Apology for WWII imprisonment debated

By Marcos Breton

Sacramento Bee Staff Writer



They were prosperous Californians, local farmers who were American to the core.

They were rounded up and isolated for the way they looked, shipped to desolate camps while leaving behind all they owned.

And then they were drafted by Uncle Sam to fight Nazi Germany during World War II. Most Japanese Americans answered the call, an often fatal summons to service endorsed by leaders of their community, people desperate to prove their loyalty and allegiance to America.

But some said no, refusing to risk their lives on some distant battlefield while their families remained interned back home. More than 300 of them, mostly California boys, went to prison instead, sent in shackles while leaving behind a community where they were outcasts.

“Our own people called us traitors,” said one of those men, 76-year-old Noboru Taguma, a retired West Sacramento farmer whose sunny demeanor turns stone cold when the old stories are recalled.

Like it or not, this summer has been a time of bitter reflection for people like Taguma who refused to serve, as well as those of his generation who marched into combat despite suffering the indignity of internment.

Indeed, a half century of bad feelings have found new life since the Japanese American Citizens League — the largest Asian American organization in the country — recently issued a resolution apologizing to men like Taguma.

While most organizational resolutions are merely symbolic, this one is an attempt by the Japanese American children and grandchildren of the World War II generation to heal a half-century-old wound.

During the war, the JACL encouraged young men to fight for America as a way of “proving” their loyalty, a position some like Taguma maintain was taken to extremes, fostering a negative stigma toward dissenters.

As the century draws to a close, and as Japanese American elders live their twilight years, the JACL felt it was time for reconciliation.

“Both the veterans and the resisters showed courage during a very ugly time in our history,” said Lori Fujimoto, national vice president of the JACL and a member of its Sacramento chapter.

“I was very supportive of the resolution . . . . I felt it was time to heal the wounds.”

Whether the resolution, which is still generating heated debate in some chapters across California, will achieve its goal remains to be seen.

Fujimoto’s own father, a World War II veteran, will not discuss it publicly, a vivid example of the generational rift within California ‘s Japanese American community. While the baby boomers now running the JACL want peace, their elders who served in World War II think they have nothing to apologize for.

“We put our lives on the line for our country,” said Sus Satow, a 76-year-old Army veteran and Sacramento resident who disagrees with the JACL’s resolution.

“Our children, the ones born after the war, they really don’t know the exact history of what went on during that time. They are voicing their opinions on that history and I think they are wrong.”

Even Taguma, and his 75-year-old fellow resister Hideo Takeuchi of Rio Oso, can see that the JACL that is apologizing to them today is not the same organization they came to hate while they were imprisoned.

“I remember I wouldn’t go into the service and these two JACL guys came to talk to me,” said Taguma, who was raised on a small farm north of Sacramento and graduated from Woodland High School.

Describing the encounter further, Taguma’s face grows narrow, his lips tighten, and he talks in the voice of a stuck-up dandy – the way he remembers them.

“They spoke English oh so nice and they said, “You either go in the Army or go to jail,’ “ said Taguma, who retains a pronounced Japanese accent despite being born and raised near Sacramento.

“I said to one of them . . . As long as my parents are (interned) I’m not going to go.’ “

Taguma says he spent that night in solitary confinement, stripping to his shorts in an air-deprived cell, before eventually being sent to a federal prison in Tucson, where he and other resisters did hard labor.

The resisters came to be known as the “no-no boys,” a term born when young Japanese American men answered no to two pivotal questions asked by the U.S. government: Would they pledge allegiance to the U.S.? Would they fight in the armed forces?

Though they answered yes on government questionnaires, Taguma and Takeuchi refused to report when called to military service – they were “no-no boys” in their hearts, both said.

Taguma has no illusions about JACL hopes for reconciliation.

“I know what the JACL is doing today is because of the young generation; the old timers haven’t changed their minds,” he said.

Satow certainly hasn’t. He remembers his strong desire to join the Army, despite being yanked out of Sacramento High School in his senior year in 1942 and being sent to an internment camp in Arizona.

He also remembers eagerly answering yes to all questions of patriotism.

“The people of the United States had taken us as a part of the enemy system and we needed to turn that around,” Satow said.

Those who didn’t do as he did were viewed as “radical elements, people who made a lot of noise . . . some were pro-Japan.”

Today, the retired electronics specialist says he can see the “constitutional” issues behind the positions taken by the resisters. And he says he holds no grudges toward anyone who resisted.

But apologize?

“This shouldn’t be brought up anymore; people should just forget it . . . Today, our community is strong but we were just peasants back then. It would have been impossible to fight back.

“(The resisters) made their choice, we made ours. Ours was better.”

Many Japanese American veterans have voiced Satow’s opinions and many others agree but keep it to themselves.

In far smaller numbers, men like Taguma remain divided from them. His friend Hideo Takeuchi doesn’t care if people disagree with what he did.

He said he never stopped believing in America, even as he was sent to prison in Arizona. “I was a man without a country,” he said, then and now.

Putting his arm around Taguma, the two grinned broadly, certain in their convictions.

“We’re just a couple of stubborn farm boys,” Taguma said.

“I’m proud of what we did.”


Noboru Taguma, left, and Hideo Takeuchi were jailed for refusing to serve in the U.S. military.

Bee photograph/Morris Weintraub

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