An American Story is Being Told Daily in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo District
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
As the summer sky slowly turned a shade of pale orange, the near-capacity crowd of 58,000 in Dodger Stadium saluted a 94-year-old American veteran of Japanese and Hispanic ancestries who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the highly decorated World War II unit comprised mainly of second-generation Japanese Americans.
It was July 24 and Japan Night at the “freeway series” between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels. The World War II veteran being honored that night was Fernando Joseph Sousa Masuda (pictured on the cover). His father, Yonezo Masuda, came to America from Kumamoto, Japan, and his mother, Guadalupe, had emigrated from Queretaro, Mexico.
Go For Broke National Education Center president and chief executive officer Mitchell Maki escorted the L.A.-born nisei to a spot near home plate, where Masuda waved to the crowd after being introduced.
Masuda was 18 years old when he enlisted in the Army in 1945, following in the footsteps of his three older brothers who had enlisted in the Navy and the Army using their mother’s maiden name. Hernando Masuda kept his Japanese surname and was assigned as a replacement in the 442nd’s F Company, serving in Italy, where he guarded German prisoners at the end of the war in Europe, Maki said.
Maki, a 58-year-old sansei who was born and raised in California, had spent the morning giving The Hawai‘i Herald a tour of the 30-year-old Go For Broke National Education Foundation’s facilities and the impressive black granite Go For Broke Monument located adjacent to the GFBNEC office in Los Angeles’ historic Little Tokyo District, two miles southeast of Dodger Stadium.
Hernando Masuda’s name is among the 16,131 World War II Nisei soldiers whose names are inscribed on the shiny black walls surrounding the monument. Although more than 33,000 Japanese Americans fought in World War II, the names on the monument reflect only those Nisei veterans who chose to be memorialized and those whose service record could be authenticated, said 88-year-old Bill Shishima, a longtime docent for the Japanese American National Museum. More names will be added later, Maki said.
Fronting the monument is a flagpole and the large red, white and blue insignia of a raised arm grasping a torch — the shoulder patch of soldiers who fought in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The patch is still worn by soldiers of the only combat infantry unit in the Army Reserve, the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment.
At the top of the monument are the words “Go For Broke,” the unit motto of the 100th/442nd. Beneath it are the insignias of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service, and the 232nd Combat Engineer Company and the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. On the wall above the names are the 60 Army shoulder patches worn by the Nisei soldiers.
The $2.5 million monument, which was built by the Go For Broke National Education Foundation (today, Center), sits midway between GFBNEC’s offices and exhibit space and the Japanese American National Museum, whose mission is “to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.”
The Go For Broke National Education Center and the Japanese American National Museum are both located in a 150-acre district known as “Little Tokyo” near the Los Angeles Civic Center. According to JANM docent Bill Shishima, the area was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1995. It was once the largest Japanese American population center, or “Nihonmachi” (“Japantown”) in North America. The other two Japantowns are in San Francisco and San Jose.
During a two-hour walking tour of the Little Tokyo area, Shishima noted that in the 1930s, some 35,000 Japanese Americans lived within a three-mile radius of the district.
“About 40 percent of vegetables grown in Southern California were by Japanese farmers and brought and sold here,” he said.
After Japanese Americans were forced out by internment, they were replaced by than 70,000 African Americans who were attracted by the promise of jobs created by the war. The area became known as Bronzeville and was noted for its jazz clubs.
Shishima, who was born in Little Tokyo, started his tour at First Street, at what was once the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple. The temple was erected in 1925 and now houses Go For Broke’s offices and exhibit space. The building was occupied by JANM until it opened its 85,00 square foot pavilion nearby in 1999.
Maki noted that when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, forcing West Coast Japanese Americans out of their homes and businesses and into concentration camps, Nishi Hongwanji was one of the areas where Japanese Americans were told to meet for processing. They then boarded buses that took them to “assembly centers” at horse tracks, where they lived in horse stalls while the inland concentration camps were being built.
Redevelopment of the Little Tokyo area has resulted in the construction of new and smaller shopping plazas, banks and office buildings. In May, NBC News reported, “Little Tokyo has long been vulnerable to urban renewal and redevelopment, which started in Los Angeles in the 1950s and led to a shrinking of the neighborhood . . . with ongoing development and proposed public transit projects threatening to raise real estate prices.” Today, only about 1,000 Japanese Americans, primarily elder citizens, reside in Little Tokyo.
Shishima, whose family was incarcerated at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming for three years, said a row of historic tenant businesses still have storefronts on First Street. He pointed to a bronze timeline in the sidewalk in front of these stores.
Among the public sculptures in Little Tokyo is a monument honoring Kona-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who was a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded 70 seconds after liftoff in 1986. A street in the district is also named after the Big Island native.
The Japanese American National Museum, which was housed in the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple building from 1992 until 1999, utilizes artifacts, photos and documents “to trace the lives of Japanese Americans from 1885 (Hawai‘i immigrants) to the present,” said Clement Hanami, vice president of exhibitions and art director for the Japanese American National Museum. It has an annual operating budget of $7 million and is the first museum in the United States dedicated to sharing the experience of Japanese Americans.
During one of the tours, a museum docent stood before a model of the Manzanar Relocation Center, where 11,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated. She explained Roosevelt’s 1942 executive order and emphasized to her group of middle school students that no other group should ever be targeted in the same way Japanese Americans were during World War II. Another area in the museum features a reconstructed barracks building from the Heart Mountain camp.
Irene Hirano Inouye, the second wife of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, was JANM’s first executive director when it opened in 1992 in the Nishi Hongwanji temple building. In 1999, JANM moved across the plaza to its current location in an 85,000-square foot pavilion built at a cost of $45 million. Irene Hirano Inouye served as JANM’s president and CEO until 2009. She then established the U.S.-Japan Council, focusing on improving U.S.-Japan relations, and serves as its president.
In 1998, JANM produced the “The Kona Coffee Story: Along the Hawai‘i Belt Road” in collaboration with the Kona community. A year later, the museum developed “From Bento to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai‘i,” which was one of JANM’s most traveled exhibitions. It was shown at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and in venues on Hawai‘i Island, Maui and Kaua‘i; at JANM in L.A.; at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; and in several prefectures of Japan.
The Go For Broke National Education Center was originally established in 1989 in the community of Torrance “to maintain the story and the legacy of what our Japanese American soldiers, both male and female, created for our nation during World War II.” The organization moved to its current location in the historic Little Tokyo district in 2015. Maki said it operates on an annual budget of $2 million and has a staff of 15 full- and part-time workers and a team of volunteers. To date, it has collected the oral histories of 1,200 World War II veterans, primarily Japanese American. Earlier this year, GFBNEC introduced a one-day lesson plan on the exploits of the Nisei soldiers to 12 Hawai‘i high schools.
The exhibits and educational programs of both GFBNEC and the Japanese American National Museum focus on the loss of freedom, material possessions and dignity of the 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans who were incarcerated following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Of the 120,000, two-thirds were American citizens. The exhibits, particularly at GFBNEC, also highlight the sacrifices and exploits of the 33,000 Japanese American servicemen and women who fought for America in the European and the Pacific warfronts.
The wartime experiences of Japanese Americans are even more relevant in today’s sometimes-toxic political environment, said both Maki and Hanami.
“In the current environment, we see a lot of events that are occurring that are reminiscent of the times during World War II and so I think we are trying to remain vigilant,” the 57-year-old Hanami added.
“We’re nonpartisan,” emphasized Hanami. “But we do understand that the story of Japanese Americans and their experiences during World War II are very relevant to today’s times and so we want to be sure that we share those stories . . . So, if anything, we hope that our story can help make everybody more informed about the things that are occurring today and to stay vigilant and ensure they don’t happen again.”
Maki noted that the Go For Broke National Education Center also is a nonprofit, nonpartisan “educational organization that helps to draw the parallels between our historic lessons and our contemporary issues in a way that helps people think for themselves.”
“Certainly, we have to worry about how do we protect ourselves against terror, terrorism. But we need to do that in a way that also maintains our country’s most sacred commitment to our values as a nation, and that’s a fine balance. And, unfortunately, in this time and age where everything is debated in sound bites, it’s very easy to see that go out the window. And it’s important for us to be a part of a deeper conversation and not to sound bites.”
Maki’s family roots are in Hawai‘i — Hilo, specifically — where his parents, Takashi and Chieko (Okamura) Maki, lived prior to relocating to Los Angeles in 1957. His wife, Cayleen Nakamura, is a 1979 Waipahu High School graduate who previously worked for the Japanese American National Museum in various program and leadership capacities. The couple met while attending the University of Southern California. Although their two children were born and raised in L.A., their daughter chose to attend college at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, where she is majoring in Hawaiian Studies and fashion.
Maki earned his doctorate in social work from USC in 1993. In 1995, he co-authored a detailed case study of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, commonly referred to as the redress law. In the 309-page volume, he pointed out that the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which Congress established in 1980 to study the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, recommended that an apology and monetary redress be awarded to those interned because they had been denied their constitutional rights.
He said the commission found that the concentration camps were unjustified and “the result of race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Maki continues to share that information with groups that visit GFBNEC, especially young people. He said they acknowledge that there is racism in our country. “War hysteria, and we are at war with terrorism and we have to maintain our safety and our national security. But we need to do that in a way that maintains our civil liberties,” he stressed.
“And, most of all, [there is] a failure of political leadership. And that’s not a cheap shot at President Trump; that’s an indictment of our whole governmental system right now, where everything is so partisan that these individuals [in Congress] are not able to reach across the aisle and compromise and do what’s in the best interest of our nation. When we can’t even pass a budget bill on time, we’re in trouble. Right? So we, we the people, need to think about a way that we can make sure that we do have appropriate leadership that isn’t so partisan that we can’t think of the greater good . . .”
This past July, Maki joined a 75th anniversary tour to the Vosges region of northeastern France to see with his own eyes the residents of the small towns that the veterans his organization honors daily — the 100th Battalion/442nd RCT — liberated in World War II. Only one 442nd veteran, 95-year-old Lawson Sakai from Northern California, was physically able to make the trip back to his battlegrounds.
Go For Broke recently wrapped up its exhibit, “Called to Serve,” which told the little-known story of the 500 Japanese American women, including some from Hawai‘i, who volunteered to serve in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. It featured photos by Toyo Miyatake, who photographed much of the life of Los Angeles’ Japanese American community; oral histories and a scrapbook detailing Sue Ogata Kato’s experience in the WACs. Several Honolulu Star-Bulletin photos of Hawai‘i women of Japanese ancestry were included in the exhibit.
Maki emphasized that GFBNEC strives to tell not just the Japanese American story, “but a great American story.” “This is the story of sons and daughters of immigrants, who, in the course of one generation, made and adopted this country as their country of allegiance,” he said.
“This story reflects America’s promise — and that’s the promise that in our nation, no one has to be judged by the color of their skin, the nation of their origin or the god they choose to worship. And that speaks directly to the Japanese American experience, right? Because the color of our skin — different, right? Nation of origin — we are from the country that we were at war with. God we choose to worship — more than half of us were Buddhists at the time (World War II). You know, just strange, exotic religions that mainstream America couldn’t identify with. None of that should have precluded us from being treated as American citizens. And we demonstrated that with our blood.”
If you are planning a trip to Los Angeles and would like to visit the Go For Broke National Education Center and/or the Go For Broke Monument, call (310) 328-0907, or visit goforbroke.org. The Japanese American National Museum can be reached at (213) 625-0414, or janm.org. To learn more about the Little Tokyo historic district, visit the Little Tokyo Historic Society’s website at littletokyohs.org.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.