Homicide in camp
There were seven confirmed cases of deaths by gunfire inflicted on the Nikkei , or persons of Japanese ancestry, within the internment centers created and operated by the U.S. Army and Department of Justice and the concentration camps opened and run by the U.S. Army and the War Relocation Authority (WRA). The shootings and killings of unarmed and innocent individuals represent the most egregious use of force used against their civilian prisoners during the war.
Internment Centers: U.S. Army and Department of Justice
Kanesaburo Oshima, aka Kensaburo Oshima
Mr. Oshima, born in Nagano prefecture, Japan, a shopkeeper and businessman lived in Kealakekua on the island of Hawai'i, then Territory of Hawai'i. He was married and had eleven children.  On islands outside of O'ahu, where the Japanese consulate could not afford to place a permanent staff member, unpaid volunteers assisted other Issei to fill out marriage, birth, and death reports for entry into the Issei's village records back in Japan. The FBI and the army previously identified 212 persons as "Japanese consular agents," that included Mr. Oshima, and on December 7, 1941, arrested all within this group along with various religious and community leaders. The army initially detained him at the Kilauea Military camp on the island of Hawai'i, then at the Sand Island Detention camp on O'ahu, and then shipped him to San Francisco where he landed on March 20, 1942. Mr. Oshima and other fellow Hawai'i Issei were then taken to what became his final destination, the Fort Sill , Oklahoma, Internment Center. He was very concerned about his large family that he left behind, that he would be deported to Japan, and of his business debts when the army arrested him. The strain of separation and obligations became overwhelming.  On May 12, 1942, at 7:30 in the morning, he walked to the camp's double-wired fence and started to climb the first fence. A Hawai'i internee reported that, "Fellow internees at the scene tried to pull him down. But he climbed so fast and they could not catch him. He jumped down on the other side of [the] inner fence that was about ten feet high. A guard on duty standing nearby ordered him to stop, but he started running away southward. The guard chased him with a pistol in his hand. Watching the guard chasing him, fellow internees ran together with the guard along the fence shouting, 'Don't shoot! He is insane.' The guard seemed to be slightly hesitant, but he tried to shoot Mr. Oshima two or three times. Bullets did not hit him. Mr. Oshima, horrified by the sound of pistol, ran toward the foot of the guard-post tower where machine guns were positioned. He started to climb the barbed wire and reached the top of the fence, then he stopped there. At that moment, a guard who came running shot Mr. Oshima from the back. One bullet went through his head and he fell down on his back. Mr. Oshima died on the spot."  Mr. Kanesaburo Oshima died on May 12, 1942; he was 58 years old.
Born in Hiroshima prefecture, Japan, on June 2, 1884, Mr. Kobata was a bachelor who worked as a farmer in Brawley, California, and suffered from the aftereffects of tuberculosis contracted a decade before the war. He had difficulty in breathing and required frequent rests from physical activities. The FBI scrutinized his work from 1939 with the Japanese Association [Nihonjinkai] and after December 7, he was arrested, recommended for internment, and later entrained to the Lordsburg , New Mexico Internment Center on July 27, 1942. When the other 145 Issei internees stepped off the train, the army guards moved them into formation and escorted them southward for the two miles to the camp's front gate. For Mr. Kobata and a Mr. Isomura [to be discussed below], because of their medical needs, the guard unit's sergeant detailed Private Clarence A. Burleson and Private Joseph F. Kelly to escort the two Issei to the camp after the main group had left. The instructions to the escorts were that "if any Alien tries to escape, you are to holler 'Halt' and if he does not halt, to holler 'Halt' again, and if he does not halt at this time, to fire on him." The Issei were told in English to "stay on the pavement and not leave the hard surface at no [sic] time." The four men started to walk at a slow pace toward the camp; a bit later Kelly called to Burleson that he was going off the road to get some water. At the water source, Kelly heard two shots and quickly ran back to the road and saw that Burleson and the Issei men, the latter two now lying on the ground, were off the road. A court-martial hearing ensued with Pvt. Burleson charged with manslaughter whereby "he feloniously and unlawfully killed one Toshio Kobata, a human being, by shooting him with a 12-gauge shotgun." A second specification for Hiroto Isomura, except for the name, was identically written. There were no Issei witnesses and the military witnesses differed in their estimates of the distances between the Issei men, from Pvt. Burleson, and from the fence. Burleson was the sole defense witness and testified, in part, that "They were able to run fast. After the last time they rested the sentry that was behind me said he was going to step out and get a drink. I believe the prisoners heard him for they started talking to each other and walking fast. . . and these two men started running. I called to them to halt twice; that they did not do so. I fired on the first one, the second one did not halt, I fired on him."  The Court Martial hearing acquitted Pvt. Burleson of both counts. Mr. Toshio Kobata was 58 years of age.
Born in Shiga prefecture, Japan, on November 11, 1883, Mr. Isomura was a fisherman residing in Terminal Island , California, when he was arrested. He suffered from a pre-WWII spinal column injury necessitating frequent rest stops whenever he walked. After his arrest and recommendation for internment, he was on the same train as Mr. Kobata and the other 145 Issei internees taken to the army's Lordsburg, New Mexico internment center. He was shot and killed on July 27, 1942, by Pvt. Clarence A. Burleson while he and Mr. Toshio Kobata walked toward the camp entrance. Mr. Hirota Isomura was 59 years old.
Concentration Camps: U.S. Army and War Relocation Authority [WRA]
Born in Los Angeles, California, Mr. Ito was a bachelor. On the fifth of December, 1942, in the Manzanar WRA concentration camp, six masked men physically assaulted a Nisei incarceree, Mr. Fred Tayama , ostensibly because he publically espoused a pro-WRA viewpoint. [See Manzanar Riot/Uprising .] The Manzanar internal security police then arrested three incarcerees for instigating the attack and placed two into the Manzanar police station and took the third to the Inyo County Jail. The third Nisei had raised the ire of the Manzanar WRA officials for his verbal accusations that certain officials were illegally spiriting away sugar, meat, and other foodstuffs destined for those in Manzanar and selling them on the outside black market. On December 6th, hundreds of the Manzanar incarcerees gathered to demand the return of the third Nisei to Manzanar. He was so returned and kept in the center police station but the tensions, frustrations, and anxieties of the incarcerees were such that other demands were also voiced. By nightfall another large contingent of demonstrators met and started to walk toward the police station. The Manzanar director called in the military police [MP] and they formed a rank in front of the station. The MPs, armed with rifles, shotguns, sub-machine guns, and two heavy machine guns, quickly donned gas masks. About 500 Manzanar incarcerees soon arrived to demand the release of the arrested Nisei and the MP ranking officer ordered the crowd to disperse. With the crowd's refusal to leave, six tear-gas and vomit-gas grenades were thrown into the crowd. When the lobbed canisters and grenades hit the ground the crowd's fear level heightened and panic ensued. In the pell-mell rush, some inmates ran toward the soldiers. One eyewitness recalls an MP sergeant yelling, "Remember Pearl Harbor, hold your line."  Then, some soldiers, without orders, opened fire into the crowd: three short bursts of sub-machine gun fire and three shotgun blasts. Ten incarcerees suffered gunshot wounds; two others were killed. Mr. James Ito, one of two fatalities, died on December 6, 1942. He was 17 years old.
Katsuji James Kanegawa
Born in Tacoma, Washington, Mr. Kanegawa was a bachelor and was the second fatality of the December 6, 1942, shooting at the Manzanar concentration camp. He died of complications on December 11, 1942. Mr. Kanegawa was 21 years old.
Born in Japan, Mr. Wakasa worked as a cook, resided in San Francisco, California, and was a bachelor. Before the April 11, 1943 shooting, the FBI reported that he had made two previous attempts "to leave the [Topaz WRA] center without a pass." On that day at 7:30 pm he was shot by a military police sentry near the west fence and the U.S. State Department and the Spanish embassy sent representatives to investigate the homicide. They reported that the body was lying five feet inside the fence, and in such a way that he seemingly "had been facing the sentry tower and walking parallel to the fence; and the wind was from [his] back making it highly improbable that he could have heard [the sentry's] challenge." The Spanish official concluded that the incident was "due to the hastiness on the part of the sentry, who, not receiving an immediate response to his challenge, 'probably fired too quickly.'"  The army court-martial trial charged the sentry with manslaughter and then acquitted him. Mr. James Hatsuaki Wakasa died on April 11, 1943; he was 65 years old.
Shoichi James Okamoto
Born in Garden Grove, California, Mr. Okamoto was incarcerated at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. While driving a construction truck back and forth between the camp and the worksite outside the camp, the center-gate sentry demanded that he step out of his truck and show his pass. Okamoto stepped out of the cab but refused to show his pass, whereupon the sentry struck him on the shoulder with the butt end of his rifle. The two exchanged words, and the sentry then shot Okamoto. At the court-martial trial, the sentry was acquitted of the homicide but was fined one dollar for the cost of a bullet fired in an "unauthorized use of government property."  Mr. Shoichi James Okamoto was shot on May 24, 1944 and died on May 25th; he was 30 years old.
Although these seven cases resulted in actual homicides, there could have been more. Others suffered from gunshot wounds during the Manzanar WRA concentration camp "riot" of December 1942, and brutal physical assaults on Nikkei segregants at the Tule Lake WRA Segregation Center "riot" of late 1943 resulted in serious head traumas and gunshot wounds requiring hospitalization.
It should be noted that within the internment centers created and run by the U.S. Army and then the Department of Justice, the Geneva Convention of 1929 and its articles were the internationally accepted document governing the treatment of internees. One article specifically states that an attempted escape from a camp carries the severest penalty of confinement for up to thirty days. Within the concentration camps created by the U.S. Army and WRA, the policy for the army toward their military prisoners was the Geneva Convention while the WRA had its WRA Administrative Manual. In all seven cases of homicide reported above, the victims were unarmed civilians and three of them were American citizens.
For More Information
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Drinnon, Richard. Keeper of the Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Kashima, Tetsuden. Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps . New York: William Morrow and Co., 1976.
- Private correspondences with Jean Miyata, granddaughter of Kanesaburo Oshima, Aiea, HI, November 28, 2007 and May 14, 2012.
- Yasutaro Soga, Life behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai'i Issei (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 57.
- Minoru Murakami, quoted in Otokichi Ozaki, radio script, June 3, 1950. Original script in Japanese and translated. Otokichi Ozaki collection, Japanese Culture Center of Hawai'i, Box 4, Folder 13, Item A. In the Japanese, English, and government accounts of Mr. Oshima's wartime tragic death, there exists numerous and contradictory versions of his name, place of his arrest, and the circumstances surrounding his death. I am indebted to Brian Niiya, Densho, Honolulu, Hawaii, for sending me the JCCH file and additional information, including the present email address of his grand-daughter, Jean Miyata, April 12 & 18, 2012.
- Clarence A. Burleson, Testimony, Record of Trial by General Court-Martial, "United States vs. Private First Class Clarence A. Burleson, Serial Number: 38132019, Military Police Escort Guard Company," Case No. 226083, convened at Fort Bliss, Texas, on September 10, 1942, Department of the Army, U.S. Army Judiciary, Falls Church, Virginia, 134.
- Harry Ueno, "Manzanar," in And Justice for all: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps , ed. John Tateishi (New York: Random House, 1984), 199.
- Scott P. Corbett, Quiet Passage: The Exchange of Civilians between the United States and Japan during the Second World War (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991), 133.
- Quoted in Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: the Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1976), 312.
Last updated June 10, 2020, 5:09 p.m..