you think his best writing was?

AH: When he was pissed off at something and when he was indignant, and was writing as a journalist. I think he was a superb editorial writer; he's just a powerful editorial -- those, that's his poetry. His poetry is so wooden, it's so romantic at times, it's embarrassing. His journalism on the other hand, when he hit his stride in his journalism, the words just poured forth, and the fearlessness and where the words came from, from the belly, and everything. And they weren't just thoughts and everything. They were powerful. I mean, I think that those words in his editorials are the ones I think that give him equal claim, really, with his actions such as going to the Tolan Committee hearings as anything. They were just, they were fabulous. And not only, not only with the Rocky Shimpo, but when Jimmie was an editorial writer in the 1930s for the, for the various vernacular presses in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And, you know, those were extremely powerful editorials that I think -- and in Current Life. I mean, that's it. If you take that as his corpus of his work, the editorials, I think you've got a, the best of Jimmie.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 17>

FC: What did the Japanese Americans think of Jimmie's editorials in the Rocky Shimpo and what did the FBI think of his editorials?

AH: That they ought to be scrutinized. That surely he was part of a conspiracy and that, that he was anti-American. I think the community bought into the JACL castigation of Jimmie. I think he was a blackguard in their minds. And the take on Jimmie, I think, was that he was a self-serving egotistical know-it-all who essentially was challenging the leadership and operating out of a sense of not having the support of other people in the community. I mean, I think he was, they reviled Jimmie in many quarters. So, at least that's the centralist position. I think there were other people that respected him and admired him, however begrudgingly, for having the independence of his thought, but also knowing that he tapped into things that they believed in, believed in, too, but were too timid to be able to say.

FA: Jimmie's editorials' effect on readers in Heart Mountain.

AH: I think it was --

FA: Start with Jimmie.

AH: I think that Jimmie's editorials were so welcomed by the members of the Fair Play Committee, not just the leaders but the rank and file, because here was somebody that actually was going to give a voice to what they were saying within the camp outside of the camp. And they could not believe this was a person that was not interned, that this person would be so courageous and say the things that he did. I think it was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise sort of airless kind of world. They had a few of their own who were saying those things and that group grew quite substantially at Heart Mountain in the early months of 1944, but here was somebody on the outside who was saying these things, and they wanted to meet him. They wanted to pay tribute to him, and they did pay tribute to him. And I think they've continued to pay tribute to him to honor him fifty years after the fact. I think he was an important person to them.

FC: How have they pay tribute to him?

AH: I think they've paid tribute to him not only by having Jimmie the subject of their tributes and treating him as a member of their resisters community, but I think they've paid tribute to him by honoring what he did and what he wrote. Here you've got somebody like yesterday, Kenji Taguma, whose dad was a resister not even at Heart Mountain. But he's now a journalist and the English language editor of the Nichi Bei Times. Why is he taking a position like this that journalistically might be a dead end that pays peanuts, but because he has some heuristic model, somebody who, an inspiration like Jimmie Omura. And he said it, quite frankly, he is the editor of the Nichi Bei Times working like twelve to sixteen hours a day because he has a role model in Jimmie Omura, that he saw that Jimmie Omura, in spite of the fact of paying a steep price, also made a huge sort of difference because of what he did.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 18>

FA: I need you to do something, a simple factual thing. Back in Denver in 1944 what did Jimmie Omura -- tell me -- do in January 1944? Tell me that he accepted the job at the Rocky Shimpo.

AH: [Laughs] In 1944, Jimmie Omura became the English language editor and effectively the publisher of the Rocky Shimpo newspaper. And the reason that the vacancy existed was because the previous publisher had been seen as writing seditious sentiments in the paper. He was without citizenship, he was an alien, he was picked up and sent to an alien internment camp. He had a daughter and the daughter was very young and very unsophisticated about journalistic and business matters, and so Jimmie became pretty much the person in charge of the paper and in every respect. So in 1944 -- and it's right about the time that the, the draft of the Nisei is reinstituted, it's within days of it. So the 20th of January, the draft is reinstituted and there is an announcement by the Secretary of War Stimson and then within four or five days, Jimmie becomes the editor of the Rocky Shimpo. And we really got the makings of a historical drama.

FA: When did, how did Jimmie Omura's tenure as editor of the Rocky Shimpo end?

AH: Ended basically by him being cashiered by the government.

FA: Tell me about that.

AH: Well, the short version is that he wrote a series of editorials that, you know, caused the government to be very suspicious of not only what he was saying but what effect what he was saying was having on other people in the camps. And it wasn't just that there was a burgeoning in the ranks of formal dissent groups like the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain, but the examination of the sales of the Rocky Shimpo just escalated. I mean, it was a huge business success for that paper because he was saying some things that were striking a responsive chord with a lot of people, especially a lot of people who were draft age and everything. And so there is comparative statistics of the sale of that particular paper in the various camps during that time and the government was very concerned about this. And you had people hawking the paper at the different camps and everything and the word was getting out. And the main thing that that did was that it effectively ends the idea of a controlled press and a controlled community. There was a relative amount of freedom because people could get their version of the truth from different sort of sources and then make up their own minds, and this was not what the WRA wanted, it was not what the government wanted, it was not what the JACL wanted. They wanted a party line. And this represented a break from the party line.

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 19>

FA: Real briefly, give me the short version, how did the Pacific Citizen, how did the Heart Mountain Sentinel treat the draft resistance at Heart Mountain?

AH: This was really a sore point. The Heart Mountain Sentinel had seemingly complained about the, what they called the "Jap crow," sort of segregated Nisei army. But after saying that, they just buckled under and started to support the idea of a segregated group and knuckle under the party line and then started to criticize anybody who took a different point of view, including Omura. The Pacific Citizen, what hurt the most, was that probably the Nisei journalist and writer in a lot of ways that Omura cared for more than anybody else was Larry Tajiri. And Larry Tajiri had been a progressive, and he was a sidekick of Jimmie Omura's and he was a prototype of what a Nisei journalist could be in Omura's eyes, and then what he became in Omura's eyes was a turncoat. That he was somebody who for convenience took a position that was radically different from the position that Jimmie and many others anticipated he would take. And he became part of the "dirty gang" out of Salt Lake City as far as I think Jimmie was concerned. And he never really could develop the sort of antipathy for him that he did for in other people because there was this residual of affection and friendship and everything that Jimmie had, but he was mightily, mightily disappointed in him. Especially since Larry Tajiri not only took a different position himself but ganged up on the ritual execution of Omura and the resisters. So there was a, there was a strong sort of feeling against what he did, but still a persistence in warm feelings for memories of days past.

FA: We're going to show clippings of the Heart Mountain Sentinel and the Pacific Citizen on screen. Can you characterize for me how did the Pacific Citizen, the Heart Mountain Sentinel treat the issue of draft resistance at Heart Mountain?

AH: The Heart Mountain Sentinel, and it was at a time, this was after Bill Hosokawa had left as the editor of the Sentinel, but his column still appeared in the Heart Mountain Sentinel newspaper and the editorial leadership that he had when he was there, was still there even though he was in Des Moines at that particular time. And the line towards the, what the Rocky Shimpo was saying about, "We need to have at least a partial restoration or a clarification of rights before people accept the draft," they found this anathema. They found this a golden opportunity to be able, and here was a restoration of a right, but the right to be drafted, the right to die for your country, etcetera, even though you're being sort of drafted from behind barbed wire. And so their position was not only nasty, at times it was gratuitously nasty. I think they went around with a meat axe, you know, going after people. I mean, I think the editorials at that particular period are an absolute disgrace. If Omura's editorials represent the high point of Nisei wartime journalism, I think the low point was the Sentinel editorials, and this is ironic because it's always touted that the Sentinel had the best of the evacuation newspapers, of the camp newspapers.

FA: Wow. [Laughs]

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 20>

FA: These editorials... I'll just cut to the trial. Omura is arrested along with the seven members of the Fair Play Committee, Cheyenne Wyoming, November... [interruption] Just tell me the short version of Jimmie Omura's being arrested. Why was Jimmie Omura arrested along with members of the Fair Play Committee?

AH: Because they felt that he was involved in a conspiracy with them in order to be able to frustrate the operations of the Selective Service Act.

FA: At... oh, Jesus. At the trial of the Fair Play Committee and Jimmie Omura in Cheyenne, tell me about the trial.


AH: For strategic reasons, the trial was bifurcated so that Jimmie Omura had his lawyer and his case, and the draft resisters had, leaders, had their lawyer and their situation. There was no acknowledgement of the fact that they had ever colluded, and this was independent decisions that they had reached. One in camp, one outside camp, etcetera. Jimmie Omura had a good case as an editorial spokesperson, freedom of the press. And this is what he pursued and he got exonerated on that grounds. The draft resister leaders did not have freedom of the press as one of their concerns for their own case. But he got exonerated and they didn't, but he suffered a lot before that because he was arrested and he was put into jails and penitentiaries and his reputation was impugned and he went through a lot of agony, he was separated from his family. I mean, so even on a false sort of basis he still had this experience.

<End Segment 20> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 21>

FA: Tell me about who was Ben Kuroki.

AH: Ben Kuroki was the first war hero of the Nisei. He was somebody who was brought up outside of the Japanese American community like Mike Masaoka. Only instead of being brought up in Salt Lake City he was brought up in a town, a very small town called Hershey, Nebraska. There were very few Japanese people there. The Platte River Valley is where the family lived and Ben Kuroki played sports in high school and he was just going to be a farmer. And what he did after he got out of high school was to drive a truck and that was pretty much his prewar situation. And then he happened to be at a meeting in the basement of a -- was it West Platte?

FA: North Platte.

AH: North Platte. North Platte , Nebraska, they... Mike Masaoka comes into North Platte because he was on one of his new jobs here as the executive secretary, is something that Mike did very well, and that was evangelical work, you know, spreading the gospel. Whether it's Mormonism and in this case he's spreading the gospel of JACLism. And so he goes out to get members. Remember, the JACL said they had 20,000 members when they had 5,000. So he's closing the gap between, for instance, what he purports that they have and what they actually have. So a fertile field is out there in these pockets of the United States where there are Japanese Americans. And so they have this meeting at (North) Platte and it's not just the people from that immediate area but from all over that general area. And they're coming and they're having this meeting and Ben Kuroki and his brother are at this particular meeting. And Mike Masaoka is giving his pitch when all of sudden, in come the FBIs crashing into that and tell Masaoka he's under arrest. Now Ben Kuroki witnesses this situation. Although when I interviewed him he didn't remember it very well, but he was there for sure. And so you have this linkage between the two. And then right after that time when Masaoka gets arrested, right after that Kuroki and his brother try to enlist in the army. And the nearest draft board doesn't want anything to do with them, they're objects of suspicion, but they end up filling a quota in another draft board and they not only get into the army, but they get into the, Ben Kuroki gets into the army air force. Now why did he get into the air force? He had had some pilot, some training as a pilot. He wasn't a certified pilot yet but he had been interested in the air force.

FA: Thank you. That's who Ben Kuroki is.

<End Segment 21> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 22>

FA: Now, tell me about Ben... great. Tell me about Ben Kuroki's visit to Heart Mountain. He's a war hero already...

FA: Let me at least tell about that a little bit. Ben Kuroki, after experiencing a lot of discrimination, finally gets enfolded into a crew in the air force. And he ends up becoming a, a crew member in various capacities but he fights in Germany and North Africa in the required twenty-five different missions. But he doesn't quit after that. I mean, most people do; they throw their hats up in the air and say, "Hallelujah, I'm out." He re-ups, which shows how strong his sense of patriotism -- if you ever want an example of 200 percent patriotism, here it is. And this is, he goes in for another five battles, and at that point -- which is in late 1943 -- he cycles back to the United States and he's resting up, resting up here.


FA: What was Ben Kuroki known for when he got to Heart Mountain?

AH: Ben Kuroki was known for being a war hero, and a war hero attached to a very elite sort of role. This is not a foot soldier, this is somebody up in the air. It's a very visible symbol. And he got a lot of acclaim, and when he came back to the United States this acclaim was capitalized upon by the government through the War Department with the urgings, in my opinion, of the Japanese American Citizens League. This was a way to really sell participation in the war effort. And so he became a stalking horse and I think a protean symbol for the things that the JACL wanted to put across. And he was sent on a tour of duty, as I construe it, to three different camps in the spring of 1944. And the first camp he was sent to was not an accident, it was Heart Mountain. It was where the most dissent was and where they were having the most problem trying to put over the idea of the draft. And even though some of the fights had already been fought within the camp, there was still a group of people that were going to be getting their draft notices. And so he comes to that camp, etcetera, and he meets a very mixed reception. He got so much publicity in advance by the Heart Mountain Sentinel, he got so much publicity by the Pacific Citizen, he was really elevated to incredible heroic proportions. Now, the 442nd hadn't really started to get into battle in a serious way before and so that group later is going to become the symbol of military success and heroism, but at that particular point it was Ben Kuroki. So it's one person who's the carrier of Japanese American honor.

And he comes to Heart Mountain and then he goes to Minidoka and then he goes to Topaz. And at every one of those places he meets with a mixed reception. The young kids and particularly the teenage girls, of which there were plenty, lionized him, and I think a lot of the draft age people looked at him with suspicion. And the Issei in particular looked askance at what he represented, because he had a kind of a rhetoric that was a result of him not really knowing anything about Japan or knowing anything about Japanese Americans and he says all of the wrong things as far as the Issei go. I mean, although it's Nisei protesting this draft, there's a lot of Issei involved in that whole sentiment. And he comes in talking about bombing the rice out of our honorable -- dishonorable ancestors in Japan and everything, and he just, you know, sounded like a puppet. I mean, he sounded like he had been wound up by the right people to say the right things and in some cases it was applauded and in other cases it was just absolutely ridiculed and reviled. And so he became a very mixed symbol, and I don't think they were counting on that. I don't think that the JACL understood how deeply layered was the resistance to the resumption of the draft. I think they just thought it was some leaders and the Fair Play Committee and that was it, and it was more than that.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 23>

FA: Tell me about his meetings with, his encounters with the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain.

AH: He had either asked for a meeting with the Fair Play Committee or this was imposed upon him, but he had a meeting with them and it turned out to be a very tempestuous meeting and in fact, he was challenged to a fistfight. And this is quite amazing when you think about it. Here is a war hero with a record of thirty bombing missions, etcetera, comes into a quote/unquote "relocation center" and finds himself about to be sort of chosen off by some people who take a quite a different perspective on things. Thought that he was a stooge and everything and this is why they wanted -- and a dangerous stooge to boot.


FA: Tell me, did Kuroki's tour of duty have the desired effect?

AH: Some people would argue that it did in the sense that he represented to a sector of the camp, you know, the fact that military service was glorious and noble and he probably did end up recruiting some people. But I think it did not have the desired effect if you think about quelling some of the discontent because the discontent got escalated as a result of that. I think it steeled people to take an even stronger stand because they thought that the JACL and the government, the administration were pulling out all stops and trying to play fairly dirty by bringing this war hero in there dividing them in their sentiments against themselves. And so, but it didn't have the desired effect. No, I don't think so.

FA: Tell me what Guy Robertson wrote to Dillon Myer.

AH: Guy Robertson, I think was anxious to get rid of any kind of troublemaking and that was the bottom line for most of the administrators. Their marks as administrators, as camp directors, was how little trouble they had. And what this leads to is a falsification of reality. The reports that they send back then become reports that the Washington office and the government wants to hear. And so when he sends back after Kuroki had been at Heart Mountain and says that everything is under control here and stuff like that and the Fair Play Committee has spent it's, it's energy and everything, is not true. Because the very day that Kuroki leaves, six more people refuse to report for their induction. And so I just think it was 1984-ish kind of information that he was, he was spreading.


FA: Tell me about the next -- when was the next time that Ben Kuroki encounters the Fair Play Committee?

AH: He doesn't encounter the entire committee, he encounters just the leaders at the trial in November of 1944. He was called as a government witness based upon the fact that he had interacted with them in this stormy way that we just were talking about. And so here he was, an impeccable sort of source to provide them with information about the "un-American" kinds of things that they were saying and I think that's why he was asked to appear. Now, he never did testify. Most of the witnesses that were called there was just standbys in case they were needed but they weren't. They ended up getting convicted without having to call those witnesses.

FA: Can you use his name and tell me that Ben was called to testify as a government witness?

AH: Ben Kuroki was called as -- and I've seen the papers that he was served -- to come as a witness to Cheyenne for the, for the trial. And his behavior at that trial is almost absent from anything I've ever seen. I've seen no other accounts of it. The only thing I see is a newspaper article that was done after the trial in which he is quoted in a way of calling the leaders fascists, the leaders of the Fair Play Committee, which tends to give you a sense of it. And I don't think that the reporter in this case made it up. There's no motivation, I think he actually felt that way. I think he was, he was a very naive person, he was a captive of patriotism, his socialization was all in that direction. And it's, in the 1950s, people were seeing communists under every bed. And I think Kuroki was a person at that particular time that was seeing fascists in a lot of places.

<End Segment 23> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 24>

FC: How old were you when you first got wind of the Japanese American story? Where were you?

AH: About the evacuation itself?

FC: Yes.

AH: I didn't really have a good sense of it until I was a senior at UC Santa Barbara in 1960. And I took a course in what was then called minority group relations and there was a visiting professor from Harvard. And I took that course and we had to write a paper on something. And I had a number of Japanese American friends and they didn't talk very much about the evacuation. And, but I took this class and I did some investigations, and about the same time, I had a Japanese American dentist and he started talking to me about it. And he sent me out for this very paper to interview his wife. Turned out this particular dentist I had had been a JACL leader. I didn't know anything about the JACL then but he was one of the people that was part of the delegation that went up to see Governor Olsen, and I uncovered this from looking at documents years later. But at the time he was very outspoken to me about it, and very angry about it still. And then I started to read the newspaper, the, the journal articles that were coming out in 1960. And it's when they were starting to talk about this being, the evacuation being a blessing in disguise, that, in fact, a lot of the stories in Time and Newsweek have that title because Japanese Americans were now becoming the "model minority" and they said this was the great thing 'cause it dispersed them around the United States and it sent them off to these various colleges and things, and they have more of a commitment to being able to get out of their ghettos and into the mainstream and things like this. And so, so I wrote a ridiculous sort of paper about this thing in which I was a captive of, largely of the sources, you know, that I was using. The thing that bothered me was hearing the voice of my dentist and interviewing his wife, where some other message was coming out. So I did have some confusion about it and then returned to it when I started teaching at Cal State Fullerton. I'd returned to it during a period of ethnic consciousness and dissent and the protest against the Vietnamese war. And so I returned to that and taught a couple of classes in which I had everybody in the class write about something dealing with evacuation, and by the time I got those papers in and students had done interviews and everything, it was a very different picture for me. Within a couple of years I wrote an article on the "Manzanar riot" and at that particular time I think that I was into a different frame of mind altogether.

FC: When you first encountered the story, did you expect to find resistance, did you go looking for it?

AH: You know, I guess I was too naive even though I was a senior in college, or else too much a child of World War II myself and its socialization, because I found it a little odd that people could be so willingly accomplices to their own imprisonment and degradation. So there must have been at some level or other a problematic or some questions, but they must have been muted by more powerful sort of forces. But the fact that I returned to that, that topic later on and everything and I was, had this sort of nagging sort of suspicion that it was wrong. It's kind of ironic because when I was at Santa Barbara I could have gone to the sociology department instead of taking the course that I did take, and went from Shibutani, who was there, and Robert Billigmeier, both of who had been social scientists up at Tule Lake during World War II. But I didn't even know enough about the topic to realize that they could've been involved in it. Nobody ever said anything about it either.

<End Segment 24> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 25>

FC: Why has it taken so long for the story of the resistance to reach the public? Even to reach the Japanese American public?

AH: Well, I think the larger sort of thing is it's taken about as long to come out with a mixed story and unpleasant sides of World War II. I mean, you know, when Studs Terkel writes his book and he puts it in quotes, "the good war," I mean, this was the thing that was going to enshrine America. This wasn't something that should exist on that plane of reality where there were a lot of unpleasant dimensions. Race wars going on during the war in the homefront and, and also beatings of blacks and other segregated troops, all the things that went on during World War II. That stuff is just coming out right now, too. So the Japanese American side of the story and the dissent and everything else is not that far behind or actually in some ways it's even in advance of the, sort of, the story about World War II. So I mean, I, I think it's partly the idea of image. And the Japanese American Citizens League, because of the prominence that was given to the 442nd and its heroics and everything, I mean, and the applause that they were given for that, I think that they supported this larger unvarnished -- or very varnished American narrative. And so it's, it's happening in the minority community as well as it's happening in the mainstream.

FC: How has the story been returned to public discussion?

AH: With people resisting the idea of resistance. [Laughs] I mean, I think it's been returned as sort of like a messy birth. I don't think that people have liked hearing this. Initially, of course, the Japanese American community did not want to bring this up because it was something that was going to create trouble, they thought, for them, make waves and everything. And so they did everything they could to batten the hatches and to keep the old story in place, the one that was palatable to the powers that be. So I think it, it was not received -- since it's been received and it's been received by a lot of different dimensions within the community, I think in some cases it's been received very enthusiastically. I was kind of like, here's the truth that's going to set me free. I mean, instead of having to live with this unreal sort of image of people who are willing to do anything to turn any kind of somersaults to accommodate the government as they all of sudden say, "Hey, wait a second," there was a salvational element here and that these were people that raised their voice and said, "Hell no, we won't go." I mean, this is the case with the resisters. Or, "Hell no, I want to protest," and everything. So, and I think even before that, insofar as there was a story of resistance, it was an easier one to accommodate because it was the test case and that was something that was distant and removed and official and things like this. But this was the obstreperous sort of behavior of people who were ready to beat up Ben Kuroki. I mean, this is not something that, they didn't want to hear about riots and demonstrations and strikes and everything, and all those things were there. And now they're starting to hear about them.

<End Segment 25> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 26>

FC: At Heart Mountain, was the resistance activity at Heart Mountain reported in the Heart Mountain Sentinel as it was happening?

AH: Some of it was because there were some letters to the editor, like Frank Emi wrote a couple of part, I think a two-part editorial in there, and there were other people before him even. I'm blanking on Frank's last name.

FC: Inouye.

AH: Inouye yeah, Frank Inouye, who had been essentially robbed of his graduation from UCLA. I mean, Frank Inouye spoke very eloquently, I think, against some of the developments at Heart Mountain in advance of the restitution of the draft. And so, but, you know, it was, you've got to always see it in relationship to what the editorials were saying. And then, not only the editorials but the editorial policy sort of prevailed in most of the columns that appeared. So these are letters to the editor where you could bracket that off and say, "These are the dissidents who are writing," and it almost, it can help your sort of cause. Because you show the illusion of free press when it's really a highly sort of managed press.

FC: Have you talked to any resisters or resistance leaders who actually went to see or hear Ben Kuroki speak?

AH: I have not. I have not spoken to one. It's either that they --

FC: Give me a whole sentence.

AH: Yeah. I have not talked to a single Heart Mountain resister -- and I've asked them every time I have spoken to 'em -- if they have actually seen Ben Kuroki speak. I got some letters from people who said they were there and they saw it as a bizarre sort of thing. But I haven't actually, you know, taped somebody where I got -- Mits Koshiyama and George Nozawa and almost all the people I've talked to really knew of him coming there and thought badly of it, but were not ones who were challenging to fisticuffs or were really witnessing as such. I think they were in jail by that time.

FC: So no one who you talked to or anyone who has identified themselves as a resister to you has said that they were there?

AH: No, and in fact, even one person who said that he was there and described it in graphic detail, as far as I can figure out, he wasn't even in camp at the time, and this was Inouye. I think he was, already left. And yet -- I think what a lot of people did in their minds was that they conflated to appearances of an officer in full uniform who was a Japanese American. And in February of '43 when they had the registration, and there was always a Nisei sergeant that came. And I think that's who Inouye saw, and not, not Ben Kuroki. And Kuroki doesn't come until the spring of '44.

FC: Did, has Kuroki named any resister or resistance leader who he met or was at any of his talks?

AH: No. I think for him it's they're fascists, they're blackguards or something, but they're not, they're not people that he had an acquaintanceship with. And even when I've confronted him with different kinds of evidence, he doesn't feel it happened.

<End Segment 26> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 27>

FA: Okay, I'm going to try and bring this home now. How would you sum up the accomplishment of the Heart Mountain resisters and the Fair Play Committee?

AH: I think what the Heart Mountain resisters and the Fair Play Committee did was to take such an unpopular sort of action. When you figure this is a reviled ethnic minority who are penned into a concentration camp and who find themselves in the most brittlely patriotic context imaginable. The principal perceived enemy being of the same ancestry, this being in the throes of wartime and even having the leadership of their own community enjoining 'em to cooperate, to then in the face of this amassed power and socialization, to say no. And the important thing they did is the same thing as James Omura is simply, they said no. And they were willing to pay the price that saying no meant. And it's a price that wasn't only paid in going to a penitentiary, but a price that was paid later on by finding themselves victimized by their own community after the camp experience. Why would they do it? Because there was a higher price and a higher sort of reward. And the price of saying yes when you felt no is a harder one psychologically to be able to absorb. And the important thing that they do obviously is they provide a palpable model of sort of right over might. And I think this is the thing that reverberates now through not only the Japanese American community but throughout the mainstream community; that these people are well on their way to becoming not only recognizable but recognizable American heroes. And I think in some quarters they already are but their heroism will only grow.

Clifford Uyeda is quoted as saying in Michi Weglyn's book that Michi Weglyn and her book will become more and more important with each passing generation. And I would say the same thing of these people. Heroes do not look good in the looking out a window in the context of a contemporary thing. Where they look good is in the rearview mirror when they can stand for their heroism and you don't have to get them mixed up with the politics and the power of the time. And I think in the future they're going to be shimmering heroes just like Thoreau. I mean, nobody liked Thoreau. Emerson said, "I'd sooner take the arm of an elm tree than to walk with Thoreau." Wasn't a friendly sort of person, and yet, you knew what, Emerson knew what his importance was and I think people will know what Jimmie's and the resisters' importance was.

<End Segment 27> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 28>

FA: Help me out understanding something as a professor. Documentary, this documentary project has helped recover the story. I mean, we're shaping history. Are we? Yeah we are. Can you talk about this a little bit? I mean, I'm trying hard, how can I, how can I tell the story when I'm, we did the reunions, we covered the resisters?

AH: I think there was a vanguard and there always is in terms of developing a new narrative or opening up an old narrative and making it more complex. And people say, "Well, the real reason for this narrative opening up is because we had the redress movement," and I think that's true but the specifics of it, I attribute a lot to cultural politics. And I think that the prime movers in this have been Frank Abe and Frank Chin and Lawson Inada. And I think to use a very sort of potent vehicle of these readings and films and different kinds of reunions and everything have been a porous enough kind of context to get the community enter into them. And once they enter into them I think they're infected by sort of the spirit of it. And although there is still a lot of resistance and there's a lot of people in the Japanese American community who would like to round up all three of you and shoot you, etcetera, I still think that the net effect was that we have an alternative way of looking at not only the evacuation but at some of these people who were the antiheroes, and I think now the plus and minus signs are starting to change. And that in the course of the time that I've been studying it, whereas the JACL were seen as the heroes and everything for their cooperation, now what's happening, the JACL is starting to seem like toadies, etcetera, who are opportunists who took advantage of the community for their own publicity, for their own well-being, etcetera, and really the heroes were those people who resisted. Not to take anything away from the people who fought. I mean, most of the people that went into the army were kids. I told you a little while ago, when I was twenty years old, I didn't know the kinds of things I should have known. Seventeen-and-a-half behind barbed wire you don't know very much either. You have a hunger to get out, you have a hunger to make good what seems to have been made bad, and I think people did that.

FA: And yet, how can Frank and Lawson and I be storytellers when we're not objective? I mean, we're part of it.

AH: Well you're not exactly the storytellers alone. What you've been is the people that have gone out and allowed other people space to be able to tell the story, which is a different sort of thing. As an oral historian -- and the reason I've stayed with oral history rather than writing so many interpretive things is I feel it's necessary for people themselves to discover these things and to be the interpreters of their own history. If you don't have that there's no therapy in it. I mean, you can't provide therapy for people by telling their story. What you do is to act as a midwife to help them tell their own story, and I think that's what you have been. I mean, is that you have provided a means and a way and everything for a lot of people to tell this story.

FA: And maybe they'll say, how can we tell the story, we're not objective.

AH: Well, I'm saying you're not exactly telling the story, you're allowing them to tell the story and even if they say you're not objective, historians aren't. I mean that every historian has filters through which they perceive reality, past reality as well as present reality. And there is going to be -- if there weren't those kind of filters and there wasn't a point, then it would be ridiculous. Nobody, it would have no meaning. So you're imposing meaning, and the meaning comes out of the crucible of what you lived through and what you value and what you feel. And it's right that you should have some vested interest in what you're doing, otherwise, you know, you're sort of an amoral capitalist.

<End Segment 28> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 29>

FA: Clarify for me the difference between "no-no boys" and draft resisters.

AH: Well I don't think, you know, in spite of the fact that there is such an effort made to make a distinction between the two, I don't think such a big distinction should be made. I think a lot of the people -- I'll give you what the traditional distinction is, and that is that the "no-no boys" would not have been willing to serve in the armed forces, etcetera, even if there was a clarification or a restoration. The people here who are in the Heart Mountain group, draft resisters, in February of '43 had said usually "yes-yes" on questions 27 and 28. And so it wasn't a question of quote/unquote "loyalty" or "disloyalty," they were quite willing to do these things, but then it was a seizure of conscience of what had happened and how the game was rigged and everything which caused them to take a different point of view. But I would go on record as saying there's a correspondence of feeling. I mean, they're both saying "no" in different ways for different kinds of reasons and sometimes very good reasons. And so, I mean, I think if we make such a, draw such a distinction between the two, we're back to that BS of Americanism versus Japanism or something as though these were not people who were confused like they should have been living in a community where their parents were disallowed American citizenship.

FC: Did the policy of 442nd's sacrifice blood to prove loyalty address any of the constitutional issues raised by camp?

AH: I don't think it addressed the constitutional issues raised by camp, but what I think it did do was in the long run, it made it easier for those issues to be addressed by other people. They provided a kind of a context of perceptual readiness on the part of the general community to hear more what Japanese Americans had to say. Not a great context, because it took a long time before that context was in place.


FA: Significance of Michi Weglyn's book Years of Infamy?

AH: The significance of Michi Weglyn's book Years of Infamy was that it said what a lot of people had felt. And what it did when it said the "untold story of the, of America's concentration camp," it's not just one story, there were many stories that weren't told and almost anybody who was in those camps had that story. And by her being in camp and then afterwards telling a story like she did, it empowered other people to say, "I can tell my story, too." And I think the ramifications of her book have operated in a predictable sort of way. More people are telling their stories. When I first started I wrote a book called Voices Long Silent; I don't think too many voice are silent any longer. I think the amount of oral history that we have right now, I think there's, there's a chorus of people anxious to tell their stories, anxious to be heard, anxious to be counted.

<End Segment 29> - Copyright © 1998, 2005 Frank Abe and Densho. All Rights Reserved.