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Japanese-American World War II internees are often portrayed as meek and subservient, quietly going along with the U.S. government's orders without question. But the new Suyama Project at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center is uncovering and gathering the untold stories of those who fought back and resisted internment, defying many historic portraits.
The project documents the resistance stories of the conscientious objectors, draft resisters, No-Nos, renunciants, legal challengers, and other “troublemakers” who had been previously silenced by the Japanese-American community.
It also documents everyday acts of resistance such as “borrowing” wood from camp construction sites to make personal furniture, making moonshine in camp, and sneaking out past camp fences to go fishing.
At a recent Suyama event in San Francisco, brothers Mamoru “Mori” and James Tanimoto discussed being illegally rounded up from Tule Lake War Relocation Authority Camp Block 42 for refusing to register for the so-called loyalty questionnaire.
“They were interrogated, rousted at night under bright lights, and made to hear the clicks of guards ominously loading their rifles as if ready to shoot, making the men believe they were going to be executed,” wrote documentary filmmaker Frank Abe about their presentation, “Then from the darkness a voice shouted no one was going to escape under his watch, and the men were returned to their barrack.”
Made possible by an anonymous donor, the Suyama project is named for Eji Suyama (1920-2009). A Nisei veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who took part in the legendary rescue of the “Lost Battalion” of Texas.
After the war he publicly and controversially supported Japanese Americans who protested their incarceration as No-Nos, draft resisters, and renunciants.
“A broadly understood notion of resistance represents a more complete picture of what happened during World War II and how resistance also formed an important dimension of the rights and freedom of Japanese Americans,” Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Professor David Yoo told NBC News. “Because these stories touch upon human rights, they are important for all peoples.”