Standing against injustice

“We Hereby Refuse,” by Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura, with artwork by Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki. Resisters/Chin Music Press/TNS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Many may know the story of Mitsuye Endo, the Sacramento-raised Japanese American who fought and won her freedom from incarceration during World War II, but few know who she was outside of that legacy.

That’s just one of the history gaps the artists and authors behind “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Acts of Resistance During World War II,” a graphic novel out May 18 from the Wing Luke Museum in Washington, are hoping to fill.

Narratives about Japanese American incarceration camps sometimes paint the prisoners as accepting of their fates, or that many saw it as a sacrifice made in the name of American acceptance. The novel’s authors, Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura, fiercely refuse to believe all Japanese Americans felt this way.

“There is this broader, deeper record of Japanese American resistance that we can draw from and take heart from,” said Nimura, who was born in Sacramento and raised in Roseville.

With artwork from Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki, the novel follows the lives of three Japanese American activists — Jim Akutsu, Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Endo. Kashiwagi and Endo were both born and raised in the Sacramento area.

Each of their story arcs reveal the various ways Japanese Americans resisted as the U.S. government declared the community guilty until proven innocent. Akutsu refused to be drafted into the military, claiming the government technically classified him as an “enemy alien” after stripping his rights, therefore making him ineligible for the draft. Kashiwagi refused to sign the loyalty oath at the Tule Lake incarceration camp and renounced his U.S. citizenship. And Endo filed the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court’s 1944 decision declaring Japanese Americans could not be incarcerated without explicit proof of disloyalty.

Endo was famously shy, quiet and private, having given only two interviews in her lifetime after a bad experience with a journalist, and most textbooks contain little information about Akutsu and Kashiwagi. So in setting out to publish a graphic novel, the writers also strove to explore who they were, with each art panel inviting the reader to envision their lives in each pivotal moment of resistance, anger and joy.

It’s a remarkably intimate novel that grounds the drama of their struggle against the U.S. government in quieter, everyday moments. In one early panel, Endo purchases a copy of The Sacramento Bee on her way to work with the headline “Japanese Fleet Reported Off Burma” when the newspaper vendor plants a withering, hateful stare on her as she pays. The fear and shock is clearly drawn in her face and stooped shoulders as she scuttles away, allowing readers a close look at what Endo might have been thinking and feeling.

In some ways, the book also challenges the idea that those who resisted were particularly exceptional, a notion that can come with lionizing icons. All of them were simply ordinary Americans who were forced into government oppression, leaving them with only two choices: Submit or fight back.

“(It’s about) ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances,” Abe said.

Getting to know who these activists were came from four years of work, much of that time spent researching. One of the key documents they drew on was a research paper written by Elissa Ouchida, Senate consultant for the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, whose aunt, Janet Matsuda, was close friends with Endo.

“Sacramento was really ground zero for Japanese American activism,” said Ouchida, who was born and raised in Sacramento’s Japanese American community.

Inspired by the stories her aunt told her of Endo’s staunch legal battle, Ouchida wrote a paper that was published in 2011 by the Pan-Japan International Journal of Japanese Diaspora. Ouchida wrote the paper using extensive research on Endo’s Supreme Court case and interviews with her aunt.

These interviews gave Ouchida — and, eventually, the writers of “We Hereby Refuse” — a close reconstruction of the events leading up to Endo’s incarceration and Supreme Court challenge. Endo’s fight began with the day she and all other state employees of Japanese descent were fired from their jobs over beliefs that their ancestry would turn them traitors to the country they were born and raised in.

Other small details revealed themselves over the course of their research, such as the Bee headline on the paper Endo purchases — a real headline the illustrators drew from digital Bee archives.

“It was wonderful for me to have a chance to see Mitsuye Endo as a person and not just a name or an icon,” Abe said. “She had hopes and dreams. And she found the strength, despite being a shy, ordinary nice young woman, to do something for others. To do something for the benefit of the Japanese American community.”

Abe and Nimura were also already well versed in Japanese American history, having studied and written about it for many years and contributing to public history forums. In 2000, Abe also produced and directed a PBS documentary on Japanese American draft resisters.

The authors also spent time modifying their writing styles for the graphic novel format, learning how to create storyboards and scripts to fit the visual art style.

From this research, the authors decided to focus the story on slightly lesser known figures. They also built the story around specific moments when the government imposed on each of the three activists’ everyday lives.

For instance, the authors included the FBI searching Akutsu’s home after he comes home from football practice, as well as when Kashiwagi was pulled over by California Highway Patrol officers for driving past the curfew imposed on Japanese Americans. The point, both said, was to get a better understanding of the reasons why these people chose to fight back and show how ordinary their lives were before the U.S. government interrupted.

“It was looking at those moments where the state acts upon the individual, the privacy of the individual, for no other reason than their race,” Abe said.

One of Abe and Nimura’s favorite moments unearthed from their research for the book was the moment that Endo gets a telegram saying that the Supreme Court ruled in her favor. In the novel, Endo sprints across the Topaz camp where she’s being held prisoner to tell Matsuda the good news.

The two women jump for joy, a personal moment of unbridled exhilaration — and one that was only revealed through Ouchida’s paper.

“Partly because it shows two Nisei women dancing around with joy ... That was just amazing and lovely,” Nimura said. “And again, these are human beings making human decisions. Our ideas about resistors get hardened into stereotypes or statues.”

Abe and Nimura had no way of predicting how relevant a story about Asian American resistance in the face of hate would become, with their book publishing in a year of escalating anti-Asian racism. Though they’ve felt encouraged by ongoing Japanese American activism and solidarity with other communities such as Muslim Americans during President Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban, they’re disturbed by the possibility of history repeating itself.

“I’ve had moments of alarm at seeing these last four years, how much things have not changed,” Abe said.

“As a community, Japanese Americans know that the impact of traumatic events can last for generations,” Nimura said. “We have a responsibility not only to prevent it from happening to other vulnerable communities, but the current climate of anti-Asian racism on top of this longer history makes it more important to know.”

That’s why it’s important to keep telling and retelling this dark chapter of American history, all said. Hopefully, the writers said, this visual expression of those stories can add a new dimension to Asian Americans’ ongoing education and resistance.

“History is not a stagnant process,” Ouchida said. “I equate it to being like footprints on a beach. Lessons learned disappear from the sand as each generation passes. If we’re not vigilant, it’s easy to repeat our mistakes.”

“We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration” will be out in bookstores May 18.

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