|Born||November 27 1912|
|Died||June 20 1994|
|Birth Location||Winslow, Washington|
Debatably the most forthright Nikkei resister against the U.S. government's unconstitutional World War II policy of mass involuntary exclusion and incarceration of West Coast Americans of Japanese ancestry, Nisei journalist James "Jimmie" Matsumoto Omura (1912–1994) was indisputably the major Nikkei voice raised against the collaborative role of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in this development. Possibly the earliest Nikkei to pursue governmental redress and reparations, Omura was the lone Nikkei journalist to editorialize against the JACL-endorsed 1944 federal decision to draft imprisoned Nisei into the military without first restoring their lost citizenship rights. Omura worked postwar as a landscape contractor. Upon retirement, he promoted redress and extended his earlier indictment of the JACL's wartime actions.
- 1 Family Background and Early Life
- 2 Before the War and Debate
- 3 Wartime Resettlement and Conflict
- 4 Postwar Activities and Historical Legacy
- 5 For More Information
- 6 Footnotes
Family Background and Early Life
Born November 27, 1912, as Utaka Matsumoto, in the township of Winslow on Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, Washington, Omura assumed the James Matsumoto Omura name in 1931 and legalized it in 1943.
Omura's Issei father, Tsurumatsu, born in 1871 in Nagasaki Prefecture (ostensibly to Omura birth parents), was an adopted infant son (yoshi) of the Matsumoto family in Katsusa village. In 1887, Tsurumatsu avoided Japanese army conscription by stowing away on an American ship sailing from Nagasaki to San Francisco.
After moving to Seattle, Tsuramatsu worked as a Japantown fry cook before employment in a Bainbridge Island sawmill. In 1908, he visited Japan and married Harue Hagashi. Back on Bainbridge Island, Tsurumatsu labored as a butcher, a ship-builder, and home contractor.
When James Omura was six, his mother took ill carrying her sixth child, which led to the family's breakup. James and his two older brothers remained at Winslow with their father, while his two younger sisters and younger brother accompanied their convalescing mother to Japan for familial caregiving. James never again saw these family members. He himself left home as a 13-year-old to work at Alaska and Washington canneries.
Omura spent his junior high years as a schoolboy for a Caucasian family in Pocatello, Idaho, while living with local Issei families. Active in sports, Omura wrote for his school and town newspapers. Following one Bainbridge Island High School term, he transferred to Seattle's Broadway High School and there graduated in 1932.
Before the War and Debate
In fall 1933 Omura migrated to Los Angeles and became English-section editor for the Shin Nichibei. In 1934, he resigned to assume the same role for San Francisco's Shin Sekai. His editorship drew the JACL's wrath. Consequently, at the JACL's third biennial conference, a motion to censure Omura―which failed―crystallized the enmity between the JACL and James Omura.
The Omura-JACL rift widened in 1935 when Omura's paper merged with the Hokubei Asahi to form the Shin Sekai Asahi. As co-editors, pro-JACL Howard Imazeki oversaw the opening page and Omura the next. Omura wrote his editorials, but Imazeki deferred to Saburo Kido, the paper's attorney and pioneer JACL leader. Kido soon confronted Omura: "I'm being embarrassed. . . . I write an editorial one way on the first page and then there's an exact opposite editorial on the second page." Finding himself unsupported by the paper's Issei publisher, Omura resigned in 1936. After toiling for two years at menial jobs in Alaska, Washington, and California, he returned to San Francisco in late 1938 and secured floricultural employment.
In 1940 Omura started his own literary/public affairs magazine, Current Life. His new Nisei wife Caryl (neé Fumiko Okuma) gave Omura a comradely mate and his magazine a business manager/publicity director. Running for 15 issues, this monthly's centerpiece was Omura's editorials. They often chastised the JACL, particularly for not preparing Nisei for a probable clash between the U.S. and Japan and for partying at gala bashes instead of fostering constructive social action.
The JACL-Omura battle intensified at February 1942 Bay Region Council for Unity (BRCU) meetings. Omura urged this progressive group to form a coalition with the JACL on an equal partnership basis and pitched resistance to the impending governmental Nikkei mass eviction policy. When the erstwhile anti-JACL figure Larry Tajiri, now the BRCU chair, urged Omura's expulsion, Omura felt blindsided. Although Tajiri was rebuffed, he did persuade the BRCU to affiliate with JACL as a "sounding board." This meant that the BRCU would support JACL Executive Secretary Mike Masaoka's impassioned plea of "constructive cooperation" with the U.S. government for "future considerations." Outraged at Masaoka, Omura believed Tajiri had betrayed him.
Then, on February 23, 1942, Omura testified at the Tolan Committee's San Francisco hearings. Following a parade of accommodating, pro-JACL witnesses, Omura strongly opposed mass involuntary eviction and confinement of Nikkei. "It is," he added, "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."
In the March 1, 1942, issue of the JACL's Pacific Citizen, Evelyn Kirimura scored Omura's testimony as a grand if worthless gesture by "a magazine with a circulation of 500 more or less," lamenting 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 reproach. Thereafter, at a mass gathering, Masaoka named Omura the JACL's "Public Enemy Number One." When Omura left the meeting and brushed past Masaoka, the JACL executive secretary threatened, "We'll get you." This threat accompanied Omura when, on March 29, 1942, he departed San Francisco for Denver, Colorado.
Wartime Resettlement and Conflict
The "free zone" city of Denver became a wartime mecca for some 5,000 Nikkei who, like Jimmie and Caryl Omura, "voluntarily" resettled there rather than be consigned to a War Relocation Authority (WRA) concentration camp. Unable to continue Current Life, Omura opened a free employment service for resettlers while writing for the Kakushu Jiji and the Rocky Nippon newspapers. By the end of 1942, the former was a JACL mouthpiece. When Issei publisher-editor Fred Kaihara censored several of Omura's columns, he wrote only for the Rocky Nippon (renamed the Rocky Shimpo in 1943 after Issei publisher Shiro Toda was interned in an alien enemy internment camp). Omura's 1942–1943 articles assailed the JACL. "Instead of looking at the evacuation from a broader standpoint," he wrote on January 4, 1943, . . . "[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." Then, on February 3, 1943, Omura forcefully opposed the U.S. War Department's formation of a segregated all-Nisei combat team, another JACL-backed measure.
While the local and regional success of the JACL escalated in 1943, Omura's finances dwindled and his marriage deteriorated. Trapped in a back-breaking war industry trainee position, Omura longed to get back into journalism. Thus, when invited in early 1944 to be the Rocky Shimpo's English-section editor, Omura accepted with alacrity.
Omura's appointment followed the government's resumption of the military draft for Nisei, thereby reversing their post-Pearl Harbor draft ineligible classification. Omura believed JACL had foisted this policy upon the government. Soon the draft issue exploded at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, giving rise to the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (FPC). To Omura the FPC represented an organized draft resistance movement dedicated to the principle that citizen Japanese should do their duty as Americans equally but not before being treated as equals by the government.
Omura first opened the Rocky Shimpo to FPC news releases, and then, in late February, initiated an editorial series supporting the FPC solely on the issue of restoration as a prelude to induction. That the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp newspaper, was staunchly pro-JACL (and, as such, censorious of the FPC for placing Japanese American loyalty and patriotism at risk) added fuel to Omura's fiery editorials.
Omura's editorials gained members for the FPC, and dramatically increased Rocky Shimpo sales in all the WRA concentration camps. But they also provoked the government to force Omura's resignation from the Rocky Shimpo in late April 1944, after which he was replaced by a pro-JACL editor. Then, on May 10, Wyoming's grand jurors secretly indicted him along with seven FPC leaders. Arrested on July 20, Omura was jailed for unlawful conspiracy to counsel, aid, and abet violations of the draft. In late October/early November, at their joint jury trial in Cheyenne, Wyoming, while the FPC leaders were found guilty and sentenced to federal imprisonment, Omura was acquitted on freedom of the press grounds.
But acquittal did not mean vindication for Omura within the Denver region's Nikkei community. When Omura sought employment, JACL Nisei harassed him so that he had "a hell of a time finding a job." Eventually he turned to landscape gardening, but not before his impoverishment had triggered his ultimate 1947 divorce.
Postwar Activities and Historical Legacy
In May 1947, Omura returned to edit the Rocky Shimpo. He vowed to expose and stop the JACL. Roughly one-fifth of Omura's "Nisei America: Know the Facts" columns criticized JACL leadership and policies. His brief postwar editorship, ending with his December 4, 1947, resignation, was showcased by feisty verbal tussles with two high-profile JACL leaders serving as Colorado Times columnists, Togo Tanaka and Minoru Yasui.
For 30 years following his resignation, Jimmie Omura disappeared from Japanese American society and was virtually erased from Japanese American history and memory. He remained a Denver resident, but lived apart from the Nikkei community. In 1951 Omura married Nisei Haruko Motoishi, and they had two sons. Omura operated a successful landscape business until a late 1970s cardiac condition mandated his retirement.
In the early 1980s Omura decided to write his memoirs, with the goal of vindicating the Japanese American community and himself for the wartime damage the U.S. government and the JACL had inflicted on both. His decision coincided with the Nikkei community's redress and reparations campaign. Aware that the congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) had scheduled hearings in ten U.S. cities, Omura resolved to testify at the Seattle hearings. After all, redress was rooted in both him and Seattle. As redress leader William Hohri of the Seattle-founded National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) stated unequivocally, "James Omura was the first Japanese-American to seek redress from the United States."
Following Omura's September 9, 1981 CWRIC testimony, he met three youngish Asian American writers/social activists, two of whom, Lawson Inada and Frank Abe, were Sansei, while the other, Frank Chin, was a fifth-generation Chinese American. They paved the way for Omura's return to the Japanese American culture wars, not only through his participation in oral history interviews and reader's theaters based upon them, but also as a columnist for San Francisco and Los Angeles vernacular newspapers, a presenter at Asian American Studies conferences, and a writer of reviews for Asian American scholarly and lay journals. Omura utilized all of these venues to "set the record straight."
In this vein, he worked diligently to ensure that the JACL and military-dominated advisory committee's label script for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum's 1987 exhibition, "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the United States Constitution," would do the Nisei draft resisters justice. He also sought to set the record straight in a serialized Rafu Shimpo review essay, "Debunking JACL Fallacies," focused on another text he felt polluted the truth of the World War II Nikkei historical record―They Call Me Moses Masaoka: An American Saga (1987), coauthored by Mike Masaoka and Bill Hosokawa. Its April 11, 1989 opening salvo―"History indeed is infinitely the poorer and literature thereby greatly diminished by publication of this fabricated account of the historic Japanese American episode of World War II."―presaged its overall message.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Omura received long-deferred public recognition. Biographical encyclopedia and dictionary entries extolled him, while organizations lauded his accomplishments. Two tributes, both in San Francisco, meant most to Omura: in 1989, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) conferred their Lifetime Achievement Award upon him; and in 1992, the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR) recognized him in a Day of Remembrance candle-lighting ceremony held on the 50th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.
Since James Omura's June 20, 1994, death, other developments have fortified his standing as a Nikkei and American hero. Three are documentary films, by Emiko Omori (1999), Frank Abe (2002), and Momo Yashima (2012), all of which spotlight Omura's role in the Heart Mountain draft resistance movement. Arguably, the most significant tribute to Omura, however, is Frank Chin's 2002 documentary novel, Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889-1947, which valorizes the Heart Mountain draft resistance story and accords Omura as the central interpretive voice for the authentic Japanese America legacy.
For More Information
Anonymous. "James Omura . . . He Was a Man of Principle." Nichi Bei Times [San Francisco], January 1, 1997.
_____. "James Matsumoto Omura." In World Biographical Hall of Fame. Raleigh, NC: Historical Preservations of America, 1992.
Chin, Frank. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Obituary of James Matsumoto Omura. Rafu Shimpo [Los Angeles], June 25, 1944.
Hansen, Arthur A. "James M. Omura." Oral history interview (August 22-25, 1984) in "Resisters," Part IV of Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project, edited by Arthur A. Hansen (Munich: K. G. Saur, 1995): 131-343. Online transcription available through Online Archive of California (OAC): http://www.oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft1f59n61r;NAAN=13030&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=d0e12248&toc.id=0&brand=oac4.
______. "James Matsumoto Omura: An Interview." Amerasia Journal 13 (1986-1987): 99-113.
______. "Peculiar Odyssey: Newsman Jimmie Omura's Removal from and Regeneration within Nikkei Society, History, and Memory." In Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century, edited by Louis Fiset and Gail M. Nomura, 278-307. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005. Available online via Japanese American National Museum-sponsored Discover Nikkei website: http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2012/8/17/peculiar-odyssey-1/.
______. "Return to the Wars: Jimmie Omura's 1947 Crusade against the Japanese American Citizens League." In Remapping Asian American History, edited by Sucheng Chan, 127-50. Walnut Creek, CA.: AltaMira Press, 2003.
______. "Political Ideology and Participant Observation: Nisei Social Scientists in the Evacuation and Resettlement Study, 1942-1945." In Guilt by Association: Essays on Japanese Settlement, Internment, and Relocation in the Rocky Mountain West, edited by Mike Mackey, 119-44. Powell, WY: Western History Publications, 2001.
Hirose, Stacey. "Omura, James Matsumoto (1912-1994)." In Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present, rev. ed., edited by Brian Niiya, 326-27. New York: Facts on File, 2001.
Jacobs, Paul, and Saul Landau, with Eve Pell. "The Japanese." In Volume 2 (Colonials and Sojourners) of To Serve the Devil: A Documentary Analysis of America's Racial History and Why It Has Been Kept Hidden, 166-270. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.
James M. Omura Papers, 1912-1994, Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Green Library, Stanford University, Stanford, CA. Deposit of these papers, accompanied by a finding aid, is forthcoming.
Noguchi, Sharon. "A Wartime Hero Wins His Due." San Jose Mercury, April 19, 1989.
Omura, James, interview by Frank Abe, December 9, 1990, and by Frank Abe and Frank Chin, August 1993, Frank Abe Collection, Densho, http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx.
Omura, James, interview by Frank Chin, May 14, 15, 18, 26, 1982, Cage 654, Frank Chin Oral History Collection, Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries, Pullman,WA. Online guide to this collection can be accessed at http://www.wsulibs.wsu.edu/masc/finders/cg654.htm.
Omura, James, interview by Chizu Omori and Emiko Omori, March 21, 1994, Emiko and Chizuko Omori Collection, Densho, http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx.
Omura, James. "Debunking JACL Fallacies." Review of They Call Me Moses Masaoka: An American Saga (New York: William Morrow, 1987), by Mike Masaoka with Bill Hosokawa. Los Angeles Rafu Shimpo, April 11, 1989.
______. "Japanese American Journalism during World War II." In Frontiers of Asian American Studies: Writing, Research, and Commentary. Edited by Gail M. Nomura, Russell Endo, Stephen H. Sumida, and Russell C. Leong, 71-80. Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1989.
______. Review of Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), by Peter Irons. Amerasia Journal 10 (1983): 127-29.
James Omura and Japanese American Journalism
Hiraga, Shyoko Toda, interview by Art Hansen and Frank Abe, September 28, 2012, Densho, http://archive.densho.org/main.aspx.
Hosokawa, Bill. "The Press." Chapter 13 in Colorado's Japanese Americans: From 1886 to the Present. Denver: University Press of Colorado, 2005.
Yoo, David K. "Making the Headlines" and "Insiders on the Outside: Nisei Journalists and Wartime Editorials." Chapters 3 and 5 in Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
James Omura and Nisei Draft Resistance at Heart Mountain Concentration Camp
A Divided Community: 3 Personal Stories of Resistance. Documentary film produced and directed by Momo Yashima (Los Angeles: self-marketed, 2012).
Akutsu, Jim, interview by Art Hansen, June 9 and 12, 1997, Densho, http://archive.densho.org/Core/SegmentsByInterview.aspx?id=2.
Chin, Frank. Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889-1947. Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Conscience and the Constitution. Documentary film produced by Frank Abe and Shannon Gee and directed by Frank Abe. Seattle: Resisters.com Productions, 2000.
Hansen, Arthur A. "The 1944 Nisei Draft at Heart Mountain, Wyoming: Its Relationship to the Historical Representation of the World War II Japanese American Evacuation." OAH Magazine of History 10 (Summer 1996): 48-60.
______. "Protest-Resistance and the Heart Mountain Experience: The Revitalization of a Robust Nikkei Tradition." In A Matter of Conscience: Essays on the World War II Heart Mountain Draft Resistance Movement, edited by Mike Mackey, 81-117. Powell, WY: Western History Publications, 2002.
Hohri, William Minoru, ed. Resistance: Challenging America's Wartime Internment of Japanese-Americans. Lomita, CA: The Epistolarian, 2001.
Muller, Eric L. Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Resisters in World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Nelson, Douglas W. Heart Mountain: The History of an American Concentration Camp. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Department of History, University of Wisconsin, 1976.
Japanese American Resistance and World War II
"CWRIC Hearings Site Abstract: Seattle, Washington." In Speaking Out for Personal Justice: Site Summaries of Testimonies and Witness Registry from the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation & Internment of Civilians Hearings (CWR) Hearings 1981, edited by Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and Marjorie Lee, 103-9. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2011.
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
Drinnon, Richard. "Japanese Americans." Part II in Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 29-159.
Hohri, William Minoru. Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese-American Redress. Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1988.
Rabbit in the Moon. Documentary film produced by Chizu Omori and directed by Emiko Omori. Hohokus, NJ: New Day Films, 1999.
Weglyn, Michi Nishiura. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. New York: William Morrow, 1976.
General Works and Related Topics
Chin, Frank. "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake." In The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, edited by Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, 1-92. New York: Meridian, 1991.
Grodzins, Morton. Americans Betrayed: Politics and the Japanese Evacuation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.
Mackey, Mike, ed. Remembering Heart Mountain: Essays on Japanese American Internment in Wyoming. Powell, WY: Western History Publications, 1998.
Mizuno, Takeyo, "The Rocky Nippon: A Promoter of the Community's Assimilation." Chp. 5 in "The Civil Libertarian Press, Japanese American Press, and Japanese American Mass Evacuation" (Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 2000), 203-45.
Robinson, Greg, ed. Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
- As quoted in Arthur A. Hansen, "Interview with James Matsumoto Omura," Amerasia Journal 13 (1986-87): 104-5.
- Jere Takahashi, Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 95-96.
- U.S. Congress. House. Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration, San Francisco Hearings, February 21 and 23, 19432, Pt. 28 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1942), 11229-30. What is most remembered about and quoted from Omura's Tolan Committee testimony was this commentary: "Has the Gestapo come to America? Have we not risen in righteous anger at Hitler's mistreatments of the Jews? Then, is it not incongruous that citizen Americans of Japanese descent should be similarly mistreated and persecuted?" However, these words were not said at the San Francisco hearings, but were added later by Omura when the Tolan Committee provided witnesses the opportunity to supplement their respective testimonies.
- Omura to Hansen, "Resisters," 263.
- Ibid., 301.
- See Arthur A. Hansen, "Return to the Wars: Jimmie Omura's 1947 Crusade against the Japanese American Citizens League," in Sucheng Chan, ed., Remapping Asian American History (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003), particularly 134-45.
- See William Hohri, Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese-American Redress (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1988), 30. Indeed, on May 1, 1942, Omura had written to a Washington D.C. law firm seeking their representation, only to discover that the firm's start-up fee was more than he could afford.
- For a summary of Omura's testimony, see Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and Marjorie Lee, ed., Speaking Out for Personal Justice: Site Summaries of Testimonies and Witnesses Registry from the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation & Internment of Civilians Hearings (CWRIC), 1981 (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, 2011), 106. Omura requested the opportunity to submit a fuller report to the Commission, which he subsequently did on October 16, 1981.