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Brothers Fighting Brothers

For Japanese American veterans whose families were torn by war, Memorial Day evokes a complexity of pride and pain.

May 28, 2001|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Then, one day an Army recruiter came with news that the government now wanted young men from the camps to join the military.

"I didn't care what the government had done to us," Ken Akune says. "When they came around, it was a chance for me to do what Americans were supposed to do, go out and serve their country. When they opened their door, for me, I felt like my rights were given back to me."

The Akunes, both fluent in Japanese, were chosen for the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific. Ken Akune's primary responsibility was interrogating prisoners of war.

"I didn't know for sure, but I suspected that one of my brothers, because of his age, would be in the Japanese military," he says. It wasn't until after the war that he discovered that, in fact, two of his brothers, the youngest only 15 years old, served for Japan.

"I thought about if I met my brother out in the field, what would I do?" Ken Akune says. "You don't want to kill him, but if he points his rifle at you, what can you do? It's a matter of survival."

The brothers were viewed as the enemy in both countries. Imprisoned in the United States before joining the military, after the war, Ken and Harry Akune were met with scorn in Japan when they returned to the village where they had lived as children and where the rest of their family still lived. "There was the feeling that we were traitors, having lived in Japan, learning the language, then using it against them in the war," says Harry Akune.

As the family members looked at each other for the first time in nearly 10 years, it was evident that the war still lived in their hearts.

"We were ready to go at it," Ken Akune says, "and then my dad said, 'Wait a second. The war is over.' We cooled down, and that was the end of it."

Shortly after the war, the Akune siblings--including those who had fought for Japan--returned to the United States. One who served in the Japanese military later was drafted into the U.S. Army and fought in Korea; the brother too young to have served in Japan would later be drafted too, and was stationed in England after the Korean War.

The brothers, most of whom have settled in Southern California, don't talk much about the war, Ken Akune says. Like their father said, it's over.

All the Sons Became Soldiers

Like the Akunes, Don Oka was from a large family, seven children, all sons, all born in the United States. And like the Akunes, their mother died giving birth, so they were sent to live in Japan.

In time, all seven sons would become soldiers: Don and two others fought for the United States during World War II; two brothers fought for Japan; two fought in Korea.

Don Oka, as a member of the Military Intelligence Service, was stationed on an island near Saipan in December 1944, as it was being hit hard by Japanese forces. After the war he discovered that his brother, Takeo Oka, a kamikaze pilot, was killed in the attacks.

"For us," says Oka, "it was a civil war."

Takeo was an elementary school teacher before the war. Of all the Oka children, he was the brightest, Don says, the most dedicated to education.

Five brothers still live. Only the two who served in Japan have passed. Danny Oka, 70, of Torrance is the youngest, "the one," he says, "who killed my mother. She died giving birth to me."

He ended up not being raised in the same household with his other brothers, and it wasn't until he was 16 that he found out he was a member of the Oka family.

"It's the saddest thing," he says. "We are brothers, but we don't have close-knit ties. We grew up separately."

Some in Japan, some in the United States. Brothers, strangers, enemies and, now, brothers again. Four of the brothers live in L.A. County; a fifth in San Jose.

"We're getting closer," he says. "We try to get together, but for some reason it's hard to talk about the old days."

Paying Tribute to the Past

The old soldiers gather often at the edge of graves. Drawn together by giri, a moral commitment to each other, they pay tribute with a final salute, 21 rounds fired symbolically into the sky, "Taps"--solitary and mournful--waning to silent pause. It is time, not war, that claims them now; and, quietly, with increasing frequency, they come to pass beneath blankets of stars and stripes.

The stories of the Akunes and Okas and other Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, who served are being preserved by the Go for Broke Educational Foundation as part of its effort to document their contributions to the nation's history. Since 1998, 179 Nisei veterans have been interviewed for the project.

The foundation, incorporated in 1989 as the 100th/442nd/MIS World War II Memorial Foundation, built the Go for Broke Monument in Little Tokyo--near the intersection of Temple and Alameda streets, honoring Japanese Americans who served overseas during the war.

"We're not trying to say the government did wrong," says Sato, executive director. "We're trying to say that this is an American story that occurred in U.S. history. Despite the fact that these men were incarcerated in camps, they made the choice to serve their country and prove their loyalty."

It is not the Hollywood version. It is, however, the version held in memories of old soldiers, who stand at the edge of graves.

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