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Peculiar Odyssey: Newsman Jimmie Omura’s Removal from and Regeneration within Nikkei Society, History, and Memory - Part 2 of 7

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The boiling point came in February 1942 during meetings of the Bay Region Council for Unity (BRCU). Omura urged this progressive Nisei group’s membership to form a coalition with the JACL on an equal partnership basis and pitched resistance to the prospective mass eviction policy. The BRCU chair, Larry Tajiri, unsuccessfully sought Omura’s expulsion, but argued successfully that the BRCU affiliate as a “Sounding Board” with JACL. This meant BRCU would support JACL Executive Secretary Mike Masaoka’s impassioned plea of “constructive cooperation” with the government for “future considerations.”1 Omura was outraged at Masaoka, felt Tajiri betrayed him, and convinced he “didn’t have a single supporter.”2

Then, on February 23, Omura testified before the Tolan Committee. Following accommodating pro-JACL witnesses, Omura registered strong opposition to mass evacuation, and then added: “It is a matter of public record that I have been consistently opposed to the Japanese American Citizens League… I have felt that the leaders were leading the American-born along the wrong channels.”3

In the March 1, 1942, PC, Evelyn Kimura scored Omura’s testimony as a grand if worthless gesture by “a magazine with a circulation of 500 more or less,” and lamented that “the tragedy of the whole thing is that simply because one puny publisher desired to make a show of himself, all the American citizens of Japanese ancestry are affected.” Omura believed Saburo Kido had authored this rebuke.

Five days later, at a San Francisco mass gathering, Masaoka named Omura the JACL’s “Public Enemy Number One.” His had been the sole voice raised against Nikkei cooperation with mass eviction. When Omura left the meeting and brushed past Masaoka, the JACL Executive Secretary threatened, “We’ll get you.”4

Omura’s wife and Current Life business manager, Fumiko Caryl Okuma, departed San Francisco on March 14, 1942. Seeking a “free zone” site for their magazine, she stopped in Salt Lake City before reaching Denver on March 18. In both places she found Masaoka at arranged meetings with public officials. Ruling out Salt Lake City as “enemy territory,” she recommended Denver as the Omura wartime home. When Current Life publishing plans were dashed, Omura established the Pacific Coast Evacuee Employment Placement Bureau in April 1942 to give cost-free employment assistance to area resettlers, and later that year his wife opened Caryl’s Malt and Sandwich Shop.

Throughout 1942 discontent toward the JACL for “selling the Japanese community down the river” was widely shared within the Nikkei community, a situation Omura capitalized upon. Likely because Omura was one of Denver’s few experienced Nisei journalists, the Times, on October 29, initiated his column, “The Passing Parade.” It opened with an ominous entry: “The motto of the Japanese American Citizens League should be ‘Let Well Enough Alone,’ but if the report that a representative of the organization is to be sent out here to Denver for organizational purposes is correct, the JACL is still meddling where they are neither needed or wanted.” Omura promised stiff opposition in Denver.5

By the Times’s November 17 issue, the paper took on JACL coloration. Prefacing Mike Masaoka’s lead article was an editor’s note explaining how its author “well put forth” the timeliness and urgent need for the JACL’s current emergency conference in Salt Lake City. Masaoka’s claim that, “when the supreme test came for Japanese Americans, the JACL met that challenge nobly, boldly, loyally,” must have been tough for Omura to swallow.

Although Omura’s Times column appeared for the balance of 1942, he said nothing about the JACL. Mostly, Omura commented on labor issues. Occasionally, like on November 24, he celebrated Nikkei community heroes such as Colorado Governor Ralph Carr who had welcomed Nikkei resettlers but then lost his next bid for elective office. At other times, as on December 10, Omura criticized the U.S. government: “Here in one block [Larimer Street] can be found the evidence of…a history of which the nation should be ashamed but is not.” By the end of 1942 the Times had metamorphosed into a JACL mouthpiece, and when Editor-publisher Kaihara censored a couple of Omura’s columns, Omura resigned.6

Earlier Omura had affiliated with the tri-weekly Rocky Nippon, so he retained an interpretive outlet. The prevailing tone of his column for this paper, begun on October 28, 1942, was established when he regretted that “in these times more Nisei are not alert to the grave situation on hand and willing to put their shoulders to the wheels crunching out the weeds of prejudice and racial maltreatment.” On December 14, Omura took dead aim at the U.S. government: “The great days of democracy, once an emblem of red-blooded Americans, have gone by the board and the nation is today ruled by the grip of dictatorship and fascism.”

Omura came out smoking against the JACL in his 1943 columns. On January 4, he recapped his “war record” for readers, emphasizing his Tolan Committee testimony and invidiously comparing the JACL’s performance against it. “Instead of looking at the evacuation from a broader standpoint,” wrote Omura,…[national] J.A.C.L. leaders attempted to profit on the distress of U.S. Japanese as individuals and as an organization. It was first J.A.C.L. and second, the cause.” Omura then renewed his own pledge to that cause: “Perhaps the Evacuee Placement Bureau will drain me of every red cent I possess, but until that last cent is spent this work will be carried on. And even afterward.”

In his February 3 column, Omura vigorously opposed an all-Nisei combat team. But he feared the idea might appeal to many Nisei, for they “are too easily susceptible to the ingenuities of public officials and the trumped-up slogans of American patriotism.” His February 8 column reiterated his opposition to the JACL’s extension in Colorado and its capital and challenged the newly arrived JACL representatives to confront him in an open hearing on community issues.

Through the August 9, 1943, Rocky Nippon—renamed the Rocky Shimpo in April after Issei publisher Shiro Toda’s removal to an alien internment camp for allegedly pro-Japan writings in the Japanese section—Omura filled his columns with his intensifying JACL feud. Shiro Toda’s family likely approved of these JACL attacks because they believed its leaders behind his arrest.7

In 1943, however, Omura was fighting a losing campaign in Denver against the insurgent JACL. Mike Masaoka’s brother, Joe Grant, who had been driven out of California’s Manzanar camp by the anti-JACL December 1942 riot,8 was thereupon detailed to Denver to drum up JACL recruits. At a local meeting, the JACL field representative’s responses to floor questions, as related in Omura’s February 10 column, had been “vague, evasive and indirect.” But even Omura conceded the audience had thought otherwise and warmly applauded Masaoka, especially after he read aloud his brother Mike’s letter saying he had volunteered for the Nisei Combat Team.

A few weeks hence on February 20 [?], Omura published an open letter in the Rocky Nippon delineating his ten key differences with the JACL. One point cut to the bone: “The League has failed to uphold freedom of the press, employing pressure on newspaper editors to curtail the expression of critics and to propagandize its own program.”

Although Omura enjoyed press freedom, he could not prevent the JACL’s organizational wave from cresting in Denver. “Michael M. Masaoka, the high sachem of the J.A.C.L.,” noted Omura in his March 12 [?] column, “is finally coming to Denver.” Omura astutely predicted that “Mr. Big’s” upcoming appearance at the Japanese Methodist Church should prove “an interesting test of strength in this area for the organization which he represents.”

But the results were not to Omura’s liking. His March 19 column maintained that even Masaoka’s presence could not override “the strong opposition which has taken root among the Nisei people of Colorado against the extension of the J.A.C.L. east of the Rockies.” However, the same page provided readers countervailing evidence: “J.A.C.L. Draws Capacity Audience,” “Young Buddhists Hail Talk by J.A.C.L. National Secretary,” “Ft. Lupton J.A.C.L Chapter Holds Monthly Meeting,” and “Longmont Japanese Gather to Hear J.A.C.L. Talk.”

Though surrounded, Omura refused to retreat. Instead, he took the offense. On March 29 the Rocky Nippon reported on a public talk Omura gave the previous evening. The text of “Why I Oppose the JACL” occupied the entire subsequent issue. “I have watched for eleven years the gradual expansion of the J.A.C.L.,” Omura declared, “[and] I have watched it clutching and grasping for power like the inexorable will of the octopus, relentlessly crushing out the honest criticisms of the ordinary man.” After a tedious discussion of his employment service’s trials and triumphs, Omura underscored the Nisei’s need to resist the JACL’s “egoistic,” “narrow-minded,” and “self-aggrandizing” leadership. “I do not want you to believe that I am alone in this fight,” said Omura. “Look to the various relocation centers and you will find a great angered majority who have disowned the J.A.C.L.”9

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1. Omura to Hansen, “Resisters,” 261; Jere Takahashi, Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 95-96.

2. Omura to Hansen, “Resisters,” 262.
3. U.S. Congress, House, Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration, San Francisco Hearings, February 21 and 23, 1942, Pt. 28 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1942), 11229-30.
4. Omura to Hansen, “Resisters,” 263.
5. According to correspondence filed in the James M. Omura Papers (currently in custody of author for eventual deposit at Stanford University’ Green Library), Omura became aware of JACL’s imminent incursion in Denver shortly after moving there. See Omura’s letters to A. Norman Depew dated 9 May and 22 May 1942.
6. This point is discussed in James Omura, “Japanese American Journalism During World War II,” Frontiers of Asian American Studies: Writing, Research, and Commentary (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1989), ed. Gail M. Nomura et al., 72-73. “It was not until the fall of 1942,” Omura writes, “that the Colorado Times transformed into a pro-JACL organ… This policy switch resulted when the Colorado Times agreed to be subsidized by OWI [Office of War Information] and thus subject to its ‘propaganda releases.’ It was because the Colorado Times transformed into a pro-JACL organ that I discontinued writing for them.”
7. Omura to Hansen, “Resisters,” 284.
8. Arthur A. Hansen and David A. Hacker, “The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective,” Amerasia Journal 2 (Fall 1974): 112-57.
9. For a profile of the JACL’s predicament in the camps, see Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, s.v. “Japanese American Citizens League,” by Glen Kitayama. “Within several of the camps, explains Kitayama, JACL leaders were the targets of threats and physical violence and had to be removed from the camps for their own protection. Because of the controversy surrounding the JACL, the wartime president of the organization, Saburo Kido [himself an assault victim at the Poston camp], estimated [in 1946] that the membership ‘dwindled down to only about 10 active chapters and about 1,700 members.’”

* Arthur A. Hansen, “Peculiar Odyssey: Newsman Jimmie Omura’s Removal from and Regeneration within Nikkei Society, History, and Memory” in Louis Fiset and Gail Nomura, eds. Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005, pp. 278-307.

@ 2005 by the University of Washington Press

jacl James Omura journalism newspapers pacific citizen World War II