History at its worst is distorted propaganda, meant less as a lie than as a carrier of myths. We learn and unlearn the past as data and time permit – so we begin this story with a sum of the known.
“You were forced to leave everything you knew except what could fit into two suitcases, without knowing where you were being taken or for how long?”
Those words come from a wall inside the Vashon Heritage Museum — part of an exhibit four years ago on the sudden expulsion of Japanese Americans on the island and the West Coast under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066.
That is familiar history — properties seized overnight, lives and education disrupted in the months after Pearl Harbor, the courage of Japanese Americans who fought against the Axis powers, the resilience of those held in the incarceration camps until the end of the war.
That troubled past was evoked again at Benaroya Hall some weeks ago with the world premiere of Kishi Bashi’s Improvisations on EO9066, marking the 80-year anniversary of the incarceration. Bashi’s work is a mix of songs, his electric violin, the orchestra, video of the departures, encompassing the camps, the losses, the cruelty, and the strength of those in the camps able to endure, then to come back, to resume (though not easily) their lives at war’s end.
I didn’t stay for the Tchaikovsky symphony after the intermission; I wanted to walk quietly and think about that unconscionable denial of freedom, but also about those in the camps who chose to resist, the ones who — confronted with the choice of enlisting in the American army — said “we hereby refuse.”
We Hereby Refuse is also the title of Frank Abe’s vivid 2021 graphic novel (written with Tamiko Nimura) focused on those who said no, the resisters, the ones who said, “If we’re to fight for our country, our country needs to free us, to restore our rights and our property, to treat us again as Americans.”
They agreed to a pair of governmental questions required of all draft-age men in the encampments but refused to be drafted until their rights were first restored and their families freed to return home. All but 22 of the 315 draft resisters were criminally convicted and sentenced to federal penitentiaries – one in Kansas, the other McNeil Island south of Seattle.
The questions were:
27: Are you willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces on combat duty wherever ordered?
28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor?
The second demand was for many the most troubling, seeming to suggest — though they were Nisei, American-born citizens — that they had some prior allegiance to the Japanese crown. In his book, Abe wanted finally to tell their story, to make what they had endured a part of our history. He reminds us that “20 years ago you didn’t talk about draft resisters, the stories of dissent, or the so-called no-no boys in polite conversation because people didn’t know about it and what they did know was wrong, distorted. They were ostracized, penalized. We wanted to humanize those resisters, contextualize — not as draft dodgers or troublemakers but as principled resisters.”
Abe takes on this mission with the novel, a resisters website, and a documentary titled Conscience and the Constitution, all capturing a pent-up frustration with the lack of clarity about the camps, the reality of homes seized, constitutional rights trampled, and a frustration with public conversation about the camps. It is time, he argues, to shift the paradigm, to remember not only the squalor of the camps but also two battlefields — the one we know from the Nisei who volunteered to fight, the other a legal battlefield where resisters fought in the courts of law to free themselves from unlawful incarceration. The former became celebrated as patriots, the latter, the resisters and the no-no boys — the 12,000 who said no to the questions — were treated (by some even to this day) as misguided troublemakers, delinquents, and not the principled protestors Abe reveals in We Hereby Refuse.
In John Okada’s 1957 novel No-No Boy, one of the resisters, freed after two years in prison, gets off the train at King Street Station and sees an old friend, but when he tells that he had resisted the draft, the friend replies, “Oh, one of those. I spit on you.” The mother of another resister refused to be seen with the mother of a “draft dodger” at church. The Japanese American Citizens League of the time, the JACL, wanted only cooperation with the government, urged young Nisei from the camps to fight in the war, and held only scorn for those who said no, calling them “half-witted, nuts, demented, seditionists, disloyal, a discredit to the Japanese American community.”
Those who served were, in the moment, proof that incarcerated Japanese Americans were neither spies nor saboteurs, but rather citizens “just like us.” That perception dominated headlines and conversation. History is often written by winners, and they were the winners. They won in the court of public opinion. And that public opinion hardly touched the resisters, locked away in prison.
Abe’s work is not to take away from the bravery and sacrifice of Nisei soldiers who accepted the draft, volunteered, went to war, but to remind us that there are others to remember, to honor — those who resisted the enormity of incarceration. They had been written out of history. The intent of We Hereby Refuse is to put them back into the story, to remember the resistance as a legitimate response to injustice, to an unconstitutional incarceration. As the resisters said, again and again, in and out of court and from prison, the whole incarceration was unconstitutional, lacking in due process and making the act “of drafting us out of unconstitutional incarceration unlawful.”
Time can correct history. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But perhaps never soon enough.
After election to his fourth term in 1944, FDR, with any invasion unlikely, closed the camps and sent everyone home. President Harry Truman pardoned the resisters in 1947 — many were later drafted and served in Korea. The JACL, under new leadership, acknowledged its past and apologized to the jailed draft resisters, to the no-no’s incarcerated at Tule Lake, though it could not bring itself to offer that apology until July 2000.
History does remember — finally — that Japanese Americans on the West Coast did not lose their constitutional rights, their homes, almost everything, without resistance. The enduring lesson of a truer history comes in the final pages of Frank Abe’s book, from the promise of a resister:
“I will be the friend we didn’t have when we needed one the most. It happened to us. We refuse to let it happen again.”