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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION

A Place of Honor for Japanese Americans

November 07, 2000|MELISSA LAMBERT

To some, Mike Masaoka is a hero.

On Thursday, when a national memorial to the patriotism of Japanese Americans during World War II is dedicated in Washington, a quotation from Masaoka will be memorialized in stone. A 25-year-old Masaoka penned the words at a time when 120,000 Japanese Americans were held in internment camps in California and other Western states because they were judged to be a security threat to the nation. He wrote: "I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation."

The memorial honors those who were interned in the camps and men like Masaoka, who served with 3,000 Japanese American volunteers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. In one of the great ironies of the war, members of the 442nd--many with relatives interned in the United States--helped liberate Jews in the German concentration camp of Dachau.

The memorial, three blocks north of the U.S. Capitol, was Masaoka's idea, according to Cherry Y. Tsutsumida, a former internee and the director of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, which financed the $10.6-million park. Masaoka, who died in 1991, "always felt we should have a memorial for Japanese American veterans who served their country during World War II," Tsutsumida said.

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But others see Masaoka as a symbol of betrayal. As spokesman for the Japanese Americans Citizens League during the war, Masaoka urged Japanese Americans to cooperate with the government and worked with government agencies, such as the FBI, to identify and locate suspicious activity in the Japanese American community.

An FBI report from the time found many Japanese Americans in internment camps felt that the league--founded in 1929 to fight discrimination against people of Japanese ancestry--had sold them out.

In July, when memorial organizers announced that Masaoka's quotation would appear on the memorial, critics started a Web site opposed to the move. Protesters collected more than 1,000 signatures over the Internet.

But Masaoka's supporters have come to his defense in the Web site's chat room. And in several votes on the issue, only a handful among nearly 50 Japanese American Memorial Foundation board members opposed the use of his words.

Responding to the protest over Masaoka's quote, National Park Service Director Robert Stanton acknowledged the controversy over some of Masaoka's statements, but noted that "these must be judged in the context of his other achievements during his lifetime."

Indeed, Masaoka's long record as a civil rights leader--and the realities of life in the World War II era--are factors in Masaoka's favor, supporters said.

"Young people today need to remember that in those days you never questioned the law," said Kiyo Jean Kariya, a board member who spent 3 1/2 years in the camps. "Masaoka was a very young man [during the war]. He devoted his whole life to helping the Japanese American community."

After the war, Masaoka fought successfully for the 1952 Walter-McCarran Act, which allowed Japanese immigrants to become naturalized citizens, and worked to win $1.2 billion in reparations for Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II.

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"I can't think of any other Japanese American who has so affected the lives of Japanese Americans as Masaoka, and in such a positive way," said John Tateishi, the league's executive director, whose family was interned when he was a child.

"People who are the strongest critics are the ones who least understand what that period must have been like," said Tateishi, who worked with Masaoka for years.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a 14-foot-long bronze sculpture of two cranes straining for freedom against the restraints of shackles and barbed wire. A low granite wall contains the names of the more than 800 Japanese Americans, many of them in the 442nd, who died for their country during the war.

Kariya, Tsutsumida and many others who worked to make the memorial a reality remember well the horror of being forced to leave their homes. Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), a former war internee, sponsored the 1996 law providing the site for the memorial. Nina Akamu, who sculpted the memorial's centerpiece, said she was inspired by the experience of her grandfather, the first Japanese American to die in an internment camp.

"Basically the people who built this memorial are the people who suffered during World War II," Tsutsumida said. "This is our gift to the nation as a reminder, so that judging someone on the basis of their national and ethnic origins doesn't ever happen again."

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