If the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans was a chapter of shame, what was done to James M. Omura remains a footnote of disgrace.
Jimmie Omura would often wryly observe, in a matter-of-fact tone, that he didn’t expect to be recognized for his accomplishments by his own ethnic community until fifty years after his death. For the better part of his life, this was a realistic expectation.
The decades of the 1950s and 1960s were a desert for anything Japanese American. The nation still grieved the young men lost to World War II, and few distinctions were ever made between Americans of Japanese ancestry and the wartime enemy. The best the Nisei could expect from the mass media was sympathetic coverage of cultural exchanges with Japan or the planting of cherry trees as offerings of peace. Any mention of the wartime eviction was swiftly shouted down by veterans and widows with variations of the cry, “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
It was therefore no surprise that Jimmie’s story and that of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee were omitted from the first popular history of Japanese America written by a Japanese American, Bill Hosokawa. But Hosokawa was no stranger to Omura: both attended high school in Seattle; Hosokawa edited the camp newspaper at Heart Mountain before leaving for the Des Moines Register, and he later resettled in Denver, where Omura already lived.
Every Nisei family at the time owned an obligatory copy of Hosokawa’s 1969 Nisei: The Quiet Americans,1 most likely ordered through an ad in the Pacific Citizen, the JACL house organ in which Hosokawa held court weekly under the banner of his “From the Frying Pan” column. My father bought one of those books. It was brand-new; he probably looked through it once and put it on the shelf, next to his copy of Dillon Myer’s memoir of the machinery of incarceration, Uprooted Americans.2 During a college break one summer, I opened Hosokawa’s book and was shocked to read that the Heart Mountain my father sometimes mentioned as a camp in which he spent the war years was not some sort of benign summer camp, as he made it sound, but an American concentration camp where he and ten thousand others had been imprisoned for the duration.
Even as I read that book, however, something felt missing. From the text, one would believe that Japanese America’s response to eviction and incarceration was embodied by two phrases: shikataganai, Japanese for “it can’t be helped,” passive resignation in the face of injustice; or go for broke, Hawaiian pidgin for “go all out, give 110 percent,” patriotic self-sacrifice to prove one’s loyalty. Surely there had to be some among those 120,000 people across ten camps who spoke out in protest. But whenever I or any of the other Sansei, or third-generation, children would ask, “Mom, Dad, why didn’t you resist?” we’d be patted on the head and admonished, “Times were different then; you weren’t born yet; don’t go applying your 1960s Berkeley civil rights activism to the 1940s—you can’t judge us.”
Who writes history? “History is usually written by the winners,” as Roger Daniels reminds the viewer in our film, Conscience and the Constitution, “and in the short term the JACL, or people who believe in that point of view, the people who want to improve the image of the Japanese American people, in the short run they controlled the history. That’s obviously no longer the case.”3
The rehabilitation of James Omura and the recovery of his legacy began with a 1970 history master’s thesis by Douglas Nelson at the University of Wyoming, under the direction of his mentor, Professor Roger Daniels.4 Daniels, in turn, drew heavily from Nelson’s thesis for his 1971 Concentration Camps, USA: Japanese Americans and World War II.5 It was likely the first time since the war that the organized resistance of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee and the support provided by Omura’s Rocky Shimpo columns had been discussed in print. Michi Weglyn in her 1976 Years of Infamy6 included Jimmie’s “Has the Gestapo come to America?” as the epigraph to her chapter on the decision for mass eviction. As Frank Chin would write, seeing that quotation was the first clue he had to Omura’s existence.
Out of his own pocket, Chin flew Frank Emi and James Omura to Seattle in 1983 to meet with Seattle redress activists and local resisters. After working with Chin to ignite the redress campaign with the first “Days of Remembrance,” it was a relief for me to finally meet Emi and Omura. Their resistance was the missing link I had been seeking.
Chin arranged for Emi and Omura’s introduction to academia at the 1988 Association for Asian American Studies Conference at Washington State University in Pullman. By this time, I had begun a career as a radio news journalist, and to help bring the story of resistance into the mainstream of Japanese American thought, I wrote about Omura’s critique of the JACL for the JACL’s Pacific Citizen.
As I got to know Jimmie, I found him to be a guarded figure, at times sullen, occasionally irascible, but also capable of incisive wit and a gentleman’s grace. Despite my earnest desire to tell his story, he would often needle me and my generation, perhaps just to amuse himself, for not knowing our own history and what he considered a lack of journalistic guts.
Later in 1988, the national JACL conveniently held its annual convention in Seattle, where I hoped to ask Mr. Hosokawa to join a panel with Omura on the Heart Mountain resistance for an upcoming convention of the fledgling Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). He had declined once before. After the Sayonara banquet, I caught up with him, surrounded by Nisei women trying to take his picture, and asked him to autograph my now dog-eared copy of Nisei. “Oh my gosh,” he exclaimed, and seemed genuinely pleased. He signed it thoughtfully, and with a broad smile presented the book back to me, opened to his inscription. I chose that moment to ask him to reconsider appearing on the AAJA panel. His eyes suddenly burned and he growled in his deep voice: “What I resent is that Jimmie Omura turned a bunch of impressionable young boys, who didn’t know any better, against the draft. They went to trial and were convicted, but HE GOT OFF”—punctuating the last three words by jabbing his finger toward my chest.
That was a taste of what James Omura had to endure in Denver, living among not one but two Nisei icons, who even forty years after the end of World War II still wished he had served time in prison. Whenever Bill Hosokawa or Min Yasui looked at James Omura, they saw an unconvicted felon.
It was in this context that I was pleased to be in a position within the AAJA to lobby for creation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize courage and commitment to the principles of journalism, and to win support for Jimmie as its first recipient. Jimmie flew to San Francisco in April 1989, thinking he was to speak on a panel. Instead, we brought him into the grand ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where AAJA president Lloyd LaCuesta and I presented Jimmie with the award in front of a roomful of young journalists. Jimmie was visibly moved. So was I. A friend exclaimed, “We should do a documentary on him!” And out of that moment, Conscience and the Constitution was born.
In Seattle a few years later, Jimmie’s older brother Casey, with whom he had lost all contact, passed away. I helped Jimmie close up Casey’s estate and drove him north to Monroe, Washington, to visit the widow of his oldest brother, Yoshito Ohmura, who had also become a stranger to him. For these and other kindnesses, Jimmie would often profusely thank me. In his papers, we found a letter I had written to him. I’m glad I said these words to him while he was alive, and not fifty years after his death:
I don’t want you to feel like you owe me for any past benefaction. On the contrary, I feel I owe you a lot for befriending me and sharing your story with me, and in a greater sense providing me with a history I can point [to] with some pride. I only wish I had known about you when I was trying to learn about Japanese America by reading Hosokawa’s first book, and not being able to find myself in it. I felt like saying, “those people aren’t me.” No wonder so many of my generation turned away from Japanese America; there was nothing to be proud of.7
It was an honor and a privilege to have known Jimmie, to have his sense of conviction guide me in my work, and to be able to share his story in our film. When he died in 1994, his family displayed the AAJA award at his memorial.
Jimmie embodied true courage in journalism by daring to write about the resistance at Heart Mountain, which was a classic act of civil disobedience in the American twentieth century. As I write this, in the twenty-first century, the freedom of the press for which James Omura stood is, unbelievably, under attack from the highest levels of government, by the very people elected to lead this nation. A proposal for creation of a national registry of all Muslims in America was floated by an administration surrogate—a database whose only useful purpose would be to enable another retaliatory mass roundup. The mass evictions executed in the name of national security by the Western Defense Command in 1942 are disturbingly echoed by the deportations carried out today by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The issue of guilt by association and the limits on presidential authority examined by the Supreme Court in its review of FDR’s Executive Order 9066 are the same ones the High Court is being called upon to review again in connection with Executive Order 13780, banning travel by nationals from six Muslim-majority nations. As the parallels multiply daily, the cautionary question James Omura posed in 1942 resounds today: “Has the Gestapo come to America?”
Epigraph: Sharon Noguchi, “A Wartime Hero Wins His Due,” San Jose Mercury News, April 19, 1989, 7B.
1. Bill Hosokawa, Nisei: The Quiet Americans (New York: William Morrow, 1969).
2. Dillon S. Myer, Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority during World War II (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971).
3. Roger Daniels, in Frank Abe, dir., Conscience and the Constitution (Seattle: Resisters.com Productions); first aired on PBS on November 30, 2000. See also the extended interview with James Omura in the two-disc collector’s edition DVD of the film, released in 2011 and available through Resisters.com.
4. Nelson, Heart Mountain. Nelson completed his thesis in 1970 and was praised for it in the acknowledgments of Daniels’s book, but it was not readily available to the public until its publication in book form in 1976, after the appearance of his mentor Daniels’s book.
5. Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps, USA: Japanese Americans and World War II (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971). An expanded version, retitled, is Concentration Camps, North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II (Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1981; 2nd ed., Krieger, 1993).
6. Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps (New York: William Morrow, 1976), 67.
7. April 15, 1991, entry in Omura’s Redress Diary, OP.