Allegiance picture

The "Mike Masaoka" Controversy

Aug 31, 2012

The “Mike Masaoka” Controversy

The controversy surrounding Mike Masaoka's role in the events that make up the setting of Allegiance is grounded in recent additions to the historical record

The Heart Mountain resister trialNo figure in Japanese American history stirs as much debate—indeed, as much heated controversy, even to this day—as Mike “Moses” Masaoka, the National Secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League during World War II.Masaoka was only 26 years old when he assumed de facto leadership of the JACL, filling a void left after the U.S.government rounded up thousands of first generation “Issei” leaders and detained them, often for years without charge or trial, following the bombingof Pearl Harbor.

To his supporters, Masaoka represented the only sensible response to the bitter political winds that swept the West Coast and labeled Japanese Americans as enemy collaborators, spies and saboteurs. Charismatic and blessed with uncanny oratory skills, Masaoka was a natural spokesman and an obvious choice for national leadership. He worked closely with the Roosevelt administration, pressing the case for Nisei–American born Japanese–to volunteer for, and eventually be drafted into, the armed services. He also advised on policy for the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and its operation of the internment camps. But as fervently as he opposed evacuation and relocation, Masaoka was also a stone-cold pragmatist: by calling for cooperation, and opposing test cases in the courts, he firmly believed he was saving the community from a possibly violent fate even worse than internment.

To his detractors, Masaoka represented something else entirely. Raised in Utah as a Mormon, he was without any real connection to the Japanese immigrant community or its traditions. Considering himself American first, and Japanese by unhappy accident, Masaoka spoke little if any Japanese. He changed his given name “Masaru” to “Mike,” and called for complete assimilation and Americanization of the Nisei. But it was his close affiliation with the WRA that crossed the line for many, who saw him as a tool of the administration and an apologist for the U.S. and its internment program. Many also suspected the JACL of leading the FBI to Issei leaders and of exploiting the lack of strong leadership that ensued.

The most explosive accusations against Masaoka, however, arose in 1943 with two developments. The first was the imposition of the infamous “Loyalty Questionnaire,” distributed to all internees in each of the ten camps. Question 27 asked whether internees, held behind barbed wire fences in camps, were yet willing to serve in the armed forces wherever ordered. Question 28 demanded to know whether they would pledge their loyalty to the U.S. and “forswear” allegiance to the Japanese Emperor—as if to presume they naturally held such loyalty. Those who answered “no” and “no,” out of protest or even confusion, were branded “disloyal” and shipped off to a special camp known as Tule Lake. Such a hue and cry arose from the questionnaire and its ramifications that, for decades, Masaoka denied that he was behind it. [1]

Whether Masaoka designed the Questionnaire itself matters less than whether he was behind the segregation of those considered “disloyal” as a result. A recently unearthed memo show that in January of 1943, Masaoka wrote confidentially to the War Relocation Authority calling for “immediate action” in the camps, whereby “without warning or hearing, known agitators and troublemakers are moved out of the relocation centers and into a special camp of their own.” [2]  

According to Masaoka, some determination of loyalty was needed, especially with respect to the internees who were U.S. citizens: “Unless their activities and words come within the scope of the sedition laws, it may be troublesome to attempt to segregate citizens from other citizens.” Id. And in a candid interview given in 1969 to researcher Amelia Fry, Dillon S. Myer (the then-director of the WRA) confirmed that the JACL favored the segregation program for disloyals “strongly.” Said, Myer, “I kid Mike Masaoka yet and tell him he helped cause our Tule Lake problem.”

The second of the two developments that Masaoka was suspected of masterminding was the establishment of an all-Nisei army unit, which became known as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The bravery and sacrifice of the 442nd is legendary. Its members were the most decorated heroes in the entire war. But many questioned the rationale behind an all-Japanese American unit and, even more troublingly, whether the unit was sent on more dangerous missions than other units. One instance included the rescue of the so-called “Lost Batallion” of Texas from the Vosgen Mountains in France, where the 442nd suffered over 800 casualties to save 200 Caucasian soldiers.

A recently uncovered confidential “Final Report” to the JACL in 1944 confirms that the idea of an all-Nisei “suicide brigade” was indeed first proposed by Masaoka, before internment even occurred.  Historian Peter Irons writes that it was Masaoka who persuaded Secretary of War Stimson to establish the 442nd—again something Masaoka would continue to deny. [3]

According to Masaoka, when the JACL leadership met with the Army, they had been informed of the need for a segregated unit, because if the Nisei were dispersed in the regular units, no one would take notice of the casualties. But years later when Masaoka equivocated about the true origins of the policy for a segregated regiment, he was reminded by the Army, “Mike, you people asked for this unit.” [4] The consensus among those involved in the decision was that the unit had in fact been formed by mutual consent, and that a “baptism in blood” by Japanese Americans soldiers was precisely what Masaoka had advocated. [5]

The painful truth is that, despite Masaoka’s noble goals, the record reveals that he was too often willing to deploy extreme measures to accomplish them.  For decades, this record was kept from the public eye. Indeed, in 1989 when the JACL itself finally commissioned a study of the wartime activities of its organization, including the role of Mike Masaoka, the results of that report (known widely as the “Lim Report”) were censored, with only 20 of the original 154 pages of the Report included in the final summary. [6]

To this day, the role, legacy and truth about Masaoka remains a flash point, and it is unlikely that any one version of events—including the portrayal in Allegiance—will ever settle the matter. But one thing is clear: As more of the truth becomes known, the controversy around Masaoka will only continue to grow.


[1] In 1988, Masaoka gave an interview, denying his involvement in the drafting of the Questionnaire:

There are those who say George Inagaki and I figured out questions number 27 and 28. What poppycock! Even I know that alien Japanese couldn’t forswear all their allegiance to Japan. If they did, they’d been stateless people! How could you ask women to bear arms in those days? Those were questionable. And we were supposed to have suggested them.

For more on this topic, see Conscience and the Constitution.

[2] Letter to Dillon S. Myer from Mike Masaoka, January 13, 1943

[3] Justice at War: The Story of Japanese-American internment cases, Irons, p. 198. In an interview given in 1988 in Seattle, Masaoka maintained his denial: “I’ve been accused of trying to get suicide battalions. Do you think I’d want my own brothers to go out and get killed?” Lim Report, Deborak K. Lim, 1990.

[4] John Tateishi, “An Interview with Mike Masaoka on WW 2 JACL Actions,” in Pacific Citizen, Vol.93, No. 25, December 18-25, 1981, p. 76.

[5] At the Special Emergency National Conference in Salt Lake City in November, 1942, Masaoka gave a stirring speech in favor of selective service for the Nisei: “Somewhere, on the field of battle, in a baptism of blood, we and our comrades must prove to all who question that we are ready and willing to die for the one country we know and pledge allegiance to.” Free to Die for Their Country,” Eric L. Muller, p. 42-43.

[6] An Introduction to the Lim Report, William Hohri