THROUGH THE FIRE: Searching for Clues in the Wayne Collins Story

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By SHARON YAMATO

It makes sense that during this time of raging racial unrest, COVID19 pent-up emotions, and a dangerous lack of political leadership that a man like attorney Wayne M. Collins is on the forefront of my mind.

Collins, an intrepid fighter for justice, is the subject of my new documentary project recently funded by the Japanese American Confinement Sites program and the California Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. What better time than in the midst of national turmoil to point out that individuals with fierce purpose can, and do, effect change?

As Michi Nishiura Weglyn described him in her dedication to her now-classic book, “Years of Infamy,” Collins is “the man who did more to correct Democracy’s mistake than any other one person.”

I’m currently looking for anyone who may have had contact — directly or indirectly — with Collins before his death in 1974. Because he self-admittedly didn’t have his picture taken much, it’s been difficult to trace a visual history of his life, and photos are a necessary component of any documentary project.

In addition, those who knew and worked with him are mostly gone, and first-person accounts largely lost (with the exception of the comprehensive oral history interviews by Densho of former Tule Lake detainees). Intriguing people like Tex Nakamura, who headed the Tule Lake Defense Committee, Chiyo Wada, his longtime secretary, and Iva Toguri d’Aquino, whom he defended for treason in the 1950s — and literally thousands of Tule Lake renunciants — have long passed away.

However, since his impact on the Japanese American community has been so far-reaching, I’m certain that there are many out there who know more about this civil rights icon than has been recorded. I’m referring to all those who had any connection at all to Collins, particularly Tule Lake renunciants and their descendants, or even anyone related to someone who knew or worked with Collins.

What I’ve discovered so far is captivating. That Collins was an extraordinary, yet flawed, individual is clear from accounts of those who knew him. It’s impossible to hear descriptions of this Irish American attorney without words like “fiery,” “explosive,” “hot-headed,” “a fighter by nature,” and “half-crazy.” As you can imagine, his temperament brought him both accolades and derision.

People like Weglyn, actor/poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi, and scholar Donald Collins were to become his biggest fans, at the same time that celebrated coram nobis attorney Peter Irons questioned his “vituperative” legal style. Yet, he somehow gained the trust of Issei, Kibei, and Nisei alike when he refused to let the government go unchallenged. His legacy as a savior to those he worked so fiercely to defend is etched in stone in the annals of Tule Lake history.

Tex Nakamura (center), head of the Tule Lake Defense Committee, with the legal staff at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. (Courtesy of Irene Yoshioka)

Collins’ battle on behalf of the Tule Lake renunciants serves as a stark reminder that rebellion and resistance are indeed part of our Nikkei history. Amid martial law, double security fences, military tanks, police beatings, and hunger strikes, inmates with no due process sought protection of their most basic rights while kept in a stockade, or prison-within-a-prison, at the oft-maligned Tule Lake Segregation Center.

A place carved out to house those protestors who refused easy answers to the controversial “loyalty questionnaire,” Northern California ACLU’s executive director Ernest Besig and Collins stepped up when few, if any, attorneys came forward to assist them. Collins’ sole support was further extended to the thousands of renunciants who gave up their American citizenship under duress at a time when hatred of these so-called “disloyals” brought national scorn, even among their own community and the JACL.

Collins’ adamant refusal to forgive civil liberties transgressors led to ongoing hatred of the JACL (or the “jackals,” as Collins indignantly referred to them), their attorney A.L. Wirin, and the national ACLU leader, Roger Baldwin. Their inconsistent support for FDR’s incarceration policy and questionable backing of the renunciants infuriated the feisty attorney, who chose never to forgive them, even way after the war was over.

The man who fought vigorously for the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans, Collins spent 23 years — one-third of his life — recovering American citizenship for more than 5,500 citizens of Japanese ancestry who renounced under duress during WWII. Fortunately, he had the support of people like Tex Nakamura, head of the Tule Lake Defense Committee (whose members included Roy Shiraishi, Hiroyuki Taketaya, Harry Takeuchi, Harry Uchida, and several dozen others), as well as Toraichi Kono, a controversial figure who once served as Charlie Chaplin’s assistant.

With time, it is hoped that a deeper look at Collins’ battle for the rights of the Tule Lake renunciants can help the JA community heal wounds left by the turmoil at the controversial segregation center. It’s important to get at the truth — some of it not so pretty — behind the turbulence that led to 5,725 renunciations and a legacy of shame.

I’m looking for your help with any information at all that may illuminate this complicated story. It can be as small as telling me about a relative who renounced, sharing a letter from Wayne Collins, or offering thoughts on how he may have impacted you and your family. I’m also looking for any old photos your family may have saved from their years at Tule Lake.

No matter how seemingly insignificant your story or photos may seem, they might point the way to a tale of huge consequence in tribute to Democracy’s feisty warrior.

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Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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