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Loyal to Country or Conscience?

An Asian American soldier faces court-martial for refusing to serve in Iraq. His stand stirs admiration and anger among Japanese Americans.

October 16, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The old veterans gather nearly every morning in Little Tokyo, where an American flag and black granite sculpture rise in honor of 16,000 Japanese Americans who served during World War II.

The idea of anyone tarnishing their war record doesn't sit well, and that's exactly what some think young soldier Ehren Watada is doing.

"He's a bakatare," said George Ishihara, an 85-year-old Santa Monica resident, calling Watada the Japanese word for fool. "He ought to be ashamed of himself."

Across town, another Japanese American World War II veteran sees the young soldier as a hero. "He's following a higher law, and that's your conscience and the Constitution," said Paul Tsuneishi, an 83-year-old Sunland resident.

Watada, 28, is an Army first lieutenant who earlier this year became the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, calling the war illegal and immoral. Although other soldiers have refused deployment, his status as an officer sets his case apart. The Honolulu native of Japanese and Chinese descent faces a general court-martial and up to seven years in prison for charges involving his refusal to deploy, criticism of President Bush and "conduct unbecoming an officer."

The soldier, stationed at the U.S. Army's Ft. Lewis base near Seattle, was not available to comment because of ongoing negotiations over his case. But his father, Bob, 66, and stepmother, Rosa Sakanishi, who live in Hawaii, have pressed his case this month in appearances throughout Southern California.

The elder Watada said his son joined the Army to help protect the country after 9/11. But when his superiors told him to study up on the Iraq war, Watada concluded that U.S. officials launched it in violation of U.S. and international laws.

The turning point, the elder Watada said, was in January, when Ehren heard the father of an injured soldier lament on a radio show: "Why can't anyone stand up and stop all of this?"

"He thought the guy was talking to him," Watada said of his son. "He thought he was the person who had to stand up."

Watada's case has stirred national debate over the legality of the Iraq war and a soldier's duty versus conscience. But in the Japanese American community, the case has struck a particular nerve, echoing conflicts of another war six decades ago.

"The Watada case has provoked so much emotion because it raises the question of loyalty, and that question severely tested Japanese Americans during World War II," said Lane Hirabayashi of UCLA, the first professor in the nation to hold an academic chair dedicated to the study of the Japanese internment. "It raises a lot of controversies that I don't think have ever been fully resolved."

Debate lingers over how Japanese Americans responded after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Even as the attack prompted the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents in remote camps, thousands of young men and women enlisted in the U.S. military, determined to prove their loyalty.

Their service record has made them community icons of mythological proportions. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion, composed mainly of Japanese Americans, became one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. military history.

But a small minority refused to enlist and were harshly ostracized, Hirabayashi said.

They included draft resisters, who refused to serve unless their civil and constitutional rights were restored. They also included those known as "no-no boys," for negatively answering a government loyalty questionnaire asking if they would serve in the U.S. military and renounce allegiance to the emperor of Japan.

Bitterness between the two sides persists today. Hirabayashi and others, for instance, tell tales of brothers who never spoke again after one resisted and the other served. Ellen Endo, editor of Rafu Shimpo, the Los Angeles Japanese newspaper, calls the Watada debate the most emotional community divide she's seen in four decades.

Nine veterans groups have come out against Watada, but the Asian American Vietnam Veterans Organization backs him. The Japanese American community newspapers are filled with passionate debate over the case.

The community's leading civil rights organization, the Japanese American Citizen's League, is in the hot seat. In July, the league expressed concerns about Watada's free speech rights but said the military issues in the case went beyond its mission as a civil rights group. The statement drew some praise but was also criticized as spineless.

The league's Berkeley chapter and others are urging it to take a stronger stand of support for Watada at its national meeting next month.

"I know a lot of my members will hate my guts for saying this, but I do think he's a hero," the league's executive director, John Tateishi, said of Watada. "There's a point where people have to stand by their personal beliefs."

The elder Watada said he is unfazed by the critics.

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