Tolan Committee

In late February 1942, the Select Committee of the House of Representatives began hearings on the West Coast on “national defense migration.” The committee took testimony in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. Democrat John Tolan of Oakland, California, served as the committee's chair, and hence the name, Tolan Committee. The subject, “national defense migration,” featured prominently in the government's program of mass removal of Japanese Americans and some of the consequences of that action.

Numerous witnesses testified to the wisdom of that “migration,” while a few were against it. Fifteen Japanese Americans gave testimony to the Tolan Committee. Of that total, all but two agreed with the government program of mass removal. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), presuming to speak for the community, asked for “no undue discrimination” against Japanese Americans in the conduct of the removals, but also deferred to the concerns of “military

necessity and national safety.” In San Francisco, JACL national secretary Mike Masaoka assured the committee: “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, 219).

Another JACL leader, James Sakamoto, a past president of the organization, told the Tolan Committee in Seattle that Japanese Americans were so loyal that they “‘turned in' [to the FBI] whom we thought should be checked into.” Nisei were in fact advised to turn in even their parents if they exhibited any “pro-Japan” sympathies. Although Sakamoto believed mass removal was unnecessary, he, like Masaoka, agreed: “We will be only too happy to be evacuated if the Government orders us, because we feel that the basic loyalty at a time such as this is to obey the order of the Government to which we owe true allegiance” (Daniels, 220). Overall, the JACL advocated special surveillance for their parents, the issei, but the rights of citizenship for their generation.

The two Japanese Americans who opposed the government's program and the JACL's position were James Omura and Caryl Fumiko Okuma. Publisher of Current Life, a magazine directed at nisei, James Omura told the committee that the victimization of Japanese Americans on the basis of race will tarnish U.S. history and the nation would never again “stand high in the council chambers of justice and tolerance.” The act would also serve as an indictment against “every racial minority in the United States.” Japanese Americans deserve the right to be treated as individuals and not as a race, Omura argued. “Are we to be condemned merely on the basis of our racial origin?” he asked. Caryl Fumiko Okuma, managing editor of Current Life, added that Japanese Americans were being tried in the press, and “press propaganda,” in her words, was precipitating a landslide “toward mass evacuation and it is picking up momentum” (National Defense Migration, 11230–33).

A notable non-Japanese who testified before the Tolan Committee was then California attorney general Earl Warren who would later become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Warren appeared before the committee in February 1942 with maps showing how Japanese farms abutted against major defense plants and were aligned under power lines pointing, seemingly, toward major aircraft factories. His maps, Warren contended, showed some Japanese plotted to spy on and undermine the security of installations critical for the national defense. The problem for law enforcement, Warren complained, was separating the citizen from the alien among the Japanese.

Madera, California mayor, John Gordon, submitted testimony alleging that Japanese, if left free, could inflict “terrific damage,” and it was impossible for the police to distinguish the “dangerous” Japanese from the innocent. Accordingly, the only “safe procedure” was to “take up all Japanese and intern them.” Unlike the “Japs,” Gordon continued, Italians were “well assimilated, and we do not regard even the Italian aliens as alien in fact.” Italians were loyal, and “we feel it is safe to let the Italians continue their normal life in this community.” Likewise, all Germans, aliens and citizens alike were regarded as “national of this country.” National defense migration, thus, should target only Japanese (National Defense Migration, 10995).

The committee's concerns were the effects of a mass removal when Japanese Americans were so vital to the agriculture of the West Coast. J. Murray Thompson, regional head of the agricultural adjustment administration, testified California's fresh vegetable production, which was 32 percent in value for the nation as a whole, was vital for the conduct of the war. In 1940, Japanese farms in California totaled 40 percent of the state's vegetable acreages. Those farms and Japanese “stoop” labor, thus, were critical for the food supply of the nation. But Filipino and Mexican labor, Thompson offered, could substitute for the loss of Japanese production, although that transition needed to be carefully planned and executed.

The Tolan Committee completed its work in March 1942. Although the decision to remove all Japanese Americans from the West Coast had already been made in Washington, D.C., the committee's hearings provided evidence in support of that government policy.

Gary Y. Okihiro


Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

National Defense Migration. Hearings before the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration. House of Representatives, 77th Congress, 2nd Session. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1942.