I think by nature I tend to be for the underdog. A few weeks ago I mentioned I had read Mike Masaoka’s book, “They Call Me Moses Masaoka.” I said at the time that at first I thought the title was self-congratulatory, but then I found out that actually, the “Moses” part of the title was a term of derision given to him by his detractors.
Biblical Moses led his people out of captivity. Moses Mike led his people into captivity, and to top it off, he didn’t go to camp himself.
I don’t think I have talked with any JA who went to camp who has had anything positive to say about Mike, even JACLers. So he meets my criterion for underdog. My sense is that controversial issues in our community are generally handled with silence.
Let’s go back in time for a bit: The military, in enforcing EO 9066, sought out the JA leadership. To be sure, JACL was not an overwhelmingly popular organization, but where else could the military turn? When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mike had just turned 26. He knew our removal was inevitable, so why not make it as painless as possible?
I don’t know how strong the leadership was in Canada, but the removal of Japanese Canadians there involved moving the men into work camps, with women and children banished into separate camps. The details of the agreement with our government have never been revealed, but I would assume certain concessions such keeping families together would have been part of the agreement.
During the reception following the recent Day of Remembrance program at JANM, I had a chance to talk with two men who were related by marriage to Mike: Former Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and a long-time friend, Harry Kawahara. Norm’s sister, Etsu, who passed away in June of last year, was married to Mike. Harry’s older sister, Sachi, was married to Tad, Mike’s youngest brother.
They reminisced about how they were both student body presidents at their respective high schools before enrolling at UC Berkeley — Norm at San Jose High and Harry at San Leandro High in the Bay Area. I also had a chance to chat briefly with Harry’s nephew, Mark Masaoka, Tad Masaoka’s son. Mark is well-known as a community activist.
I mentioned to Norm that I had recently read Mike’s biography. His comment was something to the effect of, “You have to understand the actions our leaders took in view of the conditions in the world at that time.” That seemed to make sense.
In Manzanar, as well as in other camps, anger and resentment came about as a result of seeing certain JACL leaders as informers. They were called “inu” — dogs. Mike, in an attempt to protect his JACL members who were under attack, called on War Relocation Authority (WRA) officials to segregate the attacking “troublemakers.” This action, of course, did not help Mike’s popularity with the other camp inmates.
Then, when those families who gave negative answers to the loyalty questionnaire were sent to Tule Lake, Mike, as national director of JACL, took the blame for withdrawing support for these families. And when some of the families renounced their citizenship and expatriated to Japan, JACL did nothing to help the families regain their citizenship.
It took the valiant work of Wayne Collins to enable individual renunciants to regain their citizenship. It is plain that despite reasonable explanations, JACL needs to make amends for these lapses during WWII.
But before laying the blame for these shortcomings at the feet of Mike Masaoka, can we acknowledge Mike’s accomplishments?
Without Mike’s intercession with our government, there would not have been the formation of the famed 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. After the government consented to allow Nisei participation in the war effort, Mike was one of the first to volunteer. After doing this, he vigorously publicized the accomplishments of the 100th/442nd.
All five Masaoka brothers served: Ben was killed in action, Tad was wounded, Ike was completely disabled, and Hank served in the paratroopers.
Through intensive lobbying, Mike was successful in bringing about passage of the McCarran-Walter Act, which allowed Issei to become naturalized citizens. His mother served as the plaintiff in one of two cases before the California Supreme Court that resulted in overturning the Alien Land Law, allowing Issei to own land.
With Mike’s leadership, JACL became a founding member of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, and in 1963, Mike joined with Martin Luther King on the March on Washington.
We need to remember it was our government that caused the trials we as Japanese Americans have been through. It was they who were responsible for the turmoil we endured. Twenty-four years ago we got an apology from that government.
Being a national organization, JACL can take pride in providing the leadership for this historic accomplishment. However, reconciliation within our community is long overdue.
The Tule Lakers, no-nos, renunciants and draft resisters deserve an accounting from JACL. A resolution passed at JACL’s National Convention in 1990 was an attempt, but did not apparently go far enough in dealing with the hurt.
Notwithstanding that, those who have been disaffected by JACL, it would seem to me, need to acknowledge the accomplishments of JACL and more particularly, Mike Masaoka.
Phil Shigekuni can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.