SENIOR MOMENTS: A Letter From a Reader

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By Phil Shigekuni
(First published in 
The Rafu Shimpo on Feb. 11, 2012.)

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After my column on Gordon Hirabayashi I got an interesting response from Stanley Kanzaki, a JACL member, who writes from New York, NY. I pass on to you what he wrote about his informal meeting with Gordon when Gordon visited his JACL chapter a number of years ago.

Also, I was particularly impressed by his take on Mitsuye Endo, the young woman who filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court in 1944 (asking the court to provide reasons for her incarceration). Stanley says he has on two occasions submitted letters advocating a wider exposure of the significance of Mitsuye’s action, most recently prior to the 2010 National Convention in Chicago. In both cases, he got no reply.

This is what he wrote to me:

In your column dated 1/21/2012, you wrote an interesting story about the late Gordon Hirabayashi. If I may, I would like to add some more about him. I recall several years ago when he gave extemporaneously a talk in NY about what happened to him during WWII.

You wrote about his experience in the federal prison. He told us when he first arrived there, the Native Americans who were imprisoned there were not quite sure who he was. In one sense he looked somewhat like them but with some differences. What they first thought was that he was some kind of a god that came to the prison.

Gordon Hirabayashi

While waiting for his trial, his mother was given special permission for a temporary release from the concentration camp she was imprisoned in and went to the federal prison to attend Gordon’s trial. Not having sufficient funds, she was allowed to stay in the prison cell with the cell door open. The inmates heard about her and she became somewhat of an instant celebrity. Right before the trial a few prostitutes in prison got together and gave his mother a complete makeover so that she would look her best in court!

As for Peter Irons, there is more to say. The information he received on the U.S. government’s withholding of evidence in the Hirabayashi trial was not discovered by him but initially given to him by the researcher Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga. In his book “Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases” (Oxford University Press), he does not give her that acknowledgement and only thanks her for assisting in the book.

As for Mitsuye Endo of ex parte Endo, this was basically a writ of habeas corpus case, which is an important part of the due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Due to the nature of the writ, a post-haste decision is required by a court. Despite this, it took over three years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Their decision in effect freed the 120,313 imprisoned Japanese and Japanese Americans from the ten concentration camps.

The other point to know is that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the signer of the infamous EO 9066, had the U.S. Supreme Court hold up making the announcement on the case until after November, when his election to a fourth term as president was secured.

The late Mitsuye Endo was initially asked by the leaders of JACL not to go through with the case, but she refused. For a young Nisei woman of that era to be a controversial figure was unheard of. She suffered the years of imprisonment and stuck it out through three different concentration camps, not knowing who was for and against her. It must have been a really trying experience.

She remained in the camps even though the War Relocation Authority made an offer for her to leave the camp. She refused since to leave would weaken her case. She remained imprisoned until the decision was announced by the Supreme Court in her favor.

It is sad to note that she passed away without getting official recognition of what she did for our people by the National JACL. I once wrote an article about her in the Pacific Citizen recommending recognition, but this did not happen. Even at the 2010 National Convention in Chicago, where her last residence was, I wrote a letter to the organizing group that it would be most appropriate at that time to recognize her posthumously, but it was unanswered.

You stated in your column that she along with Hirabayashi, Yasui and Korematsu serve as models. Perhaps you can write a column about this unsung Nisei hero, Mitsuye Endo. She will indeed be truly a great model for young Yonsei and Gosei women. She also exemplified the values taught to us by our Issei parents of the Meiji era, some of which are yuuki, nintai, gambaru, on, sekinin, ginmu, meiyo.

Note: Most of these incidents mentioned came from the book written by the late, great Michi Nishiura Weglyn’s “Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps” (University of Washington Press).

Thank you, Stanley, for this interesting and most provocative letter. Perhaps your letter can serve as the first step in achieving the recognition, long delayed, for Mitsuye Endo.

Stanley serves as membership chair for his JACL chapter. I have been a proud member of my chapter for many years. JACL has had an illustrious record of accomplishments benefiting Japanese Americans. While acknowledging this, we, post-redress, should get serious about mending some badly battered fences.

Our chapter, as well as, I am certain, Stanley’s, is working hard to improve declining membership numbers. We can both continue to challenge our leadership to be more responsive to valid concerns of its members.

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Phil Shigekuni can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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