Category Archives: Obituaries

In memoriam: Sgt. Ben Kuroki

Ben Kuroki at Heart MountainWe’re very sorry to learn of the passing at 98 of the war hero, Sgt. Ben Kuroki, the “Boy from Nebraska.” His life merits long remembrances in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and in the Rafu Shimpo, which includes comments from his daughter Julie.

We were fortunate to be able to interview Mr. Kuroki at his home in Camarillo, California in 1998, the very last piece of new footage to go into the documentary. Ben graciously agreed to appear, despite his initial misgivings, to share how his story intersected with that of the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain. After the PBS broadcast he sent a nice note to say how pleased he was at his fair treatment in the film, and to invite us to visit him anytime.

In this excerpt from the outtakes in our DVD extras, Kuroki answers the criticism he endured during the war for his fervent patriotism.

To learn more about Ben’s life, we encourage you to acquire a copy of our friend Bill Kubota’s excellent 2007 PBS documentary, Most Honorable Son.

Our condolences to Ben’s widow, Shige, daughter Julie, and all his family and many friends.

Discovering my father was a no-no boy

chef George Heart MtnThis is the story of a rank-and-file supporter of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, one of the many never named who chipped in two hard-earned 1944 dollars to the defense fund for the young draft resisters.

His name was George Yoshisuke Abe, and yes, he was my father. Dad died in his sleep on April 1, his last laugh on all of us. He was 91.

Ht Mtn crew cropIn preparing for his service, I revisited a chronology he wrote some years ago, and was startled to discover something I’d completely overlooked: Dad was in fact a no-no boy.

This is what he wrote of the time he was handed the loyalty questionnaire in 1943.

At first I answered Yes, Yes to questions 27 and 28 but late after talk with Mr. Oda and Nisei friends I changed the answer to No, No and went to administration building to have it notarized. Before that Nisei girl officer in the office wrote explanation for reason of changing the answer in loyalty questionnaire. After notarized I hand the letter to hakujin officer in the same office. At that time I never realized the seriousness of Yes, Yes and No, No. I sure found out the consequence later.

About a month later Yes, Yes and No, No groups were separated. The Yes, Yes and the disloyal to U.S. about 1000 of them were shipped to different camp later known to be Tule Lake segregated camp in Calif. I went to see departure of Yes, Yes group [here he probably means the No-No group] because some of my friends were going. It was terrible scene to see. Loved ones and family being separated and tears were flowing everywhere. Out of segregated, some had change of heart and some were shipped to Japan.

Dad then wrote of the later JACL campaign to solicit volunteers for the Army as a demonstration of Nisei loyalty, and the reinstitution of the draft in early 1944.

Some volunteered.  Others resisted draft and taken to jail. There were talk of drinking soy sauce that made heart rate to go way up so that Army examiner will reject on ground of bad heart. Somehow the draft never came to me. I had already registered for draft before the evacuation in 1941 in County of Santa Clara draft board #111. I carried draft card with me so I wasn’t worried too much.

1948 portrait croppedIt’s regrettable the things one never thinks to ask until it’s too late. Why did he change his answer from yes-yes to no-no? Since he did register as no-no, why wasn’t he segregated to Tule Lake with the others? And since, on paper at least, he was 22 when Selective Service was reinstituted for the Nisei in 1944, why didn’t he get the call until  1947? He may not have known himself.

I can’t say that Dad’s personal wartime resistance was the reason for making CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, or for maintaining this blog. I’ve never drawn the direct connection. But it’s not hard to see how one’s origins shapes a person and motivates them.

He will, of course, be deeply missed. Goodbye, Dad, and thanks for everything.

In Memoriam: Henry Miyatake, visionary for redress

photo: Densho EncyclopediaHenry Miyatake did not appear in our film, but we could not have told the story of the Heart Mountain resisters without first establishing a common foundation of understanding about the underlying facts of the incarceration. And we could never have those facts acknowledged without Henry’s vision of winning an apology and compensation for constitutional violations from the U.S. government.

It’s no exaggeration to call Henry the father of Japanese American redress. In the 70s he railed against Mike Masaoka’s “Japanese American Creed” when its words were used against him by a Boeing Company manager to levy a 25 percent pay cut. He researched and wrote the “American Promise,” apologizing for and rescinding FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which was signed by President Ford in 1976. Henry oversaw production of the very first Day of Remembrance in the nation. And he conceived the innovative “Seattle Plan” for redress and reparations, the essence of which was signed a decade later by President Reagan.

Henry passed away quietly in Federal Way, WA, on September 16. But the Seattle community would not let him go without some closure, as Bob Shimabukuro expressed so well in the International Examiner, “Remembering Henry Miyatake: A man with the plan.” So we held a community memorial service for Henry on Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall in Seattle. I said a few words, which were preceded by clips from Henry’s video interview for the Densho Project, which you can watch with a free registration.

“Day of Remembrance and Henry’s Impact on Redress”
Saturday, December 6, 2014

photo: Eileen Yamada-LamphereWe just saw the great value of The Densho Project. Thanks to Densho we will always have Henry’s image and words to remember him by. And seeing him again, I am reminded how that man could talk. Once you got him started, look out. Like Tom said, he had to interview Henry six different times to get his whole life story.

That was part of Henry’s charm. He could talk, and this was a time when we needed people who could talk. But he was also about action.

You have to remember that in the late 70s, the very subject of the camps was open to argument in the newspaper and radio. For every one of us who just mentioned incarceration, there was a war veteran quick to remind people that we attacked Pearl Harbor, or we were put in camp for our protection.

But Henry had a vision. He created a set of flip charts, as you saw in that photo. If we’d had PowerPoint back then, Henry would have made a PowerPoint presentation. But this was the 70s, all he had was paper, and he was a brilliant engineer, so he created flip charts. And he shopped his flip charts all over town. He’d talk to any group that would listen.

I was a young kid fresh from California, and Henry was unlike any Nisei I had ever met. He was unafraid. He thought nothing of going to a Congressman like Brock Adams to get his support, or of working his connections with Governor Dan Evans, or with State Supreme Court Justice Charles Z. Smith, who we are honored to have with us today.

I met Henry through Frank Chin. Frank was writing a piece for the Seattle Weekly about Henry’s flipchart plan. Frank thought the move for redress was bold, and he wanted to help publicize it.

Now Frank was big on ideas. He said let’s call it a Day of Remembrance. His first idea was for us to recreate the eviction and form a car caravan down to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, to go down on Thanksgiving Day, and once we got there, we’d get out and all chain ourselves to the fence. He thought that would be great television.

Henry screamed that Frank was nuts. No one’s gonna go out on Thanksgiving. It had to be a family event, he said, and people want to be with their families on Thanksgiving. So between the two of them we arrived at the program you see on the poster, framed as a formal invitation for the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  And not a protest, but a family potluck.

We nailed those posters to telephone poles, just like in 1942.  Just using the words “Remember the camps / Stand for redress with your family” was touchy with a lot of people. We took the poster to Imperial Lanes, and the manager refused to let us put it up. “I have a lot of white customers here. I don’t want any trouble.”

The signs invited people to assemble in a vacant lot next to the old Seattle Pilots baseball park, where Lowe’s is now. And on the morning of Nov. 25, we were stunned when we arrived at Sick’s Stadium and found a thousand people waiting in line with cars. People were ready for this to happen.

Ben Nakagawa arranged for the use of some National Guard trucks and buses. The driver didn’t know how to get to the Puyallup Fairground, so Henry had to sit in the first vehicle as a guide. And Diana, you may not remember this but you wanted to ride up front with him. But Henry saw another friend of mine from San Francisco,. Benjamin Tong, sitting in the cargo bed of a big 6-wheel-drive Army truck. And Henry says, “How come you’re riding in this truck?” And Ben says, “I want to know how it felt to be taken to camp in a truck, I want to go through the same experience that you guys did.”

So Henry says, “Well, Diana, you ride with Dr. Tong so you can experience what we went through.” And that’s what Diana did, riding in the back of Army truck in the cold November wind, at the head of a 2-and-a-half mile-long car caravan snaking down southbound I-5. And like he said in the video, inside the cars, parents opened up to their kids for the first time. Yasuko Takezawa calls it, “the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history.

And every newspaper and TV station was there to see the largest gathering of Japanese Americans in one place in Seattle since, well, since World War 2. We showed we could get the media on our side. And what people had feared most, never happened. There was no white backlash. No angry mob. No “rekindling of old resentments and racism.”

Day of Remembrance made it safe for people across the country to step out of the shadow. We sparked the popular movement for redress and reparations that led ten years later to President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act for an apology and individual compensation. Today Days of Remembrance are an invented tradition, observed wherever Japanese Americans live.

But taking credit, being in the limelight, was never for Henry.

For one of our newsletters Karen Seriguchi interviewed Henry and asked him, “Do you see yourself as a leader?” “No, I do not,” said Henry. “I ‘m one of the ditch-diggers. Hopefully, all the others will be digging the same way.”

Henry was not there when President Ford signed his American Promise. He was not in the photo when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. But neither of those turning points that fundamentally changed our history would have been imaginable without the dogged persistence, the selfless commitment, and the unassuming courage of Henry Miyatake.

And that’s why we’re all here today, to remember Henry and to let his family know that as long as our voices are heard, we will never let Henry’s life and achievements be forgotten. Henry taught us to look our history in the eye, with the passion of a professor and the inescapable logic of an engineer.

Henry was a great ditch-digger. He was the conscience of our community. He was my hero, my mentor, and my friend, and I, like you, will deeply miss him.

Update: December 23, 2014
See more stories about Henry in this new obit that was requested by the Nichi Bei Weekly out of San Francisco,

In memoriam: Joe Yamakido, the lone resister at Jerome

Joe Yamakido
Joe Yamakido, 1922-2014 (photo courtesy of Matt Sanchez)

Very saddened to receive news over the weekend of the passing of Joe Yamakido. Joe was a good guy. He is featured on Disc 2 of our DVD receiving a tearful hug from his daughter Laureen at the JACL apology ceremony in 2002.

Joe gave a memorable interview many years ago to Martha Nakagawa in the Pacific Citizen, about using his judo skills to fend off an attack from other inmates in federal prison. He said he knew if he were to lose his footing and go down, he would not survive.

Joe was the only Nisei to resist the draft from the camp at Jerome. It took a lot to stand up against the government, without support from one’s community. To do it completely alone, without the backing of an organized group like the one at Heart Mountain, says a lot about his character. Learn more about Joe by watching his interview archived at Densho (free registration required).

Our deepest condolences to his family and friends. Thanks to one of Joe’s grandson’s, Matt Sanchez, for sharing the news:

Mr. Abe,

My Jichan, Joe Yamakido, passed away yesterday (February 21) at the age of 91. He was the lone resister at Jerome.

What an amazing life and legacy he left behind. He taught me what it means to stand up for what you believe in. Interned unjustly along with his entire family during WWII for being nothing more than an American citizen with Japanese ancestry, he was sent to camps first at the horse tracks in Santa Anita and later in Tule Lake and then Jerome. In a show of principle, he refused to be drafted until the American government gave back his family’s Constitutional rights. He was the “lone resister” at Jerome. For his stand, he was thrown in federal prison where he escaped at least one attempt on his life. He later relocated to Montana to work on sugar beet farms and then had to reunite with his family after the war and start from scratch. As a teen, I heard the stories constantly. Even if he repeated himself, which was often, I rarely tired of hearing them. As an almost middle-aged man now, I am so grateful that he shared them with us.

My Jichan had a work ethic unequaled. He could outwork men half his age. If something was broken, he could fix it. If something needed building, he would build it. Even at 80 years old, he could be seen walking three miles to town and back or even trying to ride his bicycle. In his mind, he was still a young judoka black belt who could do anything. His gardens were his pride and joy … second only to his full head of hair. He had a sense of humor you’d never expect, but if you tried to take his candy or cookies it was at risk of your own life and limb. Seriously. For a man who went through so much, he was tender and loved his kids and grandkids dearly. He was surrounded by three generations as he passed on. He will be missed.

The Nisei generation has lost a great one. And I just wanted to pay tribute to him here.

— Matt Sanchez

Update: March 11, 2014

In memoriam: Senator Daniel Inouye, who stood up for the resisters

Sen. Daniel Inouye was a highly-decorated combat veteran, the first Japanese American in Congress, and an icon in the Japanese American community — so people took notice when a decade ago he began to give interviews in which he compared the courage of the veterans to the courage of the Heart Mountain draft resisters for being willing to go to prison to stand up for their rights. Maybe he sensed, after the broadcast of our film and other works, that the time had come for the reconciliation long talked about between the veterans, the resisters and other camp dissenters.

He was big enough to recognize that, as he put it, “it took a lot of guts” for the resisters to stand up to their own government — and by saying so, he showed a lot of gut himself. 

I’m sorry to learn tonight that Mr. Inouye passed away today at the age of 88. In 2002, he was gracious enough to grant us an interview that is exclusive to our new DVD. Shot at Seattle Central Community College by our principal videographer, Phil Sturholm, producer Carol Hasegawa squeezed in two questions on our behalf at the end of her interview with him on the day’s Civil Liberties Celebration. In the good Senator’s memory tonight, here is the full featurette as it appears on our DVD:

The James Omura centenary: 1912-2012

James Omura - Broadway High School photo
James Omura at Broadway High School, Seattle

One hundred years ago today, November 27, 1912, Utaka Matsumoto was born to a sawmill worker and his wife on Bainbridge Island, Washington. At age 6 his mother returned ill to Japan and he never saw her again. At age 13 he would take the name James Omura and leave home to work in the Alaskan salmon canneries. In this centenary year we recognize Omura as the Japanese American journalist most willing to take a stand — demanding of the Tolan Committee “Has the Gestapo come to America?,” editorializing against the draft resistance at Heart Mountain in “Let Us Not Be Rash,” and testifying decades later to the Bernstein Commission for redress.

Jimmie would always tell me that he didn’t expect to be remembered or recognized for his accomplishments until 50 years after his death. Then he would go on to complain about the lack of guts among the third-generation Sansei journalists, including, one had to assume, myself. But he seemed genuinely pleased to be awarded the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the then-fledgling Asian American Journalists Association, and we were fortunate to have recovered and told his story in our PBS film Conscience and the Constitution.

In this centenary year we may get word of publication of Jimmie’s memoirs, a work left incomplete by his passing in 1994 and painstakingly edited ever since by Professor Art Hansen under the working title, Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura.

We were saddened to recently hear from Art of the passing of Jimmie’s second wife, Haruko Karen Omura, on September 4th at the age of 85, but we have been in touch with the two sons of Karen and Jimmie. The younger son Wayne is a writer, author of the book Movies and The Meaning of Life: The Most Profound Films in Cinematic History, available on Amazon. We asked Wayne for his reflections on this date:

On the Hundredth Anniversary of My Father’s Birth

Many fathers tell stories about their lives, and it is hard to know how much is true and how much is tall-tales.  It was only after my father retired that he became involved, once again, in politics, history, and journalism.  It was then that I began to suspect that those “tall-tales” might be true.

After his death, after seeing all that was written about him, all the many books in which his name appeared, I realized that those tall-tales were really “true-tales.”  I should have listened better and taken more interest as I was growing up.  But like all kids, we had our own lives to live, our own problems in the here and now. The past was history.  The words went in one ear and out the other.

A personal anecdote may be in order which displays my Dad’s character, as well as the most important principle he taught me.

While working after college as night-manager in a small grocery store, I had numerous physical confrontations with shoplifters.  My Mom (being a mother) thought it was reckless and stupid.  “Why risk your life and physical injury for a candy bar?” On a practical level she was right, but on an ethical level she was wrong.  My Dad’s response was an unusual outburst of anger. (He had mellowed a lot in his later years.)

“He should do what he thinks is right!” he shouted.

Whether an action is dangerous, unpopular, destroys your career and reputation, makes you an outcast in your own community and to your own people: You should always do what you think is right!  (Not just when the world is at peace and you are relatively safe.)

Wayne Omura
written on Thanksgiving Day 2012

If you knew Jimmie, or just share our admiration of him, consider this an open thread and please leave a comment below.

For this occasion here is a part of the extended interview with James Omura in which he describes his trial for conspiracy, as featured on Disc Two of our new DVD. Happy birthday, Jimmie. Your fighting spirit is deeply missed.

In memoriam: Jim Hirabayashi

Through the pioneering Center for Japanese American Studies in San Francisco in the 1970s, at the monthly lectures and workshops they sponsored at Pine Methodist Church in the outer Richmond District, Jim H. and Nancy Araki were among my first tutors in JA camp history. I looked forward to the flyers I’d receive in the mail each month. See this remembrance from Nancy at the Japanese American National Museum blog. Our condolences to Lane Hirabayashi and all the family.

In memoriam: Gloria Kubota

Gloria KubotaWe’re saddened to learn of the passing on April 26 of Gloria Kubota. Gloria was one of the most delightful people you’d ever want to meet, and she embodied the female perspective on the resistance of the Fair Play Committee documented in our film.

Gloira reminded us of the particular worries that forced expulsion heaped upon mothers like her, like having to bring canned milk and food for her young daughter on the long train ride to an American concentration camp in Wyoming. Once in camp, she was one of the few women to brave the scorn of other Nisei mothers by hosting her husband’s meetings of the nascent Fair Play Committee, and typing their bulletins onto mimeograph stencils. Gloria tells a funny story about her struggle with typing in an extended interview on Disc Two of our new DVD. You can read more about Gloria in her biography on our PBS.org site, and in the San Jose Mercury-News obit. After we finished the film Gloria stayed in touch, bringing my family fruit from her orchard in Saratoga. Our condolences to her extended family. She will be dearly missed.

Remembering David Ishii, Bookseller

David Ishii, BooksellerThanks for visiting from our tribute in Crosscut Public Media on the passing of David Ishii, Bookseller.

David put a public face on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans for generations that passed through his store, read the exclusion order framed on the wall, looked through his shelves of Asian Americana and Pacific Northwest history, and stoipped to talk to him about redress, the resisters, or the nearby birthplaces of John Okada and Monica Sone. David was a friend of our film, and his passing leaves a deep hole not only in our hearts but in the life of the city he enriched with his passions for baseball, fly fishing, the opera and all the arts. He connected us all and built community.

See also our comments in The Seattle Times, “Longtime bookseller David Ishii was quite a story himself.”

Photo courtesy of Deb Todd

In memoriam: Gordon Hirabayashi

Gordon Hirabayashi (UPI)Obscured in much of this week’s news coverage of the passing of Gordon Hirabayashi is the fact that Gordon was not only a Constitutional test case, he was a Nisei draft resister like the Heart Mountain boys. His case, along with those of Fred Korematsu and Min Yasui, was opposed by the wartime Japanese American Citizens League because, as Mike Masaoka puts it on our DVD, “they were criminal cases,” and JACL favored its own civil habeas corpus case fronted by the irreproachable Mitsuye Endo. Listen to how Mike explains it in our bonus DVD audio feature, “Masaoka on test cases.” Read the New York Times obituary.