By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Yoshito “Yosh” Kuromiya, an artist, landscape architect and World War II draft resister, passed away on July 24. He was 95.
He was the fifth of six children born to Hisamitsu and Hana Tada Kuromiya, both from Okayama-ken.
When World War II broke out, the Kuromiya family was living in Monrovia, where Kuromiya’s father had been heading a successful produce stand business.
When the government imposed a curfew and travel restrictions on Japanese Americans, Kuromiya, then a teenager, ignored it. He was stopped once by the police but was let go with a verbal warning.
He was shocked when he learned that all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast would have to be placed into U.S.-style concentration camps.
The family was first sent to the temporary assembly center at the Pomona Fairgrounds, where Kuromiya found work as a trash collector but soon transferred to the sign shop as a graphic artist.
From Pomona, the family was transferred to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Authority camp in Wyoming.
Kuromiya was assigned to the poster shop, where he met older, highly trained commercial artists and was exposed to different art media such as silkscreen printing. He also joined the Arts Students League, organized by Benji Okubo, the brother of renowned artist Mine Okubo. Among Kuromiya’s favorite subjects to sketch was Heart Mountain, which dominated the landscape.
In 1943, the U.S. government issued the controversial loyalty questionnaire.
Kuromiya answered Question 27 with a conditional “yes” — that yes, he would serve in the armed forces of the U.S. if he were given rights equal to those of a Caucasian American. He also answered Question 28 with a “yes,” although he had never sworn allegiance to the Japanese emperor.
Shortly thereafter, the government changed the classification of Japanese Americans from 4-C, enemy alien, to 1-A, eligible for the draft.
At that point, Kuromiya realized he could not, in good conscience, take up arms to kill people for a country that was not treating him like a full-fledged citizen.
He started attending the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee (FPC) meetings, founded by Kiyoshi Okamoto. The FPC meetings were held in different mess halls, and Kuromiya recalled the meetings were packed.
Kuromiya was impressed by Okamoto, who had a commanding knowledge of the Constitution and the law.
On March 16, 1944, Kuromiya received his draft notice. He was angry. He found the first insult to be the institution of a curfew and travel restriction; the second was the eviction from his home into concentration camps; and now, the government was asking him to participate in a war on foreign land for principles that were denied to him at home. He decided to take a stand.
Kuromiya realized the real threat to democracy wasn’t overseas. It was here in the United States. He refused to show up for his physical.
When Kuromiya shared his decision with his family, his mother opposed him, as did his sister-in-law, who had given birth to a son, Kiyoshi, at Heart Mountain. Decades later, Kiyoshi would become active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and a leader in the gay rights movement.
Kuromiya was arrested and imprisoned with other Nisei draft resisters in a jail in Rawlins, a town just outside of Cheyenne, before being transferred to the Cheyenne County jail, where he was incarcerated for about two-and-a half months until the trial. He was part of the first round of 63 draft resisters arrested from Heart Mountain. A few months later, a second round of 22 men would be arrested.
Kuromiya found it ironic that every Sunday, a group of Caucasian Christians would visit the jail to sing hymns and share Bible verses. He felt it wasn’t their group that needed “saving.”
While in jail, Kuromiya was one of the men interrogated by two representatives from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) — Joe Grant Masaoka and Minoru Yasui, who had earlier challenged the curfew order.
Masaoka and Yasui told Kuromiya he was being naïve and that this was not the time to be arguing about personal freedoms or constitutional rights. They emphasized to him that Japanese Americans needed to prove their loyalty to white America. Following this, Masaoka and Yasui questioned him about the Fair Play Committee and Jimmie Omura, the Rocky Shimpo editor in Denver who had been the only one to publish the FPC press releases.
Kuromiya assured Masaoka and Yasui that neither the FPC nor Omura had pressured him to resist the draft and that the decision had been his alone. The two, however, pressed him to change his mind. They told him he could be given a second chance to join the Army to “prove his loyalty.” Otherwise, Kuromiya recalled, they threatened to make sure men like him would be ostracized from the Japanese American community for ruining their public image.
Masaoka and Yasui filed a report on their visits with the different draft resisters from Heart Mountain and Amache (Granada) in Colorado. A copy was sent to the WRA and is available at the National Archives.
The 63 Heart Mountain draft resisters went to trial on June 12, 1944. Kuromiya and the other men knew they were not going to receive a fair hearing when the federal judge addressed them on the first day as “You Jap boys.”
Kuromiya described the six-day trial as a “travesty of justice.” He recalled that at one point the government prosecutor and their hired attorney almost got into a fistfight in court.
On June 26, 1944, the federal judge found each man guilty of violating the Selective Service Act. They were sentenced to three years to a federal penitentiary. The older men in the group were sent to the Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas, and the younger men, including Kuromiya, were shipped to the McNeil Island federal penitentiary off the coast of Washington state. While at McNeil, his Nisei girlfriend broke up with him through a letter.
In 2000, the National JACL, after three decades of heated internal debate, passed a resolution apologizing to the Nisei draft resisters for not acknowledging their principled stand during the war. A public ceremony was held in 2002 in San Francisco, where Kuromiya and Frank Emi, one of the seven leaders of the FPC, spoke on behalf of the draft resisters. Both encouraged JACL to issue an apology to all Japanese Americans for its wartime conduct.
Kuromiya believed the wartime leaders of the JACL had abandoned the Constitution. However, he did not view this issue as just the JACL versus the draft resisters/Tuleans but broached the broader question of what the responsibility of a U.S. citizen is when there are constitutional transgressions — an issue that has continued to resurface.
In 2010, Kuromiya was among the Nisei honored by Pasadena City College with an honorary diploma due to the war preventing them from graduating.
Kuromiya also donated to the Smithsonian several sketches of Heart Mountain, a T-shirt he silkscreened in camp, and a photograph frame he carved out of wood at McNeil Island.
Among the many books and documentaries that featured Kuromiya are Emiko and Chizu Omori’s Emmy-award winning documentary “Rabbit in the Moon” and Frank Abe’s “Conscience and the Constitution.”
He is survived by his wife, Irene, and many family members.
Kuromiya asked that there be no memorial service or koden. He requested that people donate to the Humane Society or SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) or an organization that supports hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors).
Rafu Shimpo photos by MARIO G. REYES