Community icon Jimi Yamaichi dies at 95

Jimi Yamaichi speaks at the 2012 Tule Lake Pilgrimage. photo by Martha Nakagawa

Jimi Yamaichi — carpenter, World War II draft resister, Tule Lake Committee member, Japanese American Museum of San Jose co-founder and community leader — passed away at his San Jose home on May 12. He was 95.

“Jimi Yamaichi is an icon of the Japanese American community … and he has touched the lives of thousands of people over his lifetime,” a statement from the Japanese American Museum of San Jose said. “There will never be another Jimi Yamaichi. Jimi’s legacy will live on through the heartfelt stories of the people whose lives he’s touched.”

Hiroshi Shimizu, chair of the Tule Lake Committee, issued a statement on behalf of the committee via e-mail:

“The Tule Lake Committee is deeply saddened by the passing of Jimi Yamaichi. Jimi has been, for the last 24 years, the heartbeat, the soul and the conscience of the Tule Lake Committee, the Tule Lake Pilgrimage and the Tule Lake Preservation effort. Through his numerous interviews, oral histories, and public and private appearances, Jimi Yamaichi was the bright beacon for Tule Lake advocacy.

“It was his vision and persistence that began and resulted in Tule Lake becoming a National Historic Landmark, which was followed by a Presidential Executive Order that made it a National Monument, which then, became a National Park site.

“The creation of the Visitors Center and the restoration of the Tule Lake jail, which are now on the brink of happening, were projects Jimi was especially interested in. …As a 21-year-old Supervisor of Construction, he was what we now call the Building Contractor for the Tule Lake jail — the most iconic remaining structure of the American Concentration Camp experience.

“Jimi possessed what seemed like a bottomless wealth of knowledge of Tule Lake. He could point out where the two farm tracts were; what crops they grew; where the farm mess hall was; where the hog farm was; how they killed the pigs; where the Army horse coral was; how they got water for 20,000 people; how the sewage system worked — what he knew was literally endless.

“At a time when all of the TLP buses gave a tour of the Tule Lake campsite, pilgrims would try to get on Jimi’s bus because his guided tour was the most knowledgeable and fulfilling.

“The Tule Lake Committee will miss his leadership, his knowledge, his wisdom and the warm friendship he offered to everyone so freely.”

Early Beginnings in Carpentry
Yamaichi, a Nisei, was the fourth of 10 children born to Kaneichi and Hatsuko Shimizu Yamaichi of Hiroshima Prefecture.

By 1931, Yamaichi’s father had saved enough money to purchase 15 acres of land in San Jose. Yamaichi’s father hired a Caucasian carpenter to build a house on this land, and the then 10-year-old Yamaichi fell in love with carpentry. He knew at that moment that he wanted to become a carpenter and not a farmer like his father.

In high school, Yamaichi took carpentry classes, but when he graduated in 1941, he was unable to find a job like his Caucasian friends.

According to Yamaichi, many trades such as carpentry, plumbing, sheet metal work, etc., were controlled by powerful unions before the war, and the unions, at the time, were not allowing people of color to become members.

To make ends meet, Yamaichi helped out on his family farm in San Jose but never gave up on his dream of becoming a carpenter.

When World War II broke out and the United States government issued orders for people of Japanese descent, living on the West Coast, to be placed into U.S.-style concentration camps, the Yamaichi family was first sent to the Pomona Assembly Center in Southern California.

Yamaichi was unable to find a job at the Pomona Assembly Center so he put his carpentry skills to work by making geta from scrap lumber for his siblings. Word of his geta-making talent spread, and soon, Yamaichi and another carpenter, Jun Iwaoka from San Francisco, opened a makeshift class for about 20 boys and girls on geta-making where they taught the children everything from reading a slide rule to cutting lumber safely.

From Pomona, the Yamaichi family was sent to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Authority camp in Wyoming, where Yamaichi initially applied for an office job as an engineer but he ended up working on the Shoshone canal system that eventually irrigated the Heart Mountain basin.

The Road to Tule Lake
When the controversial so-called loyalty questionnaire came out in early 1943, Yamaichi answered “yes-yes” to questions 27 and 28, but his father wanted the family to go to the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

Although Yamaichi never asked his father why he wanted the family transferred to Tule Lake, he suspects that his father may have thought going to Tule Lake would keep the family together, especially since the family had several draft-aged sons.

At Tule Lake, Yamaichi eventually became head of the construction crew. He taught several of the Nisei youths carpentry and construction work, and after the war, he learned that a few of them were able to become union members due to the skills he had taught them.

Yamaichi is best known and was most criticized for helping to build the Tule Lake jail, which is still standing. According to Yamaichi, he had initially turned down the job but after Camp Director Raymond Best told him that if Yamaichi didn’t construct the jail, he’d hire someone else, Yamaichi was convinced to take on the job. He lost several crew members when he agreed to construct the jail.

In addition to the jail, Yamaichi and his crew had a hand in putting the stockade together. He and his crew had dragged four barracks to an open area, where a makeshift stockade was quickly assembled in November 1943 when a late-night disturbance led to the imposition of martial law with tanks rolling into the camp site.

Prior to the construction of the jail or stockade, Yamaichi oversaw the construction project of bringing water from a nearby canal to the camp. Tule Lake saw an addition of close to 4,000 Japanese Americans, soldiers and WRA workers when it became a segregation center, and the original sewage system had been unable to accommodate the extra people.

The additional water was not only used for the sewage system but was also used for dust control and by the residents for their victory gardens or other such activities.

Draft Resistance
In 1944, when Yamaichi received his draft notice, he decided to challenge it. He made his decision after considering two incidents that had happened. The first involved his older brother, who was serving in the Army. Before shipping out, the brother had visited the family and shared about his experience at Fort Riley in Kansas, where all the Nikkei soldiers had been rounded up and placed into a hangar at gunpoint while President Franklin D. Roosevelt toured the facility.

The second incident involved his second cousin, who was also serving in the Army. Before shipping overseas, the second cousin had asked to see his sick father, but at that time, the West Coast had been closed to Japanese Americans, even to Japanese Americans serving in the Army so the son never saw his father alive again. The father died of stomach cancer, shortly after arriving at Heart Mountain. He was the first prisoner to die at Heart Mountain.

Yamaichi was one of 26 men to resist the draft from Tule Lake. According to Yamaichi, 27 of them were transported to Eureka to stand trial but only 26 were there for draft resistance and the 27th person was there on another charge.

The Tule Lake draft resisters went before U.S. district judge Louis E. Goodman. Of all the federal judges, who oversaw Nikkei draft resistance cases from the 10 WRA camps, Goodman was the only judge to dismiss the charges, saying, “It is shocking to the conscience that an American citizen be confined on the ground of disloyalty and then, while under duress and restraint, be compelled to serve in the Armed Forces or prosecuted for not yielding to such compulsion.”

After the trial, Yamaichi and the group returned to Tule Lake and resumed their camp life.

When the war ended in August 1945, Yamaichi was asked by the administration to remain until the very end in May 1946. Among his jobs was going through the empty barracks to check for dead bodies.

The Road Back to San Jose
After his release from Tule Lake, Yamaichi returned to San Jose and attempted to join the same union that had turned him down before the war. As expected, Yamaichi was turned away, but he was persistence since being a union member meant better wages as a carpenter. Yamaichi kept returning until the union finally told him that he could become a member if he found a job at a company that was unionized.

Yamaichi became a member soon after, breaking the racial barrier.

He would go on to work on multimillion dollar projects, but was usually one of the few Asian Americans working in his field.

In 1991, after Yamaichi retired, he and his wife, Eiko, participated in a Tule Lake Pilgrimage. This was Yamaichi’s first time back to the campsite since the war years, and it was an emotional return for him. Since then, Yamaichi had been volunteering as a Tule Lake Committee member, helping to organize the biennial pilgrimage and leading walking and bus tours.

Among his many other contributions, he was one of the first Japanese Americans to speak out in support of the Muslim American community after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and constructed a replica of the Tule Lake guard tower, which has been on a traveling exhibit.

Community Builder
Whether it was physical structures or organizations, Yamaichi has built upon a legacy of building community. Perhaps the greatest indication of this is his beloved base in San Jose’s Japantown.

“He was passionate about helping others, whether it be through his work at the JAMsj, leading tours at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, helping with Boy Scout projects or leading construction crews internationally,” said the statement from the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. “Jimi was always willing to give 110 percent to any project he worked on, while sometimes overlooking his own health and well-being.”

According to Dennis Akizuki, the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church board president, Yamaichi was a senior advisor to the church, having served as board president in 1976.

“The depth and breadth of Jimi’s contributions to the temple and the Japanese American community in general was truly remarkable,” said Akizuki. “He gladly took on projects all the time. Large, small. It didn’t matter. Jimi was happy to help in any way he could. The temple is grateful for his lifetime of dana (selfless giving).”

According to Akizuki, Yamaichi was the advisor for more than 50 Eagle Scout projects for the temple’s Boy Scout Troop 611, and was involved with virtually every temple building project over the last 60 years or more.

His background in construction was helpful to organizations such as Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service, a San Jose Japantown-based senior service agency. “He helped us redesign the administration room (at the Yu-Ai Kai building),” said Wesley Mukoyama, former executive director. “His help in renovating the Akiyama Center was invaluable.”

He was also a builder of relations. Yamaichi had been involved in the San Jose-Okayama Sister City Organization since its inception in 1982, even serving as its program director, welcoming delegates and arranging homestays for visitors of the program.

For his work in building bilateral relations, Yamaichi was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, from the Japanese government in 2012.

“You really have become a great model for all of us,” said then-Rep. Mike Honda at the ceremony. “You have been an inspiration to all of us.”

In a letter read at the ceremony, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said, “You shaped the future and also ensured remembrances of the past. Your commitment to remembering the history of Japanese Americans is unparalleled.” Mineta said Yamaichi did this “with humility” and with “no sense of personal gain.”

Current Nikkei Matsuri President Warren Hayashi said that Yamaichi was the first president of the cultural festival held annually in San Jose’s Japantown, some 40 years ago.

“To describe Jimi in one word, I would (say) ‘community,’” added Hayashi. “He was instrumental and active in so many parts of the community.”

Hayashi, who could often be seen observing Nikkei Matsuri with Yamaichi in matching happi coats, remembers his colleague fondly.
“He was my personal mentor,” Hayashi told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “His wealth of knowledge of JA history, his interment experiences, was beyond comprehension. If I need an explanation on some historical subject, he would take time and give me a complete explanation. He was unbelievable. I will miss him greatly.”

But perhaps his lasting legacy will be the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, which Yamaichi co-founded more than 30 years ago with Ken Iwagaki, Gary Okihiro and Eiichi Sakauye.

“As museum curator, Jimi was creative, historically astute and had a strong work ethic,” said Aggie Idemoto, the advisory board chair at JAMsj. “He had a crystal-clear memory when it came to names, dates, places and events.”

When the museum opened its current location in 2010, Yamaichi recreated a room from a barrack in a World War II Japanese American concentration camp, which is still used to give visitors a realistic account of living conditions behind barbed wire, which Idemoto calls a “highlight” of JAMsj.

“He was a perfectionist; thus it was very authentic,” she said. “When he visited the barracks room at the Smithsonian, he noticed that the room dimensions were not accurate and asked that they redesign it.”

Yamaichi would also impact younger generations of docents.

“I would follow Jimi around as he would explain various parts of the museum to visitors,” recalled current JAMsj Board President Michael Sera. “He was literally a walking encyclopedia of JA history and a wealth of information. He was great at telling stories and I hope I can do justice by sharing some of them with our visitors. … He will truly be missed but never forgotten.”

Yamaichi is survived by his wife Eiko, four children and many grandchildren.

A service for Jimi Yamaichi will be held Sunday, June 10 at 4 p.m. at the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church, 640 North 5th St. in San Jose’s Japantown.

— Kenji G. Taguma contributed to this report

 

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Correction
Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the May 24-June 5, 2018 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “Community icon Jimi Yamaichi dies at 95” erroneously stated that Yamaichi’s mother’s name was Katsuko Shimizu Yamaichi. It was Hatsuko Shimizu Yamaichi. The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error.

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