A dedicated Communist, trade unionist, antifascist, and writer, Karl G. Yoneda was born in 1906 to issei parents who migrated from Hiroshima Prefecture. Yoneda first lived in Glendale, California, where his parents worked as farmers. In 1913, he was sent to Japan where he spent 13 formative years, attending high school in Hiroshima. He read avidly, and was drawn to socialism and labor activism.
Only 16 years old, Yoneda traveled to China in search of a blind Russian anarchist, Vasily Eroshenko, whose fairy tales “deeply fascinated me” (Yoneda, 9). He returned to the United States in 1926 after participating in strikes in Osaka, Hiroshima, and Tokyo, and was detained on Angel Island in San Francisco bay.
Yoneda's father, Hideo Yoneda, began as a sugar plantation worker in Hawai'i in 1895. He left for Japan in 1903 to marry, and with his wife, Kazu, returned to the islands. Like many others, he heard opportunities were better on the continent so he and his wife joined the mass, labor migration to the West Coast. In Glendale, Yoneda's parents farmed vegetables on a small plot of land. He had two sisters, Ami and Hozumi, and an older brother who was sickly. He remembered watching his brother walk with a wooden board tied to his back presumably to keep him upright; George was frail since birth, Yoneda's mother told him, and he died in 1910. His father called Yoneda “Goso,” meaning having the strength of three to compensate for his brother's weakness.
Yoneda found work as a domestic servant for $5 a day while attending Hollywood Evening High School. At the boardinghouse in which Yoneda stayed, Einosuke Yamaguchi taught him about racism and how capitalists grew rich from the labor of workers. He pointed out that the American Federation of Labor supported Japanese exclusion, and how the Industrial Workers of the World tried to organize African and Japanese American workers but were attacked by government agencies. Yamaguchi told Yoneda about the Trade Union Educational League that was organized by Communists in 1920. The league, he said, paid particular attention to the plight of nonwhite workers. Yamaguchi added that the Communist Party in the United States was founded in 1919 by, among others, Sen Katayama (1859–1933), a world famous Japanese labor leader. The Communist Party, he told Yoneda, fought for migrant and African American workers.
Yoneda attended meetings of the Los Angeles Japanese Workers' Association (JWA), and in 1927 joined the Communist Party under the name, Karl Hama. He chose the name “Karl” after Karl Marx. “Thus my over fifty-year association with the Party began with a feeling of ease among the JWA members and hundreds of whites, Mexicans, and Negroes, men, women, and children who were present at that May Day meeting .” Yoneda also joined the International Labor Defense (ILD), and quickly immersed himself in workers' struggles, fighting deportation of migrant laborers, advocating for the right to political asylum, and organizing against the lynching of African Americans. Japanese American women like Yu Fujikawa, a poet and idealist, Mary Hatsuko Imada, a devoted fighter for workers' rights, and Tomo Kitabayashi joined the ILD, along with many other Asian Americans, Yoneda remembered.
After decades of organizing, beatings, and editorship of the Rodo Shimbun, the official organ of the Japanese Workers' Association of America, the FBI took Yoneda into custody following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. At the Immigration Detention Station in San Francisco, he found other Japanese American community leaders. Yoneda had been an outspoken opponent of Japan's imperial expansions in China and was well known for his advocacy of democracy over fascism and militarist Japan. Indeed, just over a day later, the FBI released Yoneda after
apologizing for the “mistake.” On December 10, 1941, Yoneda tried to enlist in the U.S. military but was rejected because the War Department had classified nisei as “enemy aliens,” 4C, and thus ineligible for military service.
Like other Japanese American radicals and conservatives, Yoneda advocated cooperating with the government, “if deemed a military necessity that all . . . should be evacuated from military areas,” he wrote, “we are ready to go” (Yoneda, 122). Only James Omura, the Current Life editor, Yoneda remembered, testified before the Tolan Committee against “evacuation,” asking provocatively: “Are we to be condemned merely on the basis of racial origin?” (Yoneda, 121). For Yoneda and his fellow Japanese American Communists, while “evacuation” violated Japanese American civil rights, a Fascist victory would mean the loss of all rights. The war against fascism, hence, took precedence over nisei constitutional liberties.
In March 1942, Yoneda volunteered to help get Manzanar assembly center ready in advance of Japanese Americans destined for the camp. After sleeping on army cots in a crowded barracks, Yoneda woke up the next morning for his first glimpse of the camp. There were no toilets or washrooms, he discovered, and the outdoor faucets were frozen. Building materials were littered throughout, and “we saw GIs manning machine guns in the watchtowers. The barbed wire fence which surrounded the camp was visible against the background of the snow-covered Sierra mountain range. 'So this is the American-style concentration camp,' someone remarked” (Yoneda, 127). The next day, they began to clean the camp to make the place as hospitable as possible.
On April 1, 1942, Yoneda's white wife, Elaine Black, and their son, Tommy, arrived at Manzanar reuniting the family. Black did not have to go, but she insisted on joining her husband at Manzanar. Tommy had to go because he had a drop of “Japanese blood.” At first, the family had to share their room with strangers because of crowding, but later they had their own apartment. The Yonedas set to work in the camp, Elaine at the library and camouflage net factory and Karl as block leader. Karl worked for a season harvesting sugar beets in Idaho, and he volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Language School.
Yoneda and the other Manzanar MIS recruits left for Minnesota in December 1942. At Camp Savage, they underwent Japanese-language training, graduating in June 1943, and then went to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to undergo basic training. “During our short stay in Mississippi,” wrote Yoneda, “we had a glimpse of the oppressed lives of Negroes and poor whites to whom we talked. . . . They asked, 'Why are you fighting for Roosevelt's country?'” (Yoneda, 151). In January 1944, Yoneda's unit shipped out to Calcutta, India, and in India they worked with Chinese, Burmese, and other language translators deciphering documents and translating propaganda leaflets for distribution over enemy lines. They gathered and translated captured documents, and interrogated Japanese prisoners of war, including Korean women who were enslaved sex workers for the Japanese Army. After Japan's surrender and the war's end, Yoneda returned to the United States in November 1945.
His days at Manzanar and service in the MIS, Yoneda remembered in his autobiography, were among “the most anguishing and crucial days of my life” (Yoneda,
165). While most praise the patriotism of the nisei soldiers for their service to the U.S. nation, he reminded his readers, few remember the equally brave and heroic deeds of Japanese Americans who fought, as internationalists, for democracy against fascist tyranny.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Yoneda, Karl G. Ganbatte: Sixy-Year Struggle of a Kibei Worker. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1983.