BY MARISA MCQUILKEN
UW News lab
The American flag embroidered onto Sam Mitsui’s golf shirt, the yellow “Livestrong” band around his right wrist, and the cross hanging from his neck hint at the ideals behind the message the World War II veteran has to impart.
Beyond these symbols, however, Mitsui, 80, has a much bigger story to share. That’s why Seattle’s Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC) asked him to be the first of a series of Japanese American veterans to speak about the war that turned their own country against them, resulting in the incarceration of thousands of citizens. He spoke on Sept. 30 at the NVC Hall in the International District.
All of the speeches in the series will be videotaped to preserve the legacies of the aging Nisei, which means second generation Japanese American, for future generations.
Mitsui’s speech was titled “Good Things Grow from Horse Manure,” alluding to the many Japanese Americans who were moved into horse stalls at the onset of the internment before relocating to more permanent camps. Despite these unthinkable circumstances, Mitsui emphasized the positive that eventually came from them.
“Yes, the act of internment was unjust and the scars are numerous, but realize that it takes a great nation to admit that they were wrong,” he said, referring to the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which provided redress and a formal apology to those who suffered the internment.
Mitsui’s speech also emphasized the lessons that can be derived from history.
“I ask each one of you to never disrespect a person because of the color of his skin, the religion he believes in, the race he belongs to, or his sexual orientation,” he said, adding, “If we show such disrespect, we disrespect God and our country and what they stand for.”
After listening to Mitsui’s speech, Gail Nomura, a University of Washington Department of American Ethnic Studies professor and a third-generation Japanese American, stressed the importance of documenting the veterans’ testimonies.
“You can see that everyone in the audience was greatly moved, and you’re transported back to that era to understand the situation that they were in,” she said.
Mitsui, who was placed in the Tule Lake internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, served in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps. He was training as a replacement for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), a segregated all-Japanese American unit, when the atom bombs were dropped. He then served with the force that occupied Japan after the war’s end.
Returning Japanese American soldiers formed the NVC in 1946 when they found they were not welcome in other veterans’ organizations. As the Nisei have grown older, the NVC’s purpose has become more focused on educating the public.
Many of the veterans visit local schools, ranging from the elementary to university level, to talk about their internment during World War II and their willingness to serve for the United States regardless of the prejudice against them. However, this is the first time many of them will share their presentations with a more general audience.
May Sasaki, the NVC educational-outreach chairperson, began organizing the school visits two-and-a-half years ago after she learned the veterans were already speaking to students without getting any recognition.
“If people do this in quiet without telling others, then no one knows that they’re doing it. There’s no appreciation,” Sasaki said.
Sasaki became the liaison between the veterans and the schools, coordinating their visits and eventually accompanying them into the classrooms after she realized their hesitancy to recount their time with the students.
“They’re so humble, you can’t get them to talk about themselves,” she explained.
When presenting to students, Mitsui said, “Instead of them asking me questions, the first thing I do is ask them what they would do if they were in our position.” He recalled, “One boy went real extreme and says, ‘I’d kill myself.’ You get real interesting results from the kids.”
During a question-and-answer session following Mitsui’s speech, Tosh Okamoto, 80, who served with the 442nd RCT, explained his willingness to fight during the war.
“We had to go prove that we were not enemy aliens. We were loyal Americans,” he said.
Okamoto also stressed that the internment was not his first experience with racism.
He said, “I distinctly remember, and I have to chuckle about it today, that when I was a little kid, we played Cowboys and Indians, and I was always the Indian.
“I was always on the losing side, and I think psychologically that kind of sticks with you all your life, that you’re not equal.”
Shina Kashino, 14, worked the video camera at the Saturday night presentation. She is the granddaughter of the late Shiro Kashino, another decorated member of the 442nd.
It’s important for her generation to hear stories such as Mitsui’s, Kashino said, because, “it’s a part of us. Then we know who we are.”
The NVC Foundation Speaker Series will continue over the next 15 months. For more information, contact May Sasaki at (206) 762-9146, or Bev Kashino at (206) 767-5045.