Kiyoshi Okamoto, founder of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, was born in Hawai'i sometime in 1888 or 1889. Okamoto spent two years at the University of Hawai'i studying chemistry and engineering. He later worked as a sugar mill superintendent and a soil engineer until he moved to San Pedro, California, to introduce papaya. After the stock market crash of 1929, he taught at a public high school in Los Angeles to 1942 when he and all Japanese Americans along the West Coast were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in concentration camps. Often described as a loner, Okamoto never married and therefore had no children.
In 1942, at the age of 55, Okamoto arrived at Heart Mountain concentration camp where he is credited being the first nisei to call for redress for Japanese Americans, bringing attention to the exclusion and detention of World War II. Okamoto sent letters and petitions protesting the deprivation of Japanese American civil liberties to Guy Robertson, Heart Mountain camp director, and President Franklin Roosevelt. Okamoto fought against corruption in the camp, inadequate wages, and deprivation of property, and for due process of law.
In 1943, Okamoto began to protest against the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which the government ignored to exclude and then altered to include nisei men. Previously, the U.S. government classified Japanese Americans IV-C or “enemy aliens” unfit to serve in the military. Identifying himself as the Fair Play Committee of One, Okamoto encouraged nisei to resist the draft as long as they were deprived of their civil liberties, handing out antidraft flyers. He attended
several meetings at Heart Mountain in which he demonstrated an impressive knowledge of constitutional law. Later, on January 26, 1944, with Frank Emi and Paul Nakadate, two well-known nisei, and 300 members, they launched the Fair Play Committee (FPC).
The FPC had one primary goal: to oppose the military draft as long as the nisei were denied their constitutional and civil rights. In his essay, “Loyalty Is a Covenant,” Okamoto explained that the U.S government violated the fundamentals of democracy when it forced 120,000 people into concentration camps without due process of law. Highlighting constitutional rights, Okamoto declared: “The cornerstones of these Instruments of our Government are Justice, Liberty, Security, Freedom, and the protection of Humane Rights. These are flagrantly violated in the various procedures of our evacuation, deportation and detention” (Okamoto, Early 1944).
Okamoto and the FPC garnered strong support with growing members and favorable newspaper articles. Okamoto made connections with the editor of the Japanese American newspaper Rocky Shimpo, James Omura, who published articles and editorials on behalf of the FPC. While not a member of the FPC, Omura supported it, explaining in a letter to Okamoto that his support was based on principles alone. According to Omura, his hope in “giving publicity to the movement in Heart Mountain” was to “assist somewhat in decreasing and… eliminating this situation” (Omura, April 10, 1944). Furthermore, in a newspaper article, “Let Us Not Be Rash,” Omura argued that the “Nisei are well within their rights to petition the government for redress of grievances” and that they “should at all times stand firm on [their] God given rights” (Omura, February 28, 1944).
Okamoto and the FPC continued to fight for their civil liberties, arguing that the nisei had a moral right to demand “judicial and orderly procedures in molding of our destines” (Okamoto, February 25, 1944). He encouraged nisei to protest the draft by avoiding to report for their physical examinations. For his activities, Okamoto gained the attention of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and Heart Mountain administrators as an agitator and troublemaker.
That reputation led to his removal to Tule Lake concentration camp when it became a segregation center for “troublemakers” and “dissidents.” Heart Mountain director Guy Roberston argued that Okamoto's removal was necessary to break the back of draft resistance, and he called Okamoto a “crackpot with a strong loyalty to Japan,” although Okamoto had never visited Japan (Muller, 81). Still, removed from Heart Mountain, Okamoto continued to protest the draft and encouraged the FPC not to lose courage. He exhorted the draft resisters, “You are making the fight for yourselves, your children, the other Minorities of this Nation and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is a holy fight” (Okamoto, May 7, 1944).
In Heart Mountain concentration camp, 63 men refused to report for their physical induction examinations. As a result, the government arrested all of them, and sentenced them to three years in prison. Concerned with the growing impact of the FPC, the government arrested the seven leaders, including Okamoto and James Omura. While Omura, a newspaper editor, was acquitted citing freedom of speech, the seven leaders of FPC were found guilty of violating the Selective
Training and Service Act of 1940, and all were sentenced to four years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
In 1946, after the end of the war, Okamoto and the six other FPC leaders had their sentences overturned on appeal. The following year, President Harry Truman pardoned the Japanese Americans who resisted the draft during World War II, including the members of the FPC, restoring their rights as citizens. After prison, Okamoto continued to seek redress for the concentration camps.
Okamoto was last seen heading into the wilderness in California. Like his date of birth, Okamoto's date of death is uncertain, although he is believed to have died around 1963.
Carrie M. Montgomery
Muller, Eric L. American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Okamoto, Kiyoshi. Letter to Fair Play Committee. May 7, 1944. http://www.resisters.com/docs.htm .
Okamoto, Kiyoshi. “Loyalty Is a Covenant.” Early 1944. http://www.resisters.com/docs.htm .
Okamoto, Kiyoshi. “We Should Know.” February 25, 1944. http://www.resisters.com/docs.htm .
Omura, James. Letter to Kiyoshi Okamoto. April 10, 1944. http://www.resisters.com/docs.htm .
Omura, James. “Let Us Not Be Rash.” Rocky Shimpo, February 28, 1944. http://www.resisters.com/docs.htm .