JA org honors those who paved a path home

(Clockwise from top left) Lawyer Wayne Merrill Collins, Esq. with Nisei legal support staff to the WWII renunciation cases: Yoshie Handa Yasuda, Eiko Aoki, Sam Nao, Dr. Hisaji Sakai holding the award for the late Jean Kajikawa Sakai, Chiyo Wada and Florence Dobashi. Collins’ father, Wayne Mortimer Collins, fought the U.S. government to restore American citizenship to some 5,000 Japanese Americans after the war. photo by Leland Wong Photography

(Clockwise from top left) Lawyer Wayne Merrill Collins, Esq. with Nisei legal support staff to the WWII renunciation cases: Yoshie Handa Yasuda, Eiko Aoki, Sam Nao, Dr. Hisaji Sakai holding the award for the late Jean Kajikawa Sakai, Chiyo Wada and Florence Dobashi. Collins’ father, Wayne Mortimer Collins, fought the U.S. government to restore American citizenship to some 5,000 Japanese Americans after the war. photo by Leland Wong Photography

The National Japanese American Historical Society held its annual awards dinner May 3 at its Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center (Building 640) in the San Francisco Presidio. The program, entitled “Journey: Paving Our Way Home,” focused on Japanese Americans whose work helped rebuild post-war lives in both America and Japan.

“In the course of historical events, each generation must undergo its journey of trials and tribulations, bearing witness to unfathomable strife,” Derrek Tomine, a NJAHS board member and the event emcee, said. “Today, we honor the extraordinary individuals who, through their courage and sacrifice, paved the way for many to return home, restored justice and gave us hope for the future.”

The evening, featuring a performance by the San Francisco Okinawa Kenjin-Kai, honored several groups of people for their work for peace and justice after World War II. Cpt. Frank Masuoka and Technician Third Grade Frank Seiyu Higashi were recognized for their service in World War II.

Wayne Merrill Collins, a Bay Area lawyer, received a lifetime achievement award along with the Nisei support staff that helped Collins’ father fight the 5,000 individual renunciants’ cases.

Finally, three hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and the Committee for Atomic Bomb Survivors received Peace Awards for their work advocating against nuclear weapons. Jack Dairiki, Seiko Fujimoto and the Rev. Takashi Tanemori received individual Peace Awards for their activism. Each honoree also received a certificate of recognition from Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Okinawa MIS Veterans
Both Masuoka and Higashi were Nisei linguists embedded into the 27th Infantry Division during the war, and both were stationed in Okinawa at the end of the war. Brian Yagi, NJAHS board president, said Masuoka and Higashi helped save many lives through their knowledge of the Japanese language and culture while stationed in Okinawa.

Just after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military initially refused Masuoka’s offer to serve — because of his Japanese ancestry. While incarcerated in Granada (Amache) , Colo., he later volunteered to join the army, along with his brother who later died fighting to save the “Lost Battalion” in France. He served in Saipan, Leyte and Okinawa. After Japan surrendered, Masuoka and another Nisei linguist volunteered to convince Japanese soldiers and civilians hiding in caves to surrender. Yagi said Masuoka risked his own life by entering a cave unarmed to convince a Japanese commanding officer the war was over. His actions helped save nearly 800 soldiers and civilians.

Higashi, who is of Okinawan descent, experienced firsthand the effects of war on his family. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Sacramento, Calif., Higashi’s father moved his family to Nago, Okinawa before the war. According to Yagi, Higashi preferred life in America and moved back. During the war, Higashi joined the MIS and was posted to Nago. Yagi said Higashi patrolled the area and eventually tracked down where his family was hiding after a five-mile trek through rough terrain. Higashi accepted the award on behalf of Okinawan American veterans who served in World War II.

Following the war, Higashi stayed in Okinawa for three years to help with reconstruction. After returning to Los Angeles, Higashi told the Nichi Bei Weekly that he resumed his life as a farmer and gardener. He moved to San Jose to join his brother in 1953 to farm and garden and has been active in the Okinawan American community since.

“It was a surprise because it’s been 70 years since the war ended,” he said of his award. Reflecting on the war, Higashi said he hopes history never repeats itself.

Lifetime Achievement
Collins accepted his award on behalf of his father, Wayne Mortimer Collins. He told the Nichi Bei Weekly that he first thought the award was meant for his father. “I thought they had gotten his middle name wrong,” he said and that he is “not even a shadow” of his father. Growing up with his father’s work, Collins said he was humbled by it and grew to respect the legal profession. The elder Collins served as an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, fighting for 5,000 renunciants.

Many Japanese Americans, under duress, renounced their American citizenship while incarcerated in concentration camps. Collins’ father fought the U.S. government in a 23-year-long legal battle to reinstate citizenship for each individual case, often financed out of his own pocket, according to Yagi.

After his father passed away in 1974, Yagi said the younger Collins continued to help Japanese Americans. Notably, Collins succeeded in filing a presidential pardon petition for Iva Toguri D’Aquino, who was accused of treason for being the infamous “Tokyo Rose.” She was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Along with Collins, the Nisei legal support staff the elder Collins employed were recognized for their work. Yagi said the young Nisei worked “day and night” to prepare paperwork for the 5,000 cases being heard administratively. Awards were given to Eiko Aoki, Florence Dobashi, Tetsujiro “Tex” Nakamura, Sam Nao, Chiyo Wada, Yoshiye Handa Yasuda and in memoriam to Reiko Ouchida Nao, Doris Phippen and Jean Kajikawa Sakai.

Peace Activists
Three hibakusha living in the United States received Peace Awards for their activism.

Dairiki, a Nisei from Sacramento, was stranded in Japan when he visited family with his father on the eve of the war. He was heading into Hiroshima when the bomb detonated, but a delay on the train saved him from the being at the epicenter of the blast. Following the war, he and his father worked as interpreters for the U.S. military for three years to save up money to return home. Once home, Dairiki became an anti-nuclear activist advocating that nuclear weapons must never be used again.

Fujimoto is a post-war Japanese immigrant from Hiroshima. She is known in the Japanese American community as the head of the Japanese Benevolent Society, which serves as the caretaker of the Japanese Cemetery in Colma, Calif., and the head organizer of Japanese cultural performances at San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival.

Fujimoto, Yagi said, has been a steadfast voice for peace. She has been a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and continues to voice her concerns for her children and grandchildren through telling her family’s story.

Fujimoto said she lost her brother to leukemia in 1949. One of his last wishes he had was to eat watermelon, but they were not in season. “I haven’t touched them (watermelon) since he died,” she said. Reflecting on the award, Fujimoto said she feels some closure and is up to trying watermelon again. “I think I can, I will try.”

Tanemori was 8 years old at the time of the bombing of Hiroshima. While he survived, he lost his father, mother, grandparents and two sisters. At age  18, Tanemori emigrated to the United States. He told the Nichi Bei Weekly he comes from an old samurai family and wished to exact revenge on the nation that killed his father.

In 1985, Tanemori was driving to an anti-nuclear rally when the clouds over the San Francisco Bay made him recall the atomic bombing and gave him an epiphany. “I recalled what my father said right before he died, ‘learn to forgive, respect all who are living,’” he said. “He told me revenge was not the way. It took me 40 years to realize this.” Since then, Tanemori has dedicated his life to peace and the forgiveness, teaching peace is “not transforming the masses, but transforming the heart.”

Along with the award, the MIS Historic Learning Center presented an exhibit of Tanemori’s paintings entitled “Forgiveness: A Bridge Between Nations.” The exhibit runs through Saturday, Oct. 31 and depicts the conflicts between Japan and America.

An award was presented to the Committee For Atomic Bomb Survivors in the United States of America. Founded by Kanji Kuramoto, the organization does educational programming and charitable services for hibakusha living in the United States. Yagi credited Kuramoto for his negotiations with the Japanese government to hold the biennial doctors visits from Hiroshima to provide health screening for hibakusha living in the United States. Masako Kawasaki, president of the organization’s San Jose chapter, accepted the award.

Through years of dedication, each honoree helped to re-establish people’s lives. Whether it was through rebuilding their lives in Japan, preventing deportation or rallying for a peaceful future, each honoree contributed to rebuilding and strengthening homes.

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