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First Place, Essay, College

Kenneth Kitahata

Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio

Freshman (2016-17 Academic School Year)

My journey to learn about my Japanese American heritage began in my grandmother’s basement. True to the moniker that “obachans save everything,” there were antiques and treasures dating back to when my great-grandparents first emigrated to work the sugar plantations of Hawaii. There were plantation-style saws and pickaxes, my grandmother’s antique Singer sewing machine, and even a German WWII pistol brought back by my grandfather.

As a Yonsei Japanese American, these artifacts were puzzle pieces telling the story of my family’s history.

While I never met my grandfather, who passed away prematurely shortly after the war, I would have certainly pressed him about his time serving in the 442nd 3rd Battalion, the story behind his German pistol, and the atmosphere in Hawaii following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. From stories and memories relayed by my obachan, aunties, and my mother, I’ve constructed an image of a charming, hard-working man whose smile came as quick as his love for his family.

In connecting the relevancy of 442nd veterans such as my grandfather to today, I cannot help but draw a parallel between the toxic, xenophobic political climate and the overt prejudice shown towards Japanese Americans following Dec. 7, 1941. Many JAs found friends and neighbors quickly turn against them, lumping them into the Japanese they suddenly faced as an enemy.

My grandfather had friends on the Triple V, students at University of Hawaii who, after seeking a way to contribute to the war effort, served as manual labor for the U.S. Army at Schofield Barracks. This relatively unknown group became the first multiracial inclusion effort that led President Roosevelt to create the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Later that year, my grandfather joined the 442nd.

In such an atmosphere of racism and prejudice, these brave JA soldiers put their lives at risk to prove their loyalty to the United States. This courage is not forgotten, and helped cement Japanese American internment as a monumental disgrace that alienated U.S. citizens from their most basic rights.

Never is national distress an excuse for our government’s actions, and as citizens we must stand together to exercise our rights against such prejudice. It is especially relevant as our media reports internment being cited as precedent for a Muslim registry and a travel ban affecting thousands of migrants and refugees. We can look to the Nisei soldier, who responded to frenzied anti-Japanese American sentiment not with silence or inaction, but with a decisive stand.

Through carrying on these stories, through working within San Francisco’s Japantown, through choosing to join JA student groups at school, I play a small part in honoring the legacy of my grandfather whose namesake I share. Using a shared past to guide my actions, I can honor the soldier and not the war, never forgetting the impact of those courageous JA soldiers.


I’m a second year at Oberlin College studying economics. I was inspired to write about my grandfather after participating in the Nikkei Community Internship this summer, where I worked in San Francisco’s Japantown. Learning about our Japanese American community has made me realize one of the best ways to preserve culture and honor the legacy of the 442nd is to share their story with others.

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