SAN FRANCISCO — Ken Yoshida was 19 years old when he was ordered to go to war by the government that had herded him to an internment camp. He refused and was sent to prison where he was ostracized by his community and branded a traitor by the powerful Japanese American Citizens League.
In 1947, President Truman pardoned the 300 or so Japanese-Americans such as Yoshida who refused to fight in World War II on Constitutional grounds. The league planned to apologize Saturday.
“What we’re saying is we shouldn’t be condemning or trashing people who took a stand for our community’s civil rights,” said Andy Noguchi, co-chair of the Recognition and Reconciliation Ceremony. “These were a group of 300 young men who stood up for the community’s civil rights.”
Fifty-eight years after the fact, those are words Yoshida needs to hear.
“I want to be recognized — what I went through. Why we resisted the draft. All that,” he said.
That the ceremony comes at a time when a new group of immigrants has felt the sting of suspicion in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks is not lost on organizers.
“The same type of threats and prejudice that Japanese-Americans faced back in the 1940s is something that Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans are facing today and that’s why it’s important to recognize those who stand up for their rights ... and back them up,” Noguchi said.
Sixty years ago, it was panic over the attack on Pearl Harbor that triggered the order to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans and send them to internment camps on grounds they threatened the West Coast. However, in Hawaii, where Japanese-Americans were crucial to the work force, there was no large-scale roundup even though it was much closer to Japan.
Some Japanese-Americans fought relocation and other restrictions forced on them. Later, when internees were asked if they would serve in the Army and forswear loyalty to the Japanese emperor, some answered “No” to both, earning the nickname “No-no boys.”
The draft question came in 1944.
JACL leaders endorsed the idea in hopes of showing the rest of the country that Japanese-Americans were loyal.
Many joined, fighting bravely. The combined units of the Japanese-American 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team were among the bravest in U.S. military history, receiving more than 18,000 honors.
But a few, like Yoshida, said it was unconstitutional for the United States to strip them of their rights and then draft them. Most were imprisoned. JACL leaders called them “cowards, traitors and subversives.”
The veterans came home heroes. The resisters came home to a wall of silence.
Old resentments die hard. Saturday’s ceremony was bitterly opposed by some veterans’ groups.
“There should be no apology,” says Loren Ishii, commander of Sacramento Nisei VFW Post 8985.
Ishii and other veterans see the apology as the work of Sansei and Yonsei (third- and fourth-generation Japanese-Americans) born after World War II.
“They’re angry at the government for the injustices ... and they’re also angry at their parents and grandparents for not standing up,” said Ishii, a Sansei and a veteran. “Over the years we’ve come to accept what the resisters did for whatever reason they did but don’t glamorize them, don’t make it look like they were treated unfairly.
Muller thinks the JACL does have something to apologize for. His research showed its leaders worked with the government to jail the resisters.
But he says it’s a mistake to label veterans or resisters as heroes.
“The reality is, as always, somewhere in between. Not every veteran who was drafted out of the camps marched off into the military brimming with patriotism and not every person who resisted the draft did so purely on civil rights grounds.”
Both sides, he said, have something in common. “They were all victimized by the same horrific government, race-based wrongdoing.”