INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Frank Emi: A Class Act

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By GUY AOKI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on December 16, 2010.)

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Sometime in late 1985 or early 1986, as part of NCRR (then called National Coalition for Redress and Reparations), I was picketing the West Hollywood hair salon called J.A.P.S.S.  Despite our meeting with the five owners, they refused to change their business name.  So every Saturday, we demonstrated outside. At one point, a man from another organization gathered us together to talk about what we were doing.  He motioned toward someone I’d seen sitting rather regally at NCRR meetings but who barely said anything: “And of course, you all know this man! He certainly needs no introduction. He’s a historical figure!”

I don’t think I was the only one who had a look of confusion, turning to the next person as if to ask, “Huh?  Historic?  What had he done?”  It was only after that that many of us realized Frank Emi had been one of the leaders of the Fair Play Committee, which, back in 1944, refused to report for the draft, saying they wouldn’t fight for this country while their families were being incarcerated.

At an NCRR press conference, Frank Emi responds to the press about the passage of the redress bill on Aug. 10, 1988. Left to right: J.D. Hokoyama, Kathy Nishimoto Masaoka, Aki Maehara, Emi, and Sumi Seki.

As I got to know Frank, I found him to be a really nice guy with a quick smile, easy sense of humor, and calm demeanor.  The man looked 20 years younger than his age.  He was a role model, not just for what he’d done back in the ’40s, but as an example of how sharp you’d hope to be if you lived to be his age.  While in Washington, D.C. to lobby for the redress bill in 1987, one of my roommates — either Frank Irizawa or Mike Kodama — joked that some women had been talking and said that Frank was the most eligible bachelor on the trip. Not bad for a guy who told me he was then 71 years old.  A relative smiled, telling me he was a lot older than what he led others to believe.

As time grew, Frank began getting more active at public events, speaking to the press about the redress bill, co-emceeing the rally to pressure Congress to fund it, and participating in Day of Remembrance programs where he’d introduce me to other Fair Play Committee members and persecuted journalist James Omura.

A few years later in 1995, when the Los Angeles Times still gave a damn about covering Asian American media issues, an editor called me up and asked if I’d be interested in doing articles on people with unique perspectives for their “Voices” section.  Sounded like fun.  It’d be my first set of articles — aside from various “Counterpunch” articles I wasn’t paid for — since leaving the paper in 1989 (instead, it was my first and last; the editor must’ve been fired as I stopped hearing from her soon after).  The first person I thought of profiling was Frank Emi.  Although the WWII stuff discussed in the Rafu was overly familiar to most of us, it wasn’t to the general population (heck, where was it in the history books?).

Guy Aoki’s March 13, 1995 Los Angeles Times article on Frank Emi.

So I went over to Frank’s house and interviewed him, later piecing together the interview into a first-person narrative: “A Half-Century Wait for an Apology” (March 13, 1995). As always, he was calm, never sounding bitter or angry about the wartime JACL and some of the 442nd vets who continually attacked him and the draft resisters at every opportunity. Just the previous month, the Pacific Southwest District of the JACL had presented a formal, framed apology to the Fair Play Committee, but the National JACL was still balking at admitting its wartime mistakes (finally doing so in 2000).

At an NCRR party, Frank Emi raises a toast on Aug. 10, 1988, the day President Reagan signed the redress bill. In the background, Jim Saito.

He easily proved why accusations that the committee were cowards made no sense: “Some of the resisters would never have passed the Army’s physical anyway — they had bad eyes, stomach ulcers or high blood pressure or were over age. I was married and had a child and the military wasn’t drafting men with children.  So I wouldn’t have been affected by the draft.  So that shows that we were really fighting on principles, because if we’d stayed quiet, we could have just waited out the war.”

The seven leaders certainly paid the price, getting sentenced to Leavenworth, Kansas, with hardened criminals for four years. “Luckily,” they got out after 18 months and were pardoned by President Truman.

Typically humble, Emi said in the Times story, “I never thought we’d done anything important, just that we were very angry at the time.  The injustice of the government was so great that we just couldn’t keep quiet about it.  You know, you put someone in a concentration camp, take away their rights and their homes and everything and then blindly tell them, ‘OK, we’re going to draft you like everybody else.’  It just didn’t sound right! It couldn’t be right!

“Some Japanese Americans try to make it an issue between the resisters and the Japanese American veterans of the 442nd. There’s never been an issue between us.  They did what they thought was right; the resisters took a different road and stood up for their principles.”

He did have harsh words for the wartime JACL, however: “I just thought they were pretty disgusting to bend over backward to accommodate the white majority. The old guard of the JACL have that wartime mentality to this day. They’ll probably never change and they’ll always be against any kind of apology from the national JACL.  They were attacking us for being disloyal and unpatriotic. Never once did they comment on the constitutional angle — our basis for resisting the draft.”

Predictably, a group of 442nd vets, 17 of them, wrote an angry response letter that was also printed in The Rafu. It reiterated the history of what had happened and, ironically, did exactly what Emi said the JACL always did: failed to address the constitutionality of the issue. In fact, the letter writers suggested the resisters could’ve helped in the war effort in other ways, again missing the entire point of not wanting to help when treated as criminals for the offense of being born Japanese.

They finished, “We owe no apology to World War II draft resisters and neither should the JACL.”

Frank shot back with a long letter to the Rafu addressing the holes in many of their arguments. He quoted Ralph Merritt, project director at Manzanar, who said back in 1943 that answering “no” to the loyalty question could’ve been due to many reasons, not necessarily because the person wasn’t a loyal U.S. citizen.  Frank also quoted Robert McNamara, who had recently admitted the Vietnam War had been a mistake: “What needs to be condemned is a style of governance that assumes the security of the people is preserved by keeping the truth from them. Or that patriotism is best served by those who go along with what is wrong.”

Guy Aoki and Frank Emi at a community event in 1987.

As for the argument that many of the soldiers “made the supreme sacrifice for the benefit of all of us, including the right of draft resisters to have their freedom of choice protected under the Constitution of the United States,” Frank pointed out that African Americans did the same during the war yet “they were still denied their most basic constitutional rights in many sections of this country until individuals like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and many others began their civil disobedience movement during the ’60s.  Had they remained quiet and never raised their voice or started their civil disobedience movement, the state of civil rights for the African Americans, and for that matter, all other minorities, may not be where it is today.”

You tell ‘em, Frank.

At David Ono’s Christmas party two weekends ago, I met UCLA’s Lane Hirabayashi. Although I respected what the 442nd did, I told him that if I’d lived back then, I would’ve joined Frank in the Fair Play Committee. Hirabayashi wasn’t so sure. He’d heard many of his students say the same thing. Really? When you have a wife and child and most of the country hates you?

Hmm… OK. Luckily, I’ll never have to find out if I’d really have been that brave.

Though I left NCRR in February 1993 when the work involving MANAA became too much for me to continue active participation in two organizations, I’d still see some of the members from time to time, including Frank. A few years ago, he told me he developed a muscle infection that affected his leg, and he couldn’t do his judo workout as well as he’d done for decades.  At the recent 30th anniversary party, I was sorry that he wasn’t there.  Kathy Nishimoto Masaoka told me he had an assortment of ailments and looked skinny the last time she saw him.  Yet when Bill Hohri died last month, Frank was sharp enough to give a quote to the Rafu about the redress leader.

Earlier this month, I received an e-mail from the NCRR listserv. Frank Emi’s name was in the title. “Oh no,” I thought. “Please. No.” Hesitantly, I opened it. Janice Yen confirmed my worst fears: Frank had passed away.  I wrote back: “Damn damn damn damn damn!”

At funerals for the elderly, there usually isn’t a lot of emotion: Those gathered probably rationalize the deceased had a good, long life. There’s more sadness when someone young dies unexpectedly. Still, at the service I attended for Frank on Friday, many of us were visibly heartbroken by his passing. Kay Ochi, delivering a heartfelt eulogy on behalf of NCRR, broke down into tears. Outside, as I watched people exit the church, NCRR regular Kathy Nishimoto Masaoka offered me a sad smile.

“We thought he’d live forever, huh?” “Yeah,” I said, “I wish he could’ve.” I almost lost it.

I’d like to hope that with Frank Emi’s passing, those who attacked him and others for their courageous stance against the draft and the camps would bury the hatchet, admit they were brave, principled men, and quit bad-mouthing them.  But I’m not that naïve. Because whereas the African American community lionizes their civil rights heroes, the Japanese American community — stuck somewhere between the passivity of their culture, feeling inferior to white people, and wanting so desperately to be liked — demonize them. It’s part of the “You made us look bad!” mentality. It’s like crabs in a pail who fight amongst themselves, forgetting they should be upset at the people who dropped them into that pail in the first place. Yet when one of them gets close to escaping, another one pulls it down.

Some people, like crabs, never learn.

Frank Emi, Fred Korematsu, and many others took historic civil rights stances long before most of the famous black figures kids grow up reading about in textbooks.  It’s our duty to spread their legacy, to show the mettle that stirred within the Japanese American community to face up to racism during a “popular war” when barely any elected officials had the clarity to be on their side — the side of justice. So when these historic names are mentioned or faces shown, students won’t wear the same puzzled look I had standing on that West Hollywood sidewalk in the mid-’80s.

Thank you, Frank.  We’ll never forget, and we’ll never let the public forget. It was a true honor to know you.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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