Should an American citizen have been forced to fight for freedom and democracy abroad when denied those rights in his own country? Frank Emi (1916–2010) was the one of the leaders of a resistance movement who dared question the legality of drafting Japanese American men, already incarcerated in remotely located concentration camps, into the U.S. Army during World War II. Convicted of conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act, Emi served eighteen months in a federal penitentiary and the rest of his life defending his stance.
Frank Emi, born in Los Angeles on September 23, 1916, was studying to become a pharmacist at Los Angeles City College when his father was seriously injured in a car accident. Emi dropped out of school to run his family’s produce market and had just invested $25,000 on expansion plans when the war broke out. Emi remembered being worried about his parents but “we didn’t have an inkling that we ourselves were going to be bothered because we Nisei had been born here in this country and we were American citizens.”
By the time Executive Order 9066 became effective, Emi had sold the family business for $1,500, a fraction of its value. “We had gotten rid of everything that we could,” said Emi. “My wife and I and my baby girl moved over and stayed with my parents until the evacuation, because different areas went to different camps and we wanted to stay together in the same camp.” Trucked first to the Pomona Assembly Center, the family boarded a train three months later, headed to Wyoming’s Heart Mountain “relocation center.” Though stunned by the injustice suffered by their forced expulsion from home, Emi stated that, “the military had escorted us to the camp with their guns and bayonets so there really wasn’t much thought about standing up for your rights at that time.”
At Heart Mountain, as at all War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps, adults were required to complete a “loyalty” questionnaire. The so-called “Leave Clearance Questionnaire” contained the controversial questions #27 and #28. Emi responded that “under the present conditions,” he was unable to answer the questions and advised others to do the same by posting suggested answers to the questions throughout the camp. That marked the beginning of Emi’s participation in Heart Mountain’s nascent resistance movement.
The questionnaire was distributed early in 1943, approximately a year before the draft sent Nisei from the camps to join voluntary enlisted men, mostly from Hawai’i, that served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated regiment in the history of American armed forces. Although personally exempt from the draft because of his domestic status, Emi believed that the restoration of full citizenship rights to incarcerated Nisei had to occur prior to compulsory military service.
At a meeting to discuss questions 27 and 28, Emi met Kiyoshi Okamoto, a school teacher originally from Hawai’i. A member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Okamoto, who called himself the “Fair Play Committee of One,” railed against the denial of Japanese Americans’ constitutional rights. He formed a group, which included Emi, that protested the abridgment of Nisei rights without due process of law called the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (FPC). The FPC offered full compliance with selective service requirements upon the government’s restoration of their citizenship rights.
On March 25, 1944, U.S. Marshals arrested twelve young men at Heart Mountain who were no-shows for their draft physicals but that did not put an end to resistance. As dozens more refused to report, Emi and two other FPC leaders attempted to walk out of camp without a pass to prove that they were indeed prisoners. In all, sixty-three Heart Mountain resisters were found guilty on one count each of draft evasion and sentenced to three years in federal prison. United States Attorney Carl Sackett prosecuted the case.
Soon, Sackett pursued draft-related charges on the leadership of the FPC for collaborating to promote draft defiance among the men at Heart Mountain. Seven FPC leaders, including Emi, were convicted of conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act. Emi was sentenced to four years in a maximum-security federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. “We could either tuck our tails between our legs like dogs or stand up like free men and fight for justice,” said Emi. “Some of us chose the latter. We were going to resist.” That the FPC condoned resistance placed them in direct opposition to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) who maintained that only unquestioned compliance, military service and the ultimate sacrifice in war, if necessary, would prove loyalty.
Postwar, Emi and his fellow resisters became “anonymous in mainstream America and social outcasts among their co-ethnics.” Emi became a career civil servant, working first for the postal service and then at a state unemployment office. In addition, as an 8th-degree black belt in judo, he was a life-long master instructor of the sport. But he also remained convinced that the injustice the Japanese American community endured during the war had to be quietly yet persistently confronted.
Attitudes about Emi’s stance changed little until the 1980s movement for Japanese American redress. Activists seeking an apology and reparations by Congress reexamined the rift between the resisters and the JACL. During the redress movement, Emi worked with the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress organization and continued to educate the public on the resistance movement. “When there’s a real blatant injustice like that, they should speak up,” said Emi. “No more shikatagani, you know, ‘can’t help it’.”
Emi, who died on December 1, 2010 at 94, was the last surviving member of the FPC. He had become the symbol of WRA camp resistance, finally receiving recognition for his courageous stance. His act of civil disobedience has now become an important event in the chronology of the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
Authored by Esther Newman
For More Information
Emi, Frank Seishi. “Resistance: The Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee’s Fight for Justice.” Amerasia Journal 17.1 (1991): 47-51.
———. “Draft Resistance at the Heart Mountain Concentration Camp and the Fair Play Committee.” In Frontiers of Asian American Studies: Writing, Research, and Commentary, edited by Gail M. Nomura, Russell Endo, Stephen H. Sumida, and Russell C. Leong, 41–69. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989.
———. Interview by Alan Koch. Online transcription. Japanese American Project of the Oral History Program at California State University, Fullerton, 1993. http://content.cdlib.org.
———. Interview. Online video. Japanese American National Museum, 2006. http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/interviews/profiles/118/.
Hansen, Arthur A. “The 1944 Nisei Draft at Heart Mountain, Wyoming: Its Relationship to the Historical Representation of the World War II Japanese American Evacuation.” OAH Magazine of History Vol. 10, No.4, (summer 1996).
Muller, Eric L. Free To Die For Their Country. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
- ↑ Frank Emi interview, Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project, Calisphere, University of California.
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Eric L. Muller, Free To Die For Their Country (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 111-120.
- ↑ Takeshi Nakayama, “Heart Mountain Resisters Hold Homecoming,” Rafu Shimpo, February 22, 1993.
- ↑ Arthur A. Hansen, “The 1944 Nisei Draft at Heart Mountain, Wyoming: Its Relationship to the Historical Representation of the World War II Japanese American Evacuation,” OAH Magazine of History Vol. 10, No.4, (summer 1996): 52.
- ↑ Frank Emi, Interview on May 9, 2006, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, CA, accessed February 1, 2012 http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/interviews/clips/1013/.
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