March 11, 2022

Prisoners of Hope

They were deprived of their liberty in the land of the free.

Bill Knott

This article was first published in the September 28, 2000 edition of the Adventist Review--Editors

EVERY GREAT CONVULSION BETWEEN nations spins off countless smaller human tragedies of which we only rarely hear. Never rising to the scale usually reserved for headline news or anchors’ pronouncements, these stories of suffering and endurance by everyday men and women are nonetheless the real record of the event. Though we more easily recall a president’s voice crackling through the radio in a fireside chat, a prime minister’s stirring oratory, or world maps depicting planned invasion routes, these truest stories of war remind us that for all its ideological and moral justification, warfare is finally a conflict between persons, many of whom will never see an enemy or fire a shot.

War tests a society’s value system, exposing hypocrisies and myths even as it reveals essential characteristics. War stretches a culture’s commitments to freedom to the breaking point, frequently revealing attitudes—and prejudices—more easily disguised in better times.

For Christians, war poses the most profound moral crisis. The commandments of a peace-loving God are often set against the requirements of a war-loving caesar: articulating just what is caesar’s and what is God’s is never harder than in wartime. “Love your enemies” too easily morphs into “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” Sacred commitments to God-given “inalienable rights,” cherished in peacetime, become tarnished by expedient political and social calculations that seem justified by the emergency environment.

We emerge from wartime knowing ourselves—and our sinfulness—too well.

In the Emergency

The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that catapulted the United States into the Second World War quickly resulted in massive changes in American social life, commerce, and even personal freedoms. The shocked nation readily accepted the essential militarization of many aspects of daily life as personnel and resources were quickly assembled to meet the perceived threat. Gasoline, rubber, and automobiles for personal use were drastically rationed or restricted; sugar and other food- stuffs deemed necessary for the war effort became precious.

Communities in both the East and the West moved quickly to implement nighttime “blackout” measures and organize volunteer sky-watching patrols. Beach defenses were rapidly constructed on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as U.S. vessels came under attack from both German and Japanese submarines.

In this hypercharged environment, numerous media reports of Japanese sabotage and “fifth column” activities—some deliberately and falsely planted by U.S. military and government officials1—quickly opened the way for one of the most significant and ominous assaults on constitutional guarantees of freedom ever occurring in the United States.

Within two months of the Pear Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed military authorities to exclude anyone from anyplace, without trial or hearing. A week later the forced deportations of Japanese Americans on the West Coast began.2 Within two weeks of Roosevelt’s order, General John DeWitt issued Public Proclamations 1 and 2, which created zones in the western portions of Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington from which the military was allowed to exclude persons it deemed suspicious. On March 18, 1942, the president signed another executive order that created the War Relocation Authority (WRA), charged with removing more than 112,000 Japanese Americans from their homes, businesses, and places of worship.

Caught in the government dragnet that swept the West Coast of the United States of all its Japanese Americans by May 1942 were more than 200 Seventh-day Adventists living in Washington, Oregon, and California.3 Like thousands of others of Japanese ancestry, they were forced, often at less than a week’s notice, to leave their homes and jobs and assemble at staging areas hastily organized by the government in West Coast cities. Among these Seventh-day Adventists, as in the wider Japanese American population, were both issei, persons born in Japan and now living in the United States, and nisei, American-born persons of Japanese descent who were American citizens. Though the U.S. government made technical distinctions between those it considered “enemy aliens” (issei) and those with citizenship (nisei), the two groups were treated identically—and deplorably. (“A Jap’s a Jap,” declared General DeWitt to San Francisco newspaper reporters.) Even third-generation persons (sansei) of only one-eighth Japanese descent were forced into the assembly centers in one of America’s sorriest episodes of race-based discrimination and persecution.

The 200 Adventists displaced by the president’s order and forced to evacuate included tenant farmers, small-business owners, medical professionals, college students from both Pacific Union College and La Sierra College, and denominational employees such as pastors and teachers. Many of these spent up to six months in the assembly centers, living in converted horse stables at racetracks or at fairgrounds, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Then, depending on their home region, they were sent to any of 10 internment camps4 that the government quickly built in remote regions of California, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Arkansas.

These camps, mostly situated in desolate areas with harsh climates, became their “home” for from six months to as long as three and a half years.

The Company of the Committed

It is clear from wartime records and interviews with those interned in the camps that Adventist Japanese Americans found considerable support and encouragement from each other and from other Adventists during their incarceration. Though small in number and sometimes required to struggle to defend their Sabbathkeeping and dietary practices to camp and government officials, the Adventist groups at the internment camps well illustrate how personal faith and a cohesive support group can help persons endure even gross injustices and physical difficulties.

Internees also have warm memories of the support given by Caucasian Adventists from congregations near the camps. At the Amache, Colorado, camp, the camp newspaper even reported that the Adventist internees were receiving far more visitors from the “outside” than persons of any other faith!5 Conference officers, especially in Colorado, made a point of visiting the camps often, and area pastors came periodically to hold Sabbath worship services for English-speaking internees. At church headquarters concerted efforts began as early as April 1942 to address the spiritual needs of Adventist internees.6 At least five Adventist pastors—among them Kinichi Nozaki, George Kiyabu, Seikitchi Imai, Alfred T. Okohira, and George Aso—were themselves internees and carried on vital pastoral and evangelistic tasks inside the barbed wire, mostly under the direction of the General Conference Bureau of Home Missions.7 Several of these were eventually allowed limited movement between the various camps, and coordinated and preached major evangelistic meetings attended by as many as 800 persons at several camps.8

From the hundreds of Bible studies, pastoral visits, and evangelistic series conducted in the camps during the three and a half years of the war, at least 50 persons were baptized and joined the Adventist Church.9 Several dozen others were baptized as a result of attending Adventist colleges in the unrestricted regions of the U.S.

Cheerful Talk 

While there was strong support and encouragement for interned Japanese American Adventists from Caucasian church members and pastors at the local level, Adventist Church leaders and publications adopted a very cautious manner of referring to the situation. Clearly fearful of alienating or offending government officials in a time of national emergency, church leaders steadfastly refused to address the issues of due process and constitutional guarantees raised by the forced evacuation and internment of their own U.S.-born members. They chose instead to focus on the “wonderful opportunities” that the intern camp experience provided for evangelistic endeavor. 

The Pacific Union Recorder, then the weekly news magazine of the Pacific Union Conference, which included California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Hawaii (and the sites of four of the 10 camps), began providing news updates about interned Adventist Japanese Americans as early as March 25, 1942, and continued to do so throughout the war. More than 45 news items, ranging in length from a few lines to full articles, appeared during this period, averaging about one news item every three weeks. By the standards of any news magazine, this is frequent coverage, especially when the population being reported on was only a fractional part of the union conference’s membership.

But when one moves past the fact of the coverage to examine the content, it becomes painfully clear that the editors and union conference leaders never saw the situation for what it actually was—a sustained assault upon the constitutionally guaranteed liberties of Seventh-day Adventists who were U.S. citizens. The language of many of the news items seems calculated to pacify readers—either Caucasian or Japanese American— who might see the government’s arbitrary evacuation and relocation order as a threat to civil liberties.

Camps2 copy
-- The Camps

Japanese members have moved away from the Los Angeles area “in harmony with Army instructions,”10 says one early news item. The school conducted at the Merced, California, assembly center by an Adventist teacher begins each day “with American patriotic songs and flag salute,”11 says another note. “The government is trying their best to get vegetables, fruit, and milk to us,” writes one interned pastor whose report was carried in the Recorder. “In a few months Camp Poston will be the best camp in the United States”12—as though that mattered!

Church members and denominational employees interned in the camps are unfailingly pictured as positive and enthusiastic. All are regularly “of good courage.” The secretary of the Nevada-Utah Conference writes that all readers should join in praying for “the opportunities presented to our faithful Japanese members.”13 The president of the Southern California Conference is rejoicing in the “wonderful opportunity for Brother Okohira and our other members to let their light shine and to win honest people to the message.”14 “Excellent meetings” and a “fine spirit” are customary among Adventist internees.

Further, the internees are not prisoners—the normal designation for those who are unable to move beyond barbed wire and surrounded by armed guards—but “campers,”15 according to one report. The camp at Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming has “been arranged for the comfort and convenience of the 8,000 Japanese”16 sent there. “Comfortable apartments” have been given to each family, along with “adequate schools, recreation, and church facilities.” “An abundance of coal” is provided for each living area.

Not one word of complaint is heard from any Adventist internee, writes the president of the Central California Conference. “Every member, including the many young people, was rejoicing in the Lord.” When Adventists at a Utah camp are allowed to attend a baptismal service at a nearby dam, they were “privileged to have a day’s outing”17—not exercising their constitutional rights as American citizens. Church leaders are routinely ecstatic that “our Japanese believers in this country probably never had greater opportunities to give the message to these Japanese people than now.”18

Reviewing the Review

Such sentiments were not restricted to West Coast Adventist leaders, however. Officials at the church’s Washington, D.C., world headquarters regularly sought to minimize the conditions under which Adventist Japanese Americans were living and avoid the difficult issue of what the government’s action represented as a threat to the Bill of Rights. Only two articles appeared in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, the church’s general paper, during the entire three-and- a-half-year internment experience that dealt with the internment of the church’s Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens.

The first article (October 22, 1942)19 seeks to elicit admiration from the readers for the “magnitude of the task which the officials of our government undertook when they decided to evacuate the military defense zone.” Without apparent irony, the author mildly adds that “this was the first time anything like this has ever been attempted by our Government.” The author insists that in his many interviews and meetings with interned Adventists, “I heard not one hint or suggestion of anything like inhumane or harsh treatment.”

Incredibly, he goes on to insist that “there are no armed guards inside the camps” (the guard towers and guards were always outside the barbed wire), and “the only barbed wire seen was that of fences separating adjoining properties, of the same type as used by farms near by, and not manproof.” This claim, demonstrably untrue, flies in the face of every internee and news reporter who visited the camps. He claims that “the principle of religious freedom” is “observed by the officials in the camps,” even though General Conference officer minutes from two months earlier specifically assigned one leader to “see if something could be done to establish the religious rights of our Japanese believers in these camps.” 20

“Our people [Japanese American Adventists],” he concludes, are “thankful for the degree of liberty and the comforts they still enjoy.”21

A second article seven months later (May 20, 1943) asserts that “our Japanese believers have been well treated everywhere and they speak highly of the camp directors and the kindness of the American Government.” 22

The near absence of comment in the denomination’s official journal is all the more remarkable in light of the Review’s consistent editorial focus during the previous 90 years on protecting civil and religious liberties from government assault.

The Sound of Silence

Minutes from the “officers’ meeting,” a group that included General Conference officers and union conference presidents, also reveal the unwillingness of church leadership to deal with the moral and constitutional issues raised by the crisis. An April 7, 1942, action appropriately expresses “heartfelt sympathy” with Japanese members, but pledges only to “stand ready to cooperate with them in every legitimate way to satisfy the requirements of the government in this matter of evacuation.” The action concludes with a stern directive: “We instruct and encourage such of our Japanese brethren to cooperate fully in complying with the evacuation orders of the government, believing that in so doing they will receive the blessing of God.” 23

The minutes of that meeting also record this amazing agreement about the action just voted: “That this recommendation be presented to the FBI authorities in Washington for their approval of what we propose to do with regard to our Japanese believers.”24

Far from raising a righteous cry against the government action depriving church members of habeas corpus rights, the officers were actually submitting their very tame response to that same government for its approval. Two weeks later a report given to the officers asserts that “aliens now in camps are not interned,” but “have merely been relocated by government order,”25 a fiction dropped three months later when minutes clearly refer to the “various internment camps” and made completely unsustainable when President Roosevelt himself referred to the sites as “concentration camps.”

Prisoner of Hope 3 copy
Credit: GC Archives

The great bulk of the discussion about Japanese American Adventists at these officers’ meetings is about planning for evangelistic endeavors in the camp and arranging for finances and personnel to do the work. When a professor from Madison College initiated plans for a meeting of Japanese workers, doctors, and prominent believers in Salt Lake City in October 1943—at which the issues of the church’s response to the constitutional issues involved would no doubt have come up—the officers voted that “a much wiser and safer course” would be to invite two leading Adventist Japanese American pastors working in the camps to visit Washington and discuss any necessary matters with General Conference leaders.26 But it was not merely a blind eye that church leaders turned toward the constitutional issues involved. In one telling instance, they looked the issue squarely in the face and refused to deal with it. 

An Adventist internee at the Poston, Arizona, camp, Richard Iwata, wrote on several occasions to General Conference president J. L. McElhany, appealing for church leaders to make a statement about the injustice done to Japanese Americans. “One principle stands out boldly midst the turmoil of evacuation,” Iwata wrote in a May 1, 1943, letter.27 “The rightful privileges as American citizens [were] suppressed by racial discrimination.

“This mater of evacuation concerns the Americans of Japanese descent directly,” he continued. “Yet, indirectly, it concerns every minor group and every individual. Certain uncurtailable rights guaranteed by the Constitution have been transgressed.

“Many religious denominations have outwardly proclaimed the unjust principles of evacuation. I appeal to the General Conference to take a definite stand regarding this matter and inform the Adventists and the public of its views.”

The officers’ meeting minutes from six weeks later record this lamentable response: “Agreed, That the chairman be asked to inform Richard Iwata that we do not feel that as a religious organization we can interfere in the matter referred to in his correspondence, since it is essentially of a political or government nature.” 28

Handwritten notes, apparently McElhany’s, accompanying Iwata’s letter add that the response should “state the denomination’s limitations where it comes to national, social, racial problems.”

McElhany’s letter of response to Richard Iwata articulates a theory of church involvement with social or governmental issues only if the problem is narrowly “religious.” “We feel, Brother Iwata, that we would be in a better position to discuss with the government the problem of evacuation if it rested upon an entirely religious basis rather than a political or governmental foundation. In other words, if our brethren had been evacuated for religious reasons, our appeal to the government could be on the basis of religious discrimination. While we are deeply touched by the sufferings occasioned by what has been done, we are made to realize that it is based on reason outside of religion.”29

The Contradictions of Liberty

President McElhany’s theory of noninvolvement by a religious organization in “national, social, and racial problems” of the day might be sustained on a narrow reading of certain biblical passages if it were not flatly contradicted by major articles published in 1942 and 1943 by the church’s journal of religious freedom, Liberty. Articles authored by Liberty editor, Heber H. Votaw, associate editor Charles Longacre, and numerous luminaries from academe and other Protestant denominations vigorously asserted not only the church’s right, but its duty, to pronounce on issues that affect the personal civil and religious freedomsof its members.

Under the heading “The Bill of Human Rights” (Fall 1942), Longace offered a glowing tribute to the national ethos: “Americanism recognizes that each individual possesses certain natural, inherent, God-given, inalienable rights which no human government has a right to abridge or invade. Americanism enumerates certain fundamental rights as superior to governmental authority, such as free speech, a free press, including the freedom to circulate literature, the freedom to worship, the freedom to assemble, the right of petition against grievances, the right of trial by one’s peers, and the right to sovereignty as a people.

Americanism recognizes the right to criticize abuses in the Government, to disagree with political policies, to differ in religious ideas and modes of worship, and to tolerate opposing opinions whether right or wrong, so long as they do not result in harmful acts or violate common decencies.”30

A lead article by a prominent academic, C. B Gohdes, in Liberty asserted that “the religious group becomes the conscience of the state. . . . Fortified by the truths of the sacred volume, whose relevancy and authority are borne out by history, the lovers of the Bible scan the acts of government from the moral standpoint, and the successive milestones of our national progress—the abolition of slavery, of the lottery, of polygamy, and checks to the liquor traffic—are evidence that this conscience is awake. Such a state of affairs, surely, is better than one in which political measures require ecclesiastical approval or ecclesiastical measures are conditioned by policies of state.”31

In part 2 of the same article, published three months later, Liberty editors again included Gohdes’ thunderous endorsement of the church’s role in commenting on social and political issues: “Silence the voice of the church, thrust aside its grasp upon the public conscience, and someday the price of real estate may tumble to the Sodom level.”32

Longacre, writing in the third quarter of the first internment year, again affirmed the sacred character of civil rights under the American Constitution—and even under divine law: “The glory of America lies in the fact that the Bill of Human Rights is applicable in times of war as well as in times of peace. Inalienable rights can never be alienated or abandoned under any circumstances. God does not forsake His throne or abandon His sovereign power and authority over His people during a crisis or any emergency. With God there is no crisis. His claims upon His children are eternal and unchangeable, because they are just and right. A right principle can never be surrendered. To surrender it would be an unmoral, if not an immoral, act.”33

Up From the Pit

A common theme emerges from hours of interviews with Adventists interned in the government camps during World War II: the providence of God. Most look back at the injustice of their incarceration with a surprising lack of rancor. The harshness of forced evacuation, financial loss, and uncomfortable camp life is most often remembered without personal bitterness, and usually balance guided them through their darkest moments. “Were it not for the time in the camps,” they say with a covering smile, “I might never have learned about the truth, attended an Adventist school, become a Christian, met my spouse.”

Most could honestly say to their national government what the biblical Joseph once said to the brothers who had sold him into slavery: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20, NRSV).

Their generous spirit does not, however, absolve those who participated in or acquiesced to their mistreatment of the moral responsibility for those actions, a fact that the U.S. government belatedly acknowledged with an official apology from Congress and the president in 1988, and reparations amounting to $20,000 per surviving internee. In the words of President Ronald Reagan as he signed the bill, “What is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”34

For Seventh-day Adventists the story of the painful and prolonged mistreatment of so many fellow members—and the official church silence that permitted it to continue—should impel us to reaffirm our commitment to defending the rights of the vulnerable, even in the face of strong societal opposition and national emergency. Other faiths have exhibited such courage, even during wartime. No less can be expected of those called to “stand for the right though the heavens fall.”35

If we do not, we can hardly expect others to stand for us when our own cherished liberties are threatened by an all-powerful state.

1 Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy:The UntoldStory ofAmerica’s Concentration Camps (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1976), pp. 33-53.

2 NationalJapanese-AmericanNationalMuseumQuarterly,Vol. 9, No. 3 (Fall 1994), p. 12.

3 “Meeting of Officers,War Service Commission and Bureau of Home Missions With Brethren  Okohira and Nozaki,” Nov. 2, 1943. General Conference Archives.

4 Amache, Colorado; Gila River, Arizona; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Jerome, Arkansas; Manzanar, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Poston, Arizona; Rowher, Arkansas; Topaz, Utah; Tule Lake, California.

5 Interview with Dr. Crashi Mitoma.

6 General Conference officers’ meeting minutes, Apr. 7, 1942. GC Archives.

7 Other Adventist pastors allowed to work in the camps, but apparently not officially interned, included Robert Nomi, Semeko Kono, and K. Inoue.

8 PacificUnionRecorder, June 2, 1943.

9 “Meeting...With BrethrenOkohiraandNozaki,”Apr. 7, 1942. GC Archives.

10 PacificUnionRecorder, Apr. 15, 1942.

11 Ibid.,June 17, 1942.

12 Ibid.,June 24, 1942.

13 Ibid.,Dec. 16, 1942.

14 Ibid.,Mar. 10, 1943.

15 Ibid.,Apr. 14, 1943.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.,June 30, 1943.

18 Ibid.,Oct. 13, 1943.

19 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 22, 1942, pp. 18, 19.

20 General Conference officers’ meeting minutes, Aug. 5, 1942. GC Archives.

21 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 22, 1942, p. 19.

22 Ibid.,May 20, 1943, p. 20.

23 General Conference officers’ meeting minutes, Apr. 17, 1942. (Italics supplied.) GC Archives.

24 Ibid.(Italics supplied.)

25 Ibid.,Apr. 16, 1942.

26 Ibid.,Oct. 14, 1943.

27 Richard Iwata to J. L. McElhany, May 1, 1943. GC Archives.

28 General Conference officers’ meeting minutes, June 9, 1943. GC Archives.

29 J. L. McElhany to Richard Iwata, June 16, 1943. GC Archives.

30 Charles S. Longacre, “The Bill of Human Rights,” Liberty,Third Quarter 1942, p. 33. (Italics supplied.)

31 C. B. Gohdes, “Where Separation Is Alliance,” Liberty,First Quarter 1942, p. 8.

32 ———, “Where Separation Is Alliance” (Second Part), Liberty,Second Quarter 1942, p. 10.

33 Charles S. Longacre, “Inalienable Rights Never Surrendered,” Liberty, Third Quarter 1942, p. 26.

34 Ronald Reagan, as cited in Liberty (January-February 1989), p. 7.