An estimated 315 Japanese American men from the continental United States and Hawaii refused to serve in the U.S. military during World War II, but draft resistance, in reference to Japanese Americans, has generally come to mean those who refused to serve while incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps during World War II.
Before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese American men were volunteering or being drafted into the U.S. Army like other Americans. Six months after Pearl Harbor, the War Department and the Selective Service stopped inducting Japanese Americans and categorized them as IV-C, aliens not eligible for service.
In July 1942, the Army formed a committee to discuss the future of about 5,000 Japanese American soldiers inducted into the Army before or immediately after Pearl Harbor.
In Hawaii, Japanese American soldiers already in the Army were assigned to the 298th and 299th Infantry Regiment, which later became the famed 100th Battalion. The soldiers of the 100th made a name for themselves as fierce fighters after seeing heavy action in Italy.
In contrast, people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast were being uprooted from their homes and placed into U.S. concentration camps. Many had never heard of Pearl Harbor before Japan’s attack.
At the same time, propaganda from Japan pointed to the U.S. camps as yet another discriminatory policy against the Japanese living in the U.S.
To counter such negative publicity, the War Department decided to form an all-Japanese American unit, which would be known as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Announcements for volunteers for the 442nd went out in early 1943. Close to 10,000 Japanese Americans from Hawaii volunteered, with about 2,600 being accepted for induction, while a paltry 1,256 Japanese Americans out of more than 23,000 draft-age men, answered the call for volunteers from the camps. Of that, about 800 were inducted.
When the quota for volunteers fell far short of expectation, the government resorted to reinstating the draft for Japanese Americans. Those who refused to serve were threatened with huge fines and prison time.
There were varied reasons why Japanese American men resisted the draft, but resistance represented yet another way to protest their imprisonment from within the 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps, but Heart Mountain was the only WRA camp to have an organized movement against the draft.
The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) actively opposed the draft resisters, and JACL leaders were given access to several draft resisters awaiting trial in jail in an effort to change their minds and possibly gather information for the government.
On average, most of the draft resisters received prison sentences of three years, but the lack of a uniform U.S. court system policy gave rise to punishments of not only prison terms but also fines such as a penny per person for the Poston (Colorado River) WRA camp draft resisters.
Only Judge Louis E. Goodman, who presided over the 27 Tule Lake draft resisters, dropped the charges entirely.
On Dec. 23, 1947, President Harry Truman issued a presidential pardon to those who had violated the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. On the list were 284 Japanese American names but surviving resisters have confirmed that several names of known draft resisters were omitted from the list for reasons unknown.