Nisei journalist James Matsumoto Omura was born on November 27, 1912, on Bainbridge Island, Washington. When he was young, his mother became quite ill and had to place herself in the care of her sister, who lived in Nagasaki, Japan. Omura's three youngest siblings moved in with their grandmother, while Omura
and his two other brothers decided to remain on Bainbridge Island. Omura left home at the age of 13 to work as a salmon canner in Ketchikan, Alaska, and Anacortes, Washington, before moving to Pocatello, Idaho, where he continued his formal education and started on his path to becoming a journalist.
Omura was named editor of his school newspaper in 1928. Three years later, he returned to Bainbridge Island, where he became the first nisei to be honored as a delegate in journalism to the State of Washington Student Leaders' Conference. In 1932, Omura graduated from Seattle's Broadway High School and was recruited by the University of Washington but (in the heart of the Great Depression) could not afford to attend. Nonetheless, he quickly began his career as a journalist, serving briefly as the editor of the Los Angeles–based New Japanese American News before moving to San Francisco, where he was the editor of the New World Daily from 1934 to 1936. An editorial that the Daily published on nisei leadership garnered Omura harsh criticism from members of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), who claimed that the piece defamed one of the group's leaders. Omura resigned from his editorship in January 1936 over disagreements with the paper's publisher.
Disenchanted by his first professional experiences in journalism, Omura went four years without writing any articles, choosing instead to work as a flower farmer. He returned to the newspaper business in 1940, first publishing a column in the Japanese American News and then working with a brand-new nisei magazine called Current Life, which sought to win upward mobility for U.S.-born Japanese Americans. On February 23, 1942, the U.S. Congress called Omura to testify before its Tolan Committee, whose purpose was to evaluate the merit of President Franklin Roosevelt's decision to remove Japanese Americans and others of foreign origin from their homes on the West Coast. In his testimony, Omura voiced his strong disagreement with the president's policy and with the JACL's support of it. While Omura expected many nisei to protest alongside him, very few did so.
To avoid forced evacuation, Omura drove from his California residence to Denver, where an office for Current Life would soon be transformed into an Evacuee Placement Bureau, which assisted many Japanese Americans who hastily left their Pacific Coast homes for Colorado. Omura filed three racial discrimination cases through the War Manpower Commission, whose task was to balance the country's labor needs of agriculture, industry, and the armed forces. Indeed, the number of nisei doing domestic and offshore military work increased significantly after Omura's filings. With the help of the Washington, D.C.–based law firm Callender, Callender & Wallace, Omura also came close to suing for reparations on behalf of those forcibly removed and confined, though not enough Japanese Americans expressed interest in the lawsuit for it to come to fruition.
In January 1944, Omura took on two major positions: director of public relations for the Japanese Publishing Company, and English editor for the company's Denver-based bilingual (Japanese/English) newspaper, Rokk Nippon (soon to become Rocky Shimpo). In this paper, one month later, Omura published his most famous and controversial piece of writing—a column titled “Let Us Not Be Rash,” in which he argued that interned Japanese Americans would have clear justifications
for choosing to resist the draft. “The Nisei are well within their rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” Omura wrote. “The Constitution gives us certain inalienable and civil rights. The government should restore a large part of those rights before asking us to contribute our lives to the welfare of the nation.” Unlike Omura's previous efforts, “Let Us Not Be Rash” saw at least some praise and allied action from Japanese Americans. Of course, the column was not without its detractors. Less than two months after the Rocky Shimpo published Omura's piece, the Office of Alien Property Custodian Leo Crowley (whom President Roosevelt appointed to prevent trading with the enemy) informed the newspaper's publisher that the federal government would shut down the publication unless Omura were promptly fired. To ensure that the Rocky Shimpo would survive, Omura resigned.
The grand jurors of the State of Wyoming indicted Omura, as well as seven leaders of the Heart Mountain concentration camp's Fair Play Committee, on charges of “aiding and abetting violation of the Selective Service Act of 1940.” Omura was acquitted on the basis of the First Amendment, specifically its right of freedom of the press, though the other seven defendants were convicted and served 18 months at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary before seeing their conviction overturned. Although he was found not guilty, Omura lost the respect of the Japanese American community at large and could not find employment as a journalist anywhere. As a result, he embarked on a career in landscape contracting, which proved quite successful.
More than four decades after World War II came to a close, Omura finally received positive recognition for his journalism and activism. His 1983 treatise on cultural heritage was a major part of the Bainbridge Island Historical Exhibit that toured the United States from 1988 to 1990. Omura also received the Asian American Journalists Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. Five years later, the National Coalition for Redress/Reparation honored him with its Fighting Spirit Award. Several historians have written recently of his importance, while filmmaker Frank Abe (whose nisei father, an internee during World War II, subscribed to the Rocky Shimpo to read Omura's editorials) released a PBS documentary in 2001 about the internment experience, titled Conscience and the Constitution, which prominently features Omura's life.
Omura died in Denver on June 20, 1994. He was survived by a wife and two children.
Abe, Frank, dir. Conscience and the Constitution. Monarch Films, 2001.
Fugita, Steve. “James Matsumoto Omura.” In Distinguished Asian Americans. Edited by Hyung-Chan Kim. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Hansen, Arthur A. “Peculiar Odyssey: Newsman Jimmie Omura's Removal from and Regeneration within Nikkei Society, History, and Memory.” Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Louis Fiset and Gail Nomura, 278–30. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.
Nelson, Douglas W. Heart Mountain: The History of an American Concentration Camp. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976.
Omura, James. “Let Us Not Be Rash.” Rocky Shimpo, February 28, 1944.