We are reminded almost daily of how quickly we are losing our World War II veterans — the people that broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” In Hawai‘i, we see their names in the “Honor Roll” and “In Memoriam” columns in the newsletters of the various veterans groups. No one lives forever, but the realization that the men and women who sacrificed so much for their country during the war — a country that did not trust them — will be completely gone in a few years leaves me very sad. They have taught us so much about what it means to be an American. Because of their sacrifice, no one questions our loyalty as Americans today.
There are probably some younger generations of Japanese Americans rolling their eyes because they think this is ancient history. Get over it; we’re in the 21st century, the century of AI.
I don’t buy that. Everything has a foundation: We Sansei and Yonsei and Gosei and the generations beyond all stand on the shoulders of our Issei ancestors and our Nisei warriors, and we need to know what they endured so that we have the life we enjoy today.
In the late 1990s, I had the honor of working with six World War II AJA veterans who had served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service, a Nisei educator/author and three Sansei descendants of 100th Infantry Battalion veterans. Although I was the daughter of a 100th Battalion veteran, I was not initially among the three Sansei — my role was to serve as editor of a book that came to be known as “Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers.”
At the request of Bishop Ryokan Ara of the Tendai Mission of Hawaii, the late Hideto Kono, retired director of the state Department of Planning and Economic Development, organized an editorial board to compile a book that explored the wartime experiences of the veterans from a humanitarian perspective. The six veterans were 442nd RCT veterans Edward Ichiyama, Robert Katayama and Ted Tsukiyama. Ted had served in both the 442nd and the Military Intelligence Service, along with Hideto Kono, the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani and Robert Sakai. Rounding out the Nisei was educator Jane Komeiji, whose husband was an MIS veteran. In that group were three lawyers, a former Honpa Hongwanji bishop, a successful businessman and state cabinet member, a University of Hawai‘i history professor and a public school teacher. The Sansei were Cary Miyashiro, Mimi Nakano and Drusilla Tanaka.
When Hideto Kono asked me to help compile and edit the book, I was, of course, honored. And then reality set in: What had I gotten myself into?! I’ve never edited a book before!
Whenever our editorial board met at Tendai Mission in Nu‘uanu, these Nisei men who were my father’s generation always saved the seat at the head of the table for me, eager to see what new material I had found for the book. They were the best group of Nisei. The respect we had for each other was mutual, and it endures till today.
When “Japanese Eyes, American Heart” was finally published in November 1998, we were all so proud of the book. By the following January, we had ordered a second printing from our distributor, University of Hawai‘i Press. Since 1998, the book has had four printings. I think it is still one of the best collections of stories written by the veterans themselves about their experiences most Nisei are reluctant to share.
Over the years, however, our original group of 12 has gotten smaller with the passing of our Nisei members: first Hideto Kono, then Bob Sakai, then Bob Katayama and, just this year within the span of a month, the passings of Bishop Ara on Jan. 16, then Ed Ichiyama on Jan. 29 in San Mateo, Calif., and, on Feb. 13, of Ted Tsukiyama. Of the Nisei in our original group, only Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani and Jane Komeiji remain with us today — they continue to inspire us with their friendship, wisdom and spirit.
The empty seats are now filled with new editorial board members who have worked on subsequent volumes in the “Japanese Eyes, American Heart” series. Their work and dedication to continue telling the story of Hawai‘i’s AJAs truly honors the people who laid the foundation for our understanding of Americanism.