Born in Japan, Tokutaro “Tokie” Nishimura migrated with his parents to the United States at the age of 10, and was among the few Japanese Americans in North Dakota. When his parents decided to move to Canada, Tokie asked to remain in North Dakota where Ansel Perry Slocum reared him. Tokie adopted his name and became Tokie Slocum, attended the University of Minnesota, and continued into Columbia University's law school. Slocum left law school to serve in the military during World War I, and for his heroism was awarded the rank of sergeant major, making him at the time the highest ranking Asian American in the U.S. Army.
Slocum returned to Columbia to complete his law studies, but in 1925 the U.S. Supreme Court rescinded the citizenship of Japanese American World War I veterans who had become naturalized under a 1918 law. The 1918 act opened naturalization to any alien veteran of World War I, and Slocum had gotten his U.S. citizenship under that provision. Now having lost his U.S. citizenship, a law degree meant nothing because most states required U.S. citizenship to be admitted to the bar. Slocum thus left law school, and campaigned to have the naturalization rights of issei veterans restored.
Slocum participated in the founding meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in 1930, and four years later served as a lobbyist for the organization. In 1935, Congress restored to issei veterans the right to naturalization and citizenship due to the efforts of Slocum and the JACL. After Pearl Harbor, Slocum and the JACL cooperated with the FBI in identifying “disloyal” Japanese Americans for apprehension, and at Manzanar concentration camp Slocum served on the camp police force. Many in the camp, accordingly, targeted him and other JACL leaders, like Fred Tayama, as informers or inu (dogs). As a result, after the Manzanar riot of December 1942, Slocum and other JACL leaders fled Manzanar for an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp in nearby Death Valley to escape being beaten by irate Japanese Americans in Manzanar.
Slocum was also an anti-Fascist but unlike Karl G. Yoneda he saw the demise of fascism as a pro-American project. He believed he was an American patriot foremost. As a leader of the Anti-Axis Committee of Los Angeles, Slocum urged cooperation with the government's treatment of Japanese Americans. “We are facing this problem today because of the short-sightedness of the Japanese leaders in America up to this time,” he wrote shortly after Pearl Harbor, blaming Japanese Americans and not white racism. “They thought only in terms of being Japanese. In order that we not repeat the mistake that our fathers made, we must break our ties with Japan…. We must not expect comfort or luxury in time of war. Cooperation with the federal government is essential” (Daniels, 209).
His friends described Slocum as a spellbinding orator who could sway audiences “when he spoke about loyalty to America.” A JACL leader recalled of Slocum's speech at a JACL convention: “It was the first time that I heard such an eloquent, high-powered speech in English from a person of Japanese ancestry. Clarence Arai was fluent but Slocum was a firebrand orator. No better person could instill enthusiasm in the hearts of delegates. I was deeply impressed with his
oratory despite the fact that I had been raised in an environment in Hawaii where there was constant talk of Americanism” (Hosokawa, 39).
Slocum was a rarity among Japanese Americans. He was an issei who was reared by and grew up among whites, he was a U.S. Army veteran of World War I and at the time the highest ranking Asian American officer, and through his status as a veteran, achieved his U.S. citizenship through an act for which he lobbied. Slocum was one of the few issei JACL members by virtue of his citizenship at a time when JACL membership among nisei was at a low point because of World War II and the organization's position on the concentration camps. Slocum's remarkable life, nonetheless, points to the diversity among the group called Japanese American.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Hosokawa, Bill. JACL in Quest of Justice. New York: William Morrow, 1982.