By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Joe Atsumi Asa Yamakido (1922- 2014), the only World War II Japanese American draft resister from the Jerome War Relocation Authority camp, passed away, surrounded by his family, on Feb. 21.
Yamakido was the second son born to Akeji and Katsuno Yamanaka Yamakido, both from Hiroshima. He was delivered by a midwife in what was part of the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles.
His other siblings included Haruo Charles (deceased), Masaharu Johnny (deceased), Tadao Tad (deceased), Chidori Jean, and Akiko Patricia.
Right before the outbreak of the war, the family was farming in the Harbor City area.
The Yamakido boys learned judo under the tutelage of Toshitaka Yamauchi, a pioneer judo sensei in the United States who had studied under Jigoro Kano, the father of modern judo.
Yamakido’s athletic abilities were evident early on. By the age of 15, he earned his sho-dan (first degree black belt) in judo and was beating out ni-dan (second-degree) and even san-dan (third-degree) black belt students. But he quit before receiving his ni-dan since his older brother had not yet received ni-dan and the traditional judges were reluctant to bestow the rank to a younger brother if the older brother hadn’t reach that point yet.
At Torrance High School, Yamakido was only one of three Nisei to land a spot on the varsity football team.
Yamakido worked as a truck driver and was fired the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Upset over his firing, he attempted to hitchhike to Central California to work on the farms, but he was arrested for violating the curfew on Japanese Americans and thrown into a Hermosa Beach jail, where he was forced to strip naked in front of five burly police officers.
“They made me strip completely naked, embarrassing as hell,” recalled Yamakido. “It seemed like they wanted to beat the s— out of me. Then the chief of police walked in and he stopped it.”
The Hermosa Beach chief of police was of German ancestry and had witnessed his own father undergoing similar treatment during the First World War. Yamakido was released from jail with an apology from the chief.
Following President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, Yamakido and his family were sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, where he learned to weight-lift with many of the Exclusive 20s gang members.
When a riot broke out at Santa Anita, Yamakido was among those picked up and jailed by the FBI. He had been merely a bystander at the melee but the FBI falsely accused him of inciting the riot.
While Yamakido was jailed, the rest of his family was shipped to the Jerome WRA (War Relocation Authority) camp in Arkansas. After his release, he was sent to the Tule Lake WRA camp in Northern California, where he continued weightlifting and received pointers from fellow inmate Emerick Ishikawa, who would go on to win four consecutive weightlifting national championships after the war.
When the WRA asked the inmates to help harvest sugar beets in Montana, Yamakido jumped at the opportunity to get away from the monotony of camp life and to contribute to the war effort in his small way.
From Montana, he hitchhiked to Denver and secured a travel permit to Jerome to be reunited with his family.
By the time Yamakido arrived in Jerome, he was tired of being “kicked around” by the U.S. government. When the so-called loyalty questionnaire came out, he answered “yes-yes” but qualified his answer by saying that he would be willing to fight for the United States as long as he had the same rights as Caucasians.
“I was born here, so I thought I should be born with the same rights as the whites,” said Yamakido. “I shouldn’t have to go to war to prove my loyalty to the U.S.”
While Yamakido was out of Jerome on another work furlough, he learned that the rest of his family, except Johnny, had decided to go to Japan and were transferred to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. He decided to renounce his U.S. citizenship as well to be reunited with his family, but while he was in the process of renouncing, he received a draft notice. He ignored the two draft notices until a U.S. marshal came to pick him up for draft evasion.
Yamakido’s court trial, like that of many of the other Nisei draft resisters, was a farce. His public defender never came to discuss the case with him, and three Caucasians, whom Yamakido had never seen before, were ready to testify against him. To top it off, the food in the Arkansas jail was so bad that he lost 50 pounds while awaiting his trial.
Yamakido was eventually sentenced to three years at the Texarkana federal correctional institute in Texas, where the only other Nikkei inmates he saw were three resisters from Rohwer, the other WRA camp in Arkansas.
At Texarkana, Yamakido nearly lost his life after he got into an argument with a Caucasian inmate and ended up slapping him for calling him a “dirty Jap.” Later, while they were being let out of their cell to go to lunch, Yamakido got “jumped” by this inmate and his friends. The situation escalated so fast that he has no idea how many came at him, plus he was so much shorter than the Caucasians that he couldn’t look over their heads.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” said Yamakido. “The guards didn’t want to stop the fight. They were yelling, ‘Kill the Jap. Kill the Jap.’ And the guys bunched around me, so I put myself against the wall so nobody could get behind me. If I’d fallen on the ground, they probably would’ve stomped on me, and that would’ve been it.”
During the fight, Yamakido’s clothes was literally torn off him and he was left standing with nothing more than his underwear. But other than a few bruises, he came out physically unscathed.
Following this incident, Yamakido got thrown in the hole for five days with nothing to eat each day but three pieces of bread and one beet.
This incident was corroborated by a Rohwer draft resister, who said the other inmates stood guard outside the Rohwer inmates’ jail cell doors so that none of them could go help Yamakido.
On a more positive note, Yamakido’s judo expertise gained him respect among the inmates, and the Caucasian inmate he’d had the original argument with even apologized to him.
Another inmate who took a liking to Yamakido was a former governor of Louisiana, who was serving time for embezzlement. Through him, Yamakido learned how he could restore his constitutional rights (i.e., the right to vote, gain a passport etc.) despite his felony conviction. As a result, Yamakido volunteered for the military and served as a cook at the Presidio in San Francisco.
Yamakido was present at the May 11, 2002 ceremony in San Francisco where the National JACL apologized to the draft resisters for not recognizing their principled stand.