Shining a Bright Beacon

Aiden Kaneshiro and Brendan Ikeda clean the Japanese American National War Memorial Court on Oct. 28 at the JACCC. The monument honors Japanese American soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice.


Stories from the past cannot be relived by those of the present but they can be remembered for the future.

On Oct. 28, a community service project, Spit and Polish, was held in front of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Twenty-two young high school students attended the event at the Japanese American National War Memorial Court to give back to the Japanese American community.

With a little hard work, the memorial sparkled in the morning light to remember Japanese Americans who were lost in various wars: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and many modern-day wars. While polishing the memorial, names became spirits surrounding us and telling us their stories of sacrifice and war.

The deceased weren’t much older than I, who grew up with similar backgrounds to those lost. These men on the walls lost their lives so that their community could have a better one. The memorial holds a special place in my heart as we make sure it can also live in the heart of Little Tokyo to assist us in remembering the past.

Ken Hayashi, a Vietnam veteran, speaks to the students.

Following the memorial’s cleaning, many veterans and volunteers were led upstairs to learn about some of the stories of the veterans and the people on the wall. Two vets who impacted me with their stories were Jim Yamashita and Minoru Tonai.

Mr. Yamashita’s story let me into just one of the 442nd veteran’s many experiences. He was born in Irvine and was forced to move because of the Alien Land Law, which prohibited Issei from buying and owning land. He moved with his family to eastern Nevada and lived in a Mormon community.

When World War II approached and Japanese Americans were being sent to internment camps, Jim was not interned because of his loyal neighbors, who told the government not to take them away. But, when he turned 18, he was drafted into WWII and joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit that primarily consisted of Japanese American soldiers and is one of the most highly decorated units in U.S. history.

Altogether the 442nd earned 21 Medals of Honor, which is unheard of in American history, many of the soldiers left their families in internment camps and went to fight for a country that imprisoned their families and took away everything they owned and worked so hard to accomplish.

Jim remembers that one of the soldiers’ last words on the battlefield were “Okaasan, okaasan” (Mother, mother). It brings me to tears to think that these soldiers probably would never see their interned families again as they sacrificed for their country.

The other veteran I met also impacted my view on my history and heritage with his story as well. Min Tonai, a Korean War veteran, explained to me what his life was like before and after the internment camps and why he fought for America. Min was born in San Pedro and his father owned a large, successful business of produce stands. His father was also a leader in the Japanese American business community because of his business success.

When the FBI rounded up all the leaders in Japanese American communities, Min’s father was taken away to a separate Justice Department camp, and they would not see him for another three years. His family, without his father, soon moved to L.A., near their office, so that his mother could keep the business going until they were evacuated to the camps.

The students and veterans gather for a group photo.

His mother kept all of the stands open, even if the customers were not coming, so that the employees would have their paychecks to support their families. She looked upon the employees as family, as they do in Japan, and they needed to be taken care of. By paying off all of their debts, Min’s family was essentially destitute by the time they were sent to camp themselves.

The government and the Army told them to take their minimum allowed baggage and go to the Santa Anita Assembly Center. The reason was that the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan led to a lot of prejudice towards Japanese Americans. Therefore they were to be sent to a place where they could be “protected” and “guarded,” they were told.

Min said that when he arrived at Santa Anita, they were housed in the horse stables, the worst place he ever lived, even worse than on the front lines of Korea. When he saw ten-foot-tall barbed-wire fences and watchtowers with machine guns and searchlights pointing inward instead of outward to protect them, Min was scared of the fact that there were MPs manning those towers with guns that looked as if they would shoot you, and realized the reality of the situation that all West Coast Japanese Americans were beginning to face.

Min was 13, the SAME age as myself a year ago, and he was sent to the camps to live. I can’t imagine losing everything and being interned, like these very people I met. The camps have caused Japanese Americans to become different people. When Min was released, he soon went to college at UCLA and was drafted into the Korean War when he was almost 22. He fought in the war as a medic and told us about a buddy whose name is on the wall and what happened to some of those people on the memorial.