I like to think that being a Japanese American blends the best of both worlds. I am proud of my heritage, and equally proud to be an American. This is the best place in the world. Our travels around the world reinforce this notion almost all of the time. We have found that we are welcome everywhere, as are our dollars. Everybody is curious about our country and how we live. We have the best of everything. But I owe a lot to my ancestors, and the many Issei and Nisei that came before us, and built this legacy for us. Let me recount a few that I know a little about.
The most obvious one is Noriyuki Pat Morita, as we see him on TV starring in the Karate Kid movies. Most people don’t know he started out as a rather obnoxious stand up comedian, then moved on as Arnold in Happy Days, then finally his famous role as Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid movies. I was really embarrassed by him in his early career. But he finally projected a better image in his last few movies. Other actors I enjoy are James Shigeta, Jack Soo (Goro Suzuki)in Barney Miller, Sessue Hayakawa, Mako, George Takei in Star Trek, and Robert Ito in Quincy.
The first really famous Japanese conductor is Seiji Ozawa. He was in San Francisco for many years, until he defected to Boston. I always enjoyed his energy and creativity on the podium whenever I saw him conduct. Other musicians I have enjoyed are: Jake Shimabukura(king of the uke), Kent Nagano(conductor), Keiko Matsui, Dan Kuramoto, and Shoji Tabuchi of Branson fame.
An area where JA’s are often overlooked is in the Sciences. This includes Michio Kaku (string theory), Susumu Ohno (geneticist), Gordon Sato (cell biologist), and Takeshi Utsumi (computer simulation). Leo Ezaki won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1973. It was Minoru Yamasaki who was the architect of the sadly departed Twin Towers (World Trade Center).
But it is in sports that we are most visible. Our heroes are: Kristi Yamaguchi, Kurt Suzuki, Apollo Anton Ohno, Tommy Kono, Bryan Clay, Roger Yasukawa, and Lindsey Yamasaki.
The political arena has been a hotbed for Japanese Americans as well. Senator Daniel Inouye, war hero, and Hawaii’s senior Senator is probably the most famous. Next would be my friend, and former San Jose Mayor, Norm Mineta, who was also Secretary of Transportation under W. S. I. Hayakawa, the professor of linguistics, became President of San Francisco State during a tumultuous time. Lance Ito was the presiding judge in a famous murder trial. My good friend and grad school classmate, Dr. Ken Moritsugu became the U.S. Surgeon General. There are numerous other judges and elected officials, both in Hawaii and here on the mainland.
We had countless heroes in WW2, mostly in the famous 442 regiment from Hawaii. The most famous officer is Eric Shinseki, who became a 4 star general, and the Army Chief of Staff. Countless others, like my Uncle Sus, were in the Army serving a interpreters during both WW2 and the Korean War.
Min Yasui of Portland, Oregon, Gordon Hirabayashi of Seattle, Washington, and Fred Korematsu of Oakland, California were all arrested, convicted, and jailed for violation of curfew and evacuation orders. Imprisoned first at Tanforan Assembly Center and later at Tule Lake, through a writ of habeas corpus, Mitsuye Endo finally won her case on December 18, 1944. Hirabayashi and Korematsu fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won. Their cases paved the way for war reparations for the thousands of Japanese American interned in relocation camps during WW2.
Private Sadao Munemori was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for gallantry and intrepidity near Seravezza, Italy, during World War II. He was the first Japanese American to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor. He was a member of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American outfit from Hawaii. When his unit was pinned down by grazing enemy fire and the outfit’s leader lay wounded, Munemori took over and made one-man frontal attacks through direct fire and knocked out two machine guns with grenades, the citation read.
Ellison Onizuka became the first Asian American astronaut. Onizuka dreamed of imaginary spacecraft as a child and knew that he wanted to be an astronaut by the time he was a teenager. After becoming a member of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Colorado, he went on to enter active duty with the U.S. Air Force in 1970. There he became an aerospace flight test engineer. Onizuka eventually became a colonel and flight instructor at Edwards Air Force Base and began astronaut training in 1978. In 1985 he was part of the crew of the space shuttle Discovery mission, the first Hawaiian, the first Japanese American, and first Buddhist to orbit in space. In 1986, on his second space shuttle mission, he perished in the explosion of the Challenger along with the other 6 crewmembers.
But quietly, behind all of this were the Isseis who came to this country to make a better life for their children, and grandchildren like me. I cannot imagine the courage it required, to leave their homeland, and come to a country where they did not understand the language or the customs. They started a new life for themselves, and at the same time, laid the groundwork for all of us to enjoy and prosper. Thanks to all of you for all the sacrifices you made for me.