From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

February 2010 - History, Memory, and the Japanese American Citizens League

JACL oath of allegiance, denshopd-p25-00015
"The JACL focused more of their attention on loyalty and made that a litmus paper test… If you protested the evacuation itself, you had questionable loyalty. If you protested…actions that prevailed in the camps, you could be construed as disloyal. If you didn't go into the military service readily, you were disloyal."
   -- Art Hansen

Last month's eNews article examined Japanese American responses to registration, a process implemented by the government to measure the loyalties of the incarcerated population. While controversies surrounding the "loyalty questionnaire" continued to haunt the community in the years after the war, the government's imposition of loyalty categories has been soundly critiqued, most notably in Personal Justice Denied, the report of the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians. Most would now share Professor Roger Daniels' assertion that the "loyalty questionnaire" was "stupid and counterproductive."1 Yet, why does the issue of loyalty remain so divisive in the Japanese American community even today? This article looks at a painful and contentious aspect of the wartime experience - the role of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in crafting what scholar Eiichiro Azuma calls a "master narrative" of Japanese American history.2 This narrative, actively promoted by the JACL, constructed an image of Japanese Americans as superpatriotic and unwavering in their support of the United States - the "quiet Americans" as one Nisei author put it.3 Not an expose or attack on the organization, this article instead explores the process of history making and attempts to understand why, after seventy years, the Japanese American community has yet to fully reckon with the legacies of the incarceration.

The battle over the memory of the incarceration culminated not with the 1988 passage of the Civil Liberties Act, but in a quiet ceremony held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in 2002. It was there that the JACL issued a formal apology to Japanese American resisters of conscience who had been vilified by the organization (as well as by many in the community) for their refusal to be drafted from behind barbed wire. "Today's ceremony is a clear recognition," declared national JACL president Floyd Mori, "that JACL neglected to support the resisters of conscience in their protest against injustice."4 Nearly sixty years after President Truman pardoned the draft resisters, the JACL finally acknowledged its role in suppressing these voices of dissent.

Yet, Mori's statement, while certainly a much needed step in the process of reconciliation, only addressed the wartime actions of the JACL and not the calculated campaign of historical revisionism that occurred during the postwar years. The JACL systematically erased the presence of draft resisters and other resisters of conscience in all of their historical accounts of the war, instead portraying a docile and fiercely patriotic Japanese American population whose wartime incarceration instilled only a "greater desire to prove their love for country."5 Japanese American histories written by JACL leaders omitted any person who diverged from this rigidly defined category of loyalty.

In these accounts, the JACL stood as sole protector and defender of Japanese American rights. A brochure published in 1950 exemplifies the type of narrative promoted by the JACL. It positions JACL leaders, not Supreme Court defendants Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Minoru Yasui, as the ones who "officially protested the government policy to evacuate." According to this official history, the JACL only decided to cooperate with the removal orders once it became a matter of "military necessity," thus explaining their compliance as "a patriotic contribution to the war effort." (In reality, the JACL actively promoted the "evacuation" of the Japanese American community from the beginning.) To prove their loyalties to the U.S. government, Japanese Americans "flocked to join" the JACL, which continued its role as a "mature, fighting organization" for the duration of the war.6 While morally questionable, this sanitized history proved politically expedient and helped the organization push through several important pieces of legislation, including repeals of the anti-alien land law in several states and the 1948 Evacuation Claims Act, which enabled survivors to apply for token compensation for economic losses suffered during the war.

Even in recent years, the JACL has remained hostile to views opposing this "master narrative." In 1989 the JACL, responding to a resolution introduced by the Seattle Chapter, hired attorney Deborah Lim to conduct research into the organization's actions during the war. Lim uncovered evidence revealing that several members of the JACL acted as informants for the FBI and reported on the activity of suspected "disloyals" before and during the mass removal and incarceration. Instead of dealing with this discovery in an open and productive manner, JACL leaders produced their own version that omitted some of Lim's more egregious findings. While Lim's original report eventually reached the public, JACL attempts to safeguard collective memories of the war reflect how deeply the incarceration experience continues to impact the writing and interpretation of Japanese American history.7

Scholars, public historians, community activists, and survivors have initiated the important process of recovering voices erased from Japanese American history. The story of the World War II draft resisters has become particularly well documented in recent years. As the 2002 JACL apology signals, perhaps as a community we can finally move beyond the resister-veteran divide to address other issues that remain controversial or otherwise unexplored. What about other casualties of this "master narrative" such as the Kibei, educated in Japan, who the JACL consistently portrayed as fanatical, pro-Japanese militants? Some Kibei vigorously protested the injustices of the incarceration, yet, unlike the resisters, have not been cast in the role of patriotic heroes. Is it somehow easier for us to acknowledge the denigration of the resisters than the Kibei, those who renounced their U.S. citizenship, and others targeted by the JACL? Do Kibei ties to Japan make it impossible for us to remember them without a hint of suspicion?

As a community, we must contend not only with the past but with interpretations of the past that continue to marginalize the voices, stories, and experiences of those who fall outside the accepted narrative of Japanese American history. By examining the role of the JACL in promoting one version of history, this article attempts to spark dialogue around issues that have, in the past, proven too contentious to broach. Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. It is time to step out of the shadow of the incarceration and begin crafting new histories as well as re-interpreting old ones.

1. Roger Daniels, interview conducted May 20, 1995, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Densho Digital Archive, Abe Collection, denshovh-droger-01-0005.

2. Eiichiro Azuma, Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 211.

3. Bill Hosokawa, Nisei: The Quiet Americans (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1969).

4. As quoted in Martha Nakagawa, "Historic Apology Marks First Step in Reconciliation Between JACL and Resisters of Conscience," Pacific Citizen, May 17-June 6, 2002.

5. "For Better Americans in a Greater America: The Story of the Japanese American Citizens League," brochure published by the Japanese American Citizens League, 1950, p. 4. Densho Digital Archive, denshopd-p141-00020.

6. Ibid., pp. 3-4.

7. "Research Report Prepared for Presidential Select Committee on JACL Resolution #7" ("The Lim Report"), 1990,

The January and February "From the Archive" articles were written by Megan Asaka, Yale University graduate student and former Densho interview coordinator.

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