Frank S. Emi dies at 94; Japanese American fought effort to draft WWII internees
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 69 years ago, Frank S. Emi, a Los Angeles grocer, was among the thousands of law-abiding Japanese Americans on the West Coast who suddenly were regarded as threats to national security. They were herded by federal authorities to the interior of the country, where they spent the rest of World War II living under armed guard in remote detention centers and camps.
For Emi, who had to abandon his business, his home and most of his belongings for a cramped barracks at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, the incarceration was a calamitous turn. But, like most of his fellow evictees, he accepted the upheaval with resignation. “Shikata ga nai,” it cannot be helped, became the common refrain.
Two years later, Emi had a different slogan: “No more Shikata ga nai.”
When the federal government decided in early 1944 to reopen the draft to Japanese American men in the camps, Emi joined six other Heart Mountain internees to oppose the order. They formed the Fair Play Committee, an ad hoc group that dared to ask how they could be ordered to fight for freedom and democracy abroad when they were denied it at home.
Emi, the last surviving leader of the group, died Dec. 1 at Citrus Valley Hospice in West Covina, said his daughter, Kathleen Ito. He was 94 and had a number of ailments related to old age.
The Fair Play Committee was responsible for the only organized draft resistance effort in the camps. Their defiance resulted in the imprisonment for draft evasion of 300 men from 10 camps. The seven leaders of the movement were convicted of conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act. Emi — who had a deferment because he was married and had children — served 18 months at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan.
“I admired him tremendously,” said Eric L. Muller, a constitutional law expert at the University of North Carolina who wrote a book about the Japanese American draft resisters. “He was one of the really small number of Japanese Americans of his generation who found the courage in camp to develop an articulate public position questioning the legality of what was being done to the Japanese American community, and he very much paid the price for that.”
Emi’s daughter does not recall him talking much about his draft resistance work in the first decades after the war. Among his Nisei generation, the heroes were the men who fought in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a highly decorated unit made up mainly of Japanese Americans, many of whom had families in the camps. The resisters, on the other hand, were maligned as draft dodgers and traitors. The Japanese American Citizens League, the community’s leading civil rights organization, had called for them to be charged with sedition, a wartime stand that caused decades of internal debate, which culminated in a formal apology to the resisters in 2000.
Emi was born in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 23, 1916. When he was about 4, his family moved to the San Fernando Valley, where they started a farm and later a produce market. He began to learn judo when he was a student at San Fernando High School. He stayed there two years until his family moved to Long Beach to open a grocery store. After graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, he attended Los Angeles City College with the intention of becoming a pharmacist.
That plan was abandoned when his father was seriously injured in a car accident. Emi quit school and took over the family business. By 1941, he was running a produce market at 11th and Alvarado streets, not far from where he was born.
Business was good. He had just added grocery and meat sections when, on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Two months later, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 cleared the way for the forced “relocation” of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Soldiers came to take Emi and his family to the Pomona fairgrounds, where an assembly center had been hastily established. They arrived in Wyoming on a cold September day.
“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,” Emi recalled in a 1993 interview for the Japanese American oral history project at Cal State Fullerton.
At Heart Mountain, he drove a truck and made tofu for his fellow internees to eat each day. Protest did not become uppermost in his mind until early 1943, when the government began distributing questionnaires to determine if internees were loyal enough to the United States to serve in the military. Most controversial were questions 27: (“Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”) and 28: (“Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United State of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack…?”)
The questions provoked widespread confusion, resentment and anger, especially among the American-born Japanese at Heart Mountain. Virtually overnight they had been reclassified from American citizens to enemy aliens, barred from military service and exiled from the coast. Did an affirmative answer mean they were volunteering for combat? What was their citizenship status? If they were now seen as good enough to fight for the U.S., why were they imprisoned in the camps?
Emi’s reply to both questions was the same: “Under the present conditions and circumstances,” he wrote,” I am unable to answer this question.” He and his brother, Art, began posting flyers urging others to give similar answers. All those who failed to say “yes” to both questions were derided as the “no-no boys” by those who believed their rebellion only further damaged the reputations of all Japanese Americans.
As the Allies prepared for the invasion of Europe in 1944, the Roosevelt administration reopened the draft to Japanese Americans in the camps. Heart Mountain internee Kiyoshi Okamoto formed what he called the Fair Play Committee of One, which soon became the Fair Play Committee when Emi and five others joined. All refused to comply with the draft until their constitutional rights as citizens were restored. “We could either tuck our tails between our legs like a beaten dog or stand up like free men…and fight for justice,” Emi told The Times in 1993.
The committee leaders were exonerated in December 1945 when a federal appeals court overturned their convictions. The other resisters were pardoned by President Truman.
After the war, Emi led a quiet life as a civil servant, working for the postal service and later for the state unemployment office. He also was a highly respected senior teacher with an 8th-degree black belt at the Hollywood Judo Dojo.
After his retirement in the 1980s, he joined the Japanese American redress movement. He began speaking publicly about his wartime civil disobedience, determined to educate the community about the patriotism at its core.
“He was quite adamant about it to the very end,” said Yosh Kuromiya, 87, a retired landscape architect who was among those imprisoned for opposing the draft. “He never had a personal stake in the matter, but it was a matter of principle.”
In addition to his daughter, Emi is survived by his second wife, Itsuko; another daughter, Eileen Tabuchi; a stepdaughter, Rie Nishikawa; a sister, Kaoru Sugita; nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Nichiren Buddhist Temple, 2801 E. 4th St., Los Angeles 90033.
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