Remembering ‘Sonny Boy’

“Sonny Boy” – Noboru Taguma

 

By CHERSTIN M. LYON

 

Noboru Taguma was a farm boy. He grew up understanding the meaning of hard work, responsibility, and respect for his elders. At the age of nine, he already understood that he was responsible for his younger brothers, and he took that responsibility very seriously. At this young age, he even tried to drive his father home one night when his father was in no condition to drive. When Noboru was pulled over by a motorcycle police officer, the officer kept calling him “Sonny boy,” even though Noboru Taguma insisted that this was not his name. When the officer gave him a citation (clearly at the age of nine he was too young to be driving on a highway), Noboru thought he was giving him was a certificate for driving straight. Only later did he realize it was a ticket. Paul Tsuneishi kept this name alive for the rest of Noboru’s life after hearing this story, always asking, “How’s my Sonny Boy doing?” The name caught on. Sonny Boy Noboru Taguma was ahead of his years at nine taking responsibility for his younger siblings and even expecting an award for driving straight when he was pulled over for trying to drive his father home.

 

During the war, Noboru knew that being in camp was hardest on the Issei, especially Issei farmers. If there was one thing that his father understood was the pride that came from working hard and making an honest living. Being confined to the camps, away from their farms, and denied the respect of being the head of the family and leaders in the community was traumatic for Noboru’s father, as it was for most Issei men. The college educated JACL Nisei, Noboru recalled, did not really understand how hard this was, especially on farmers when the JACL embraced “evacuation” and confinement in the camps as a way to prove their American loyalty.

 

When Noboru received his draft notice after being in the camps for two years, he refused. He did not need a college degree or a sophisticated understanding of the Constitution to take an impressive stand for the rights of citizenship and to demand some respect for his parents. If his parents were freed from the camps and allowed to go back to their farm in California, he would serve proudly, but until then, he refused. He was one of the first Nisei to refuse the draft. Even though James Omura, later defender of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, suggested that these first Nisei were rash in their arguments and too disorganized to make a difference, Taguma did not back down. The JACL leaders, most notably Min Yasui and Joe Grant Masaoka, came to see Noboru Taguma and the other first four resisters in an effort to convince them to give up the fight. As Taguma recalled, “the JACL say, sacrifice your life to prove your loyalty.” But that was just crazy in Noboru’s mind. “We were loyal to America,” he said, “but the government itself was un-loyal to us.” With the support of his father, who urged him to stick with whatever decision he made, Noboru Taguma resisted the draft and later renounced his citizenship in an effort to bring the family together and to get them to Tule Lake – a little closer to home than Granada, Colorado. Despite the fact that Taguma’s efforts to reunite the family did not work out as planned, and despite the fact that the JACL did not recognize his principled resistance until 2002, Taguma knew that he did the right thing in standing up against injustice during the war.

 

When I started to learn about the resisters’ stories, I was very fortunate to meet Noboru Taguma. Simple stories of loyalty and the Constitution would not suffice. It was Noboru Taguma who made me look hard at the unique way that farm families responded to the war, to their confinement, and to the draft. As Noboru explained to me, President Truman understood the sacrifices of farmers. He was a farm boy himself. Truman ordered an investigation into all draft resistance cases and at the end of 1947, he gave presidential pardons to all Japanese American resisters, including Noboru Taguma. Clearly Japanese Americans felt betrayed when they were ordered to leave their homes, leave their farms, and subject themselves to the humiliation of confinement in camps that defied any legal protections of due process.

 

Noboru Taguma told his story to Paul Tsuneishi, an avid supporter of the resisters, who picked up on the stories of Taguma’s youth and started calling him “Sonny Boy.” Noboru Taguma’s lessons from his childhood did pave the way for the rest of his life. It was loyalty and respect for family and for his father that helped give him the courage to stand up against injustice.

 

Noboru Taguma looked up to others who stood up against injustice during the war. He especially admired Gordon Hirabayashi, who said that the Constitution was just a piece of paper. It is the responsibility of individuals to defend it, or as Noboru Taguma said, “It’s the people who got to protect that.” Younger generations might know that, but Noboru Taguma believed it was his responsibility to remind them: “I tell them always fight for your rights. That’s all. Everybody’s equal in America.”

 

Noboru Taguma will be remembered not just as a resister, but as a man who lived the lessons he learned as a child – to respect his elders, to take care of his family, and to stand up for what is just and right.

 

Cherstin M. Lyon is an assistant professor of history at the California State University, San Bernadino. Her recently published book, “Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience, and Historical Memory” — which is about civil rights icon Gordon Hirabayashi and the “Tucsonian” Nisei draft resisters — can be purchased at http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2066_reg.html.

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