BOOK REVIEW: Defining Our United States Citizenship

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By MARTHA NAKAGAWA

As Day of Remembrance ceremonies are observed across the nation, it seems fitting to ponder over the issue of our United States citizenship.

Just how fragile is our U.S. citizenship? What happens if someone has dual citizenship? What are the obligations of a loyal American if their own government is disloyal?

Dr. Cherstin M. Lyon tackles these and other controversial issues that other scholars have shied away from in her well-researched book, “Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience, and Historical Memory.”

Lyon goes beyond what could have been just another book on the World War II experiences of Gordon Hirabayashi and a group of Nisei draft resisters who called themselves the Tucsonians.

The Tucsonians were draft resisters from the Poston (Colorado River), Topaz (Central Utah) and Amache (Granada) War Relocation Authority camps and a lone “voluntary evacuee.” All had ended up imprisoned at the Santa Catalina Federal Honor Camp, near Tucson, Ariz., for refusing to serve in the U.S. military until the government treated them on an equal basis as white Americans.

Lyon begins her book by sharing the questions that confronted her when she started her research. In her introduction, she writes: “I wanted to know why Japanese Americans had been rejected from military service during the first year of the war, and then two years into the war, were drafted from inside the camps.”

She explored the history of dual citizenship when that issue kept cropping up in her research. Her book, thus, explains the history of Japanese American dual citizenship such as the automatic dual citizenship given to Nisei born before 1924; the anti-immigrant politics that faced older Nisei who came of age after the First World War; and the different legislations debated before Congress over dual citizenship.

Indeed, although Lyon’s research focused on the federal level, we need only to look locally to get the tenor of the time. Wartime Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron, a former judge who campaigned in Little Tokyo with the help of the likes of John Aiso, proposed a constitutional amendment stipulating that anyone who held dual citizenship with a country that was at war with the U.S. and was a descendant of immigrants not entitled to U.S. citizenship would be governed by the laws of that foreign country and would not have rights as U.S. citizens.

However, the U.S. government could circumvent the Selective Service Act and call these people into non-combat military service, regardless of physical qualification, age or sex.

Such were the convoluted, dual citizenship-based bills being thought up during the 1940s.

However as the war progressed, the U.S. government needed more soldiers and better public relations to explain the camps, so officials re-examined military service for Japanese Americans.

Lyon even uncovered an internal memo from the War Department that admitted that Nisei were being inducted on an unequal basis compared to other Americans.

The impact of the government’s deceptive, flip-flopping policies is felt even today as the Japanese American community continues internally to debate over who was and wasn’t “loyal” during the war.

Lyon’s research, however, destroys any notion that the U.S. government considered those who renounced their U.S. citizenship as “disloyal” Americans. She notes that the government sent draft notices even to Nisei men who had requested expatriation to Japan and quotes WRA Director Dillon Myer, who wrote that requests for expatriation did not provide “conclusive evidence of disloyalty.”

Joe Yamakido, the lone draft resister from Jerome, is a good example. Although Lyon did not discuss the Yamakido case since she focused on the Tusconian draft resisters, in brief, Yamakido’s family was sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center while he was out on work furlough in Montana. When Yamakido returned to Jerome, he sent in a request to expatriate to Japan so he could be with his family in Tule Lake.

During this time, he received two draft notices that he ignored, but instead of being reunited with his family, he was arrested for draft evasion and spent the remaining war period at the Texarkana Federal Correctional Institute while the rest of his family was sent to Japan.

Lyon’s book also brings to light protest movements at Topaz, which have not been covered in other books about that camp. Lyon notes that the government had even considered converting Topaz into a segregation center, rather than Tule Lake.

One movement at Topaz was led by the Issei who refused to sign the loyalty questionnaire unless it was revised. The Nisei at Topaz also attempted to organize but the administration was able to successfully kill that momentum.

Not to be outdone by the men, the mothers at Topaz sent a resolution to various government officials, starting with President Roosevelt on down, stating that they proposed withholding their sons from military service until their children’s rights were restored. The petition was signed by 1,141 women.

In covering the post-war era, Lyon draws attention to some of the unspoken myths that have grown around the Nisei veterans over the years, pointing out the actual low number of volunteer soldiers from the camps and the deceptive wording on many of the war memorials dedicated to the World War II Nikkei soldiers, which reads as if most had volunteered out of camp.

No book on the draft resisters would be complete without an examination on the role of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), and Lyon discusses the Deborah Lim Report, which focuses on the wartime activities of the JACL, and the JACL’s apology ceremony to the draft resisters in May 2002.

The book, however, does not take sides and can best be summed up in these words: “It is important to recognize that those who proclaimed extraordinary loyalty and those who committed acts of civil disobedience were engaged in a dialogue with the state about the meaning of their own citizenship.”

As a whole, Lyon’s book is bold, balanced and solid. Her research will get readers to view and think of history in a new way.

(Full disclosure: Photographs taken by the reviewer were used in the book.)

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“Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience, and Historical Memory” by Cherstin M. Lyon. Temple University Press, 2012, 233 pp., $30.95 paperback

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