Born in Fresno, California, but reared in Salt Lake City, Utah, Mike Masaoka was an unusual nisei. He grew up away from Japanese American communities, his father died when he was nine years old, he converted to Mormonism, and he legally changed his name from Masaru to Mike. In high school, he was a champion
debater, went on to the University of Utah where he graduated in 1937 majoring in economics and political science, and secured a job as a speech instructor at the University of Utah. Unlike many nisei, Masaoka grew up among whites, and he was comfortable in their company. Some Japanese Americans considered him “cocky, aggressive, bursting with enthusiasm and ideas” (Takahashi, 87).
In the summer of 1941, with the prospect of war with Japan looming, Saburo Kido, president of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a nisei rights organization, decided to hire a fulltime staffer to advocate for Japanese Americans among white Americans. The person had to be outgoing, fearless, and polished. Masaoka seemed ideal for the position. He was also well-connected politically. Kido hired Masaoka as the JACL's national secretary and field executive in August 1941.
Masaoka immediately established a two-point program for the JACL to enhance the organization's ongoing loyalty campaign. First, Masaoka set out to build the JACL into a national organization, and second, he steered the JACL toward claiming equal rights for all Japanese Americans. Masaoka believed that repeated demonstrations of Japanese American loyalty, indeed, of super patriotism earned them those rights. To promote those twin goals, Masaoka coined the phrase for his JACL campaign, “Better Americans in a Greater America.”
The slogan comes from the JACL creed composed by Masaoka in 1940. It begins with: “I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation. I believe in her institutions, ideals and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future. She has granted me liberties and opportunities such as no individual enjoys in this world today.” The creed goes on to exhort, “Although some individuals may discriminate against me, I shall never become bitter or lose faith, for I know that such persons are not representative of the majority of the American people.” As a result, the creed concludes, “I pledge myself to do honor to her at all times and all places; to support her constitution; to obey her laws; to respect her flag; to defend her against all enemies, foreign and domestic; to actively assume my duties and obligations as a citizen, cheerfully and without any reservations whatsoever, in the hope that I may become a better American in a greater America” (Daniels, 1971, 24–25).
After Pearl Harbor, the federal government chose to work with the JACL to seek its cooperation with its program of forced removal and confinement and to serve as an intermediary between the military and Japanese American community. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to remove and provide for Japanese Americans. The JACL met the following month, and decided to cooperate with the military's efforts as a sign of patriotism to prove their loyalty to the United States. The JACL called that agreement “constructive cooperation.”
Earlier, in hearings conducted by a Congressional committee, JACL leaders had expressed their willingness to cooperate with the government. In February 1942, Masaoka testified before the committee: “With any policy of evacuation definitely arising from reasons of military necessity and national safety, we are in complete agreement…. If, in the judgment of military and federal authorities, evacuation
of Japanese residents from the West Coast is a primary step toward assuring the safety of this Nation, we will have no hesitation in complying with the necessities implicit in that judgment” (Daniels, 1988, 219).
Despite advocating constructive cooperation, Masaoka and other JACL leaders held the action was simply a temporary suspension of their claim for equal protection under the law. The circumstances dictated that practical decision. It was not an admission of disloyalty, nor was it a confession of guilt. As Masaoka put it, cooperation with the government was designed to advance the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Individual claims to rights had to be deferred for the good of all Japanese Americans.
Still, the JACL leadership was surprised when few Japanese Americans opposed their policy of cooperation. Few resisted the eviction and confinement orders. “Both [JACL president] Kido and I were quite surprised and pleased that there was practically no public outcry or challenge against the decision to cooperate with the Army,” Masaoka reflected after the war. “We believed that such total compliance indicated the general agreement of the evacuees that cooperation was indeed proper under those tumultuous and threatening conditions” (Daniels, 1988, 221). But the JACL leaders also knew, in light of the army's legal and military muscle, Japanese Americans had no realistic alternative to cooperation.
Contrarily, the JACL opposed Japanese Americans who challenged the army's exclusion orders. The JACL slogan, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” Masaoka wrote in April 1942, prevented the organization from endorsing legal contests such as the case brought by Minoru Yasui who had violated the military's curfew orders to test the constitutionality of the army's instructions. He derided the “self-styled martyrs” who were willing to face jail sentences for violating the army's orders simply for the publicity. “Good Americans,” the JACL leaders stated, “do what our government tells us.” In line with Christian belief, Masaoka wrote: “Because our sacrifice is greater, let us trust that our rewards in that greater American will be that much the greater” (Daniels, 1988, 222, 223).
Masaoka, besides advising Japanese Americans to “do what our government tells us” and ridiculing those who challenged the government's actions, with other JACL leaders urged the nisei to inform on other Japanese Americans, including their parents, when suspecting any “anti-American” or “pro-Japan” sympathies. Masaoka advised the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in running the concentration camps, urging the WRA to pursue a policy of Japanese American assimilation, and he was among those who advocated military service for the nisei to prove their loyalty to the United States. After the war, while lobbying for Japanese American rights, Masaoka used that military service to justify those claims that for others were a birthright. Military service, he testified, showed a faith in the “ultimate triumph of fair play and justice in the American way …” (Takahashi, 127).
As JACL lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Masaoka played a part in the passage of the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act (1948), which brought some relief for the economic losses sustained during the war, and the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act (1952), which granted naturalization to issei. After leaving the JACL's employment, Masaoka continued to lobby in the nation's
capital, representing Japanese businesses, he published an autobiography, and after suffering ill health and several heart attacks, Mike Masaoka died on June 26, 1991.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger, 1971.
Takahashi, Jere. Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.