SAN FRANCISCO — On March 24 at its annual awards luncheon at the Hotel Kabuki, the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS) honored Tom Sakamoto and Lawson Sakai, two war heroes who, along with their fellow Japanese American veterans of World War II, recently received the Congressional Gold Medal for their valor; and classical Japanese dance teacher Madame Michiya Hanayagi and local community leader and former broadcaster June-Ko Nakagawa.
The year’s theme was “Peace in the Postwar Era.” Sakamoto and Sakai were chosen because the momentous war effort to which they gave their all, as well as their personal actions later, have helped to establish the basis for a long period of peace, democracy and progress in Japan, Europe and the U.S. since World War II. Hanayagi and Nakagawa were both born and raised in Japan, and came to the U.S. in the postwar period. Both have played significant roles in bridging the cultural gap between the two countries.
Tom Sakamoto and the MIS
Sakamoto was born and raised in San Jose. In 1934, while in high school, he was sent to Japan for four years. When he returned four years later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Because of his fluency in the Japanese language, in November 1941 he became part of the first class of Army Intelligence’s new Japanese language school at the Presidio in San Francisco. His language skills were so good that he became an instructor at the school after he graduated.
However, Sakamoto volunteered to serve on the front line and saw his first combat at Los Negros Island in Australia, where he was attached to a Texas 1st Calvary Reconnaissance Task Force, part of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces. Sakamoto’s language skills saved countless lives during MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign, and he played a key role in helping to repel a suicide attack. At the war’s end, Sakamoto witnessed Japan’s formal surrender on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri.
Just one month after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Sakamoto served as an official U.S. Army escort for the first group of American reporters to enter that city. There he saw first-hand the horror and devastation of nuclear war. Afterwards, he served as a key translator during the U.S. occupation of Japan, and contributed to the transformation of Japan into a democracy.
Reflecting on the contributions of Japanese Americans during World War II, Sakamoto noted that they came despite the fact that “we had three strikes against us. One, we fought Japan, our ancestors. Second, discrimination on the home front, where our families were evacuated to relocation centers; and third, we faced discrimination within the Army because we weren’t trusted, and the Nisei soldiers had to be monitored for our loyalty.”
World War II was to become only the first of three wars in which Sakamoto took part during his long and illustrious 30-year military career. He also served during the Korean War and had two tours of duty during the Vietnam War. He retired as a colonel.
Following his military retirement, Sakamoto turned his energies to building a new career in banking and volunteering in the community. He served as senior vice president of Sumitomo Bank, and vice president of the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce and the Kumamoto Prefectural Association in San Jose.
But Sakamoto never forgot the sacrifices of his comrades in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). As president of NJAHS, Sakamoto was instrumental in the effort to preserve Building 640 at the Presidio, site of the original MIS school, and develop it into the MIS Historic Learning Center. On Aug. 27, 2011, Sakamoto was the keynote speaker at the groundbreaking ceremony for this center, slated to open November 2013.
Sakamoto hopes the center will promote peace and reconciliation between Americans of all nationalities, between the U.S. and Japan, and between all people and all nations, as a lasting legacy of the courageous young Japanese American soldiers of World War II and their great sacrifices.
Lawson Sakai and the 442nd
Sakai was born and raised in Los Angeles. The day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist in the Navy, but was rejected as an “enemy alien” despite being an American citizen by birth. “We lost our citizenship,” recalls Sakai. “They took away our rights to serve in the military, and called us aliens.”
Sakai and other Japanese Americans had to wait until March 1943 to be accepted into the military and even then they were restricted to a racially segregated unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team or the 100th Battalion in Hawaii. The two units were combined and their motto was “Go For Broke.”
After basic training, Sakai and the 100th/442nd were sent into fierce combat in Italy and France beginning in September 1944. In Italy, the unit distinguished itself in battles at the Volturno River, Cassino, Anzio and the Po Valley. Near the entrance of the Po Valley, Sakai and others carried off a daring nighttime climb of steep, 4,000- to 5,000-foot mountains in order to launch a successful surprise attack on the entrenched German forces guarding the strategic valley.
Later, the 100th/442nd went into action in northeast France, where they liberated the towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine in the Vosges mountains, sustaining heavy losses in the process. Despite the losses and their need for rest, Sakai and his comrades were ordered to rescue the 141st Texas Regiment, the “Lost Battalion,” which had been surrounded and cut off by German forces.
After days of hellish, hand-to-hand combat, the Nisei finally succeeded in their rescue mission. But they ended up with more casualties than the number of men they saved. Sakai, seriously wounded, was one of the casualties. He was wounded four times during the war and received a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman Badge.
After the war, Sakai married, raised a family and opened a travel agency in San Jose. He became president of Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans and helped organize 100th/442nd reunions. He also led groups of veterans on visits to Bruyeres and Biffontaine, where they are still beloved as the towns’ liberators, thus preserving the decades-long bonds of friendship that have spanned the vast gap between France, California and Hawaii.
Madame Michiya Hanayagi
It is difficult to find someone who has done more or worked longer or more successfully to bridge the cultural gap between East and West than Madame Hanayagi.
Born in Nagoya, she began her life-long devotion to traditional and classical Japanese dance at an early age. By 1947, she was recognized by the headmaster of the Hanayagi School in Tokyo as having achieved grand master status, and she began her career as a dance teacher.
In 1956, she moved to the U.S. and established the Michiya Hanayagi Dance Studio, where she has taught classical Japanese dance to generations of students. Since 1956, she has presented her students in 52 dance recitals.
Madame Hanayagi has been a pillar of the local Japanese American cultural scene. She has participated in local Obon festivals for 54 years.
Her dance school is one of the few groups to have participated in the annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival since it began in the late 1960s. She has also taken part in Aki Matsuri (Fall Festival), Oshogatsu (New Year’s celebrations) and other cultural events in San Francisco and elsewhere.
She participated as choreographer in stage productions of “Madame Butterfly,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Ghost Memories,” and was nominated for a Bay Area Theatre Critics Award for best choreography. She has also performed in New York, Washington, Colorado and South Carolina.
Madame Hanayagi has achieved international recognition for her work. In 1977, she and her two daughters performed at the Kabuki Theatre in Tokyo in a recital honoring the late Hiroyuki Hanayagi. In 2008, she received the vaunted Ryuho Sho award from the Hanayagi School at the Tokyo Kaikan.
She and her dance group also performed at Expo ’92 in Vancouver, Canada, at Expo ’88 in Brisbane, Australia, at Expo ’90 in Osaka, and at Expo ’92 in Genoa, Italy.
Much honored on both sides of the Pacific, she received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays in 2009 and the Foreign Minister’s Commendation in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of U.S.-Japan relations in 2004.
In 2010, the Buddhist Churches of America gave Hanayagi a special achievement award for her more than 50 years of teaching Japanese dance in the U.S. The Japanese American Association of Northern California inducted Hanayagi into the Bunka Hall of Fame in 2007.
She received a Cultural Heritage Award in 1993 from the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, and an Award of Merit from the International Institute of the East Bay in 1976 for promoting goodwill and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan.
Recognizable to anyone active in the Bay Area Japanese American community in the last 30-plus years, Nakagawa is known as a community leader, volunteer, and broadcaster.
Born in Hiroshima, Nakagawa wanted to be a broadcaster from an early age, as can be confirmed by looking at her elementary school graduation yearbook.
After teaching in junior high schools and high schools in Japan, Nakagawa came to the Bay Area in 1973 when she married Dennis Nakagawa, a Sansei. Through her husband and his family, before he passed away, she was introduced to the local Japanese American community.
Fulfilling her childhood ambition, Nakagawa began her career as a broadcaster in 1974 when she became a newscaster for Tokyo Television in San Francisco. For 20 years, from 1982 through 2002, she was the host of “Asian Journal” on KTSF-TV.
She was also a news reporter for Nippon Television Network, president of the Hokubei Mainichi, and president of San Francisco Radio Mainichi. In 2007, Nakagawa retired from her broadcast career.
Since 2008, Nakagawa has been the executive director of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.
A familiar and vivacious figure, Nakagawa has emceed at countless gatherings held by the Consulate General of Japan, Japan Society of Northern California, Kimochi, Nihonmachi Little Friends, Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program, Cherry Blossom Queen Program, Japanese American Association of Northern California, Friends of Hibakusha, Yu-Ai Kai, Himawari-kai, Nobiru-kai, Ikenobo Ikebana Society, Japanese American Religious Foundation, and many other organizations.
Nakagawa has also found time to serve on the boards of the California International Relations Foundation, San Francisco Japantown Foundation, Japantown Garage Corporation, Sakura Matsuri Inc., and Japan Studies Scholarship.
Her generosity with her time and talent has not gone unnoticed. She has received a Community Award from the Japanese Community and Cultural Center of Northern California, the Kimochi Spirit Award, the Nobiru-kai Community Spirit Award, and an award from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Because of her tireless work to build understanding and friendship between the U.S. and Japan and her leadership and devotion to the local community, it is fitting for NJAHS to honor Nakagawa for her contributions to “Peace in the Postwar Era.”
For more information on NJAHS, visit www.njahs.org.