By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Harry Honda, a major figure in Japanese American journalism, passed away unexpectedly at his home in Rowland Heights, apparently of heart failure, on Wednesday. He was 93.
Best known for his work at the Japanese American Citizens League’s newspaper, The Pacific Citizen, for 50 years, including 30 years as editor, Honda was affiliated with many other community organizations, including St. Francis Xavier Chapel/Japanese Catholic Center (Maryknoll), Little Tokyo Historical Society, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Japanese American National Museum, and Pan American Nikkei Association (PANA).
His wife of 56 years, Misako, said, “He surprised all of us. He left us just like that — everybody is in shock.” She added that his goal was to reach his 100th birthday, as his mother had.
On the day of his passing, Honda was working on his computer and eating some fruit and cream puffs, his wife recalled. In the afternoon, a Canon repairman called with a question about Honda’s printer, which hadn’t been working. “I then started looking for Harry – I couldn’t find him anywhere. I went back to the computer room … He wasn’t sitting in his chair, but I walked over there, and he was behind the chair on the floor. I don’t now how long he was there.”
Honda had been looking forward to attending the JACL National Convention, to be held July 24-27 in Washington, D.C., and the PANA conference in September in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Regarding the PANA meetings, which are held in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese, Mrs. Honda said, “He thought it was important to connect to Nisei in other countries. He really liked to go out to meet people.”
JACL Director Priscilla Ouchida posted on Facebook, “We were ready to greet him at the convention, and had airport pick-up arranged for him. Then we received a call that he would not be coming to convention. We had no idea. I still can’t believe he is gone.”
“I am deeply saddened upon hearing Harry’s passing”, said JACL National President David Lin. “My thoughts and prayers are with Misako and the entire Honda family. We will always be grateful for Harry’s contributions to the JACL. I’ve always enjoyed visiting with Harry at the national conventions and he will be dearly missed at our Washington National Convention later this month.”
“Harry was a treasure and a living legend to The Pacific Citizen and JACL,” said Carol Kawamoto, PC Board chair. “He will be sorely missed.”
Iku Kiriyama of the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California said, “I got to know Harry in 1992 when the JAHSSC honored him at our Community Heritage Awards dinner. He was one of five selected from nominations from the community as an ‘unsung hero.’ He and Misako promptly became life members of JAHSSC and, for the past 21 years, supported our programs.
“When I began the ‘Nanka Nikkei Voices’ publication, it was Harry that gave it the name. He suggested we add ‘Nanka’ — Southern California — and ‘Nikkei’ — Japanese Americans — to ‘Voices.’ He contributed his stories to all the issues.
“Harry and Misako were at any event that involved me, letting me know that he supported whatever I did. I will miss his insight, his stories, all his endless emails, and his friendship.”
Greg Robinson of the University of Quebec in Montreal, author of such books as “After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics,” said, “Harry K. Honda was not just a giant of Japanese American journalism; his life and work encapsulated the Nisei story …
“During his extraordinary career leading the PC, the JACL and the larger community went through enormous changes. Harry Honda and the PC bravely stood up against McCarthyism at the height of the 1950s red scare, and supported civil rights for all Americans. In 1964, Honda devoted an entire special issue of the PC to the campaign against Proposition 14, a California ballot initiative to repeal fair housing laws. Later the PC supported redress of Japanese Americans.
“On a personal note, I was fortunate to get to meet Harry Honda on several occasions. I benefited both from his kind encouragement of my work and from his encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese American history. I was very honored when Harry Honda agreed to provide an introduction to my book ‘Pacific Citizens’ (2012), on the career of his friend Larry Tajiri. I will always remember the joint presentation we gave on the book at the Japanese American National Museum, where I had the chance to work together with him.
“He was a great journalist, the last of his generation. He was also a great gentleman.”
Chris Komai, former English editor and sports editor of The Rafu, said, “I remember Harry coming to help The Rafu when I first started working there. My Uncle Aki … had health issues one summer. Harry came from the era when the JA press was one large fraternity.”
Paul Igasaki, chair and chief judge of the Administrative Review Board at the U.S. Department of Labor and former JACL Washington, D.C. representative, called Honda “a significant presence in Japanese American life.”
Larry Oda, former JACL national president, described Honda as “one of the icons of JACL.”
Floyd Shimomura, former JACL national president and current legal counsel, commented, “A warm and wise gentleman, in the truest sense of the word. The world needs more like him.”
Longtime friend George Yoshinaga’s remembrance of Honda can be found in Tuesday’s “Horse’s Mouth” column.
Newspapers and NAU
Honda was born in Los Angeles to Issei parents from Fukuoka Prefecture. His father, Senbei, immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1890s, arriving in San Francisco. From there, he journeyed north to Alaska and worked in a cannery. His mother, Shu, arrived in 1918. Eventually, the family settled in the Temple and Figueroa area of Los Angeles, where his father ran a shoe repair business.
The Hondas had two daughters, Kayoko and Fusako, and Harry, their only son. The neighborhood of Harry Honda’s childhood years was ethnically diverse. He and his family lived among Chinese, Korean, Latino, Jewish and Filipino families.
Honda graduated from Belmont High School. While attending Los Angeles Junior College, he worked as a sportswriter for The Rafu Shimpo under Franklin Sugiyama and got to know staff writers like Paul Uyemura and Togo Tanaka. He also served as English section editor for The Sangyo Nippo (Japanese Industrial Daily) and helped Saburo Kido (later national president of the JACL) and his Shin Nichi Bei newspaper.
When editor Vince Tajiri of The Nichi Bei Shimbun in San Francisco was drafted into the Army, Honda took his place for 10 months until being drafted himself in October 1941. Stationed in Cheyenne, Wyo., when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Honda said the commanding general of the base gathered all the men together, including soldiers of Japanese, German and Italian descent. Honda quoted the general as saying, “We’re all wearing the same uniform. So we’re going to treat everybody the same.”
During World War II, his family was sent to Santa Anita Assembly Center, and then to the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. Honda served 4½ years in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps, training soldiers to go overseas, and was discharged on Christmas Eve in 1945.
He spent six months in Chicago, where his younger sisters had been living. He was asked to return a car for a friend in Southern California, and once he drove into his home state, he decided against returning to Chicago.
Upon his return to Los Angeles, Honda made use of the GI Bill and enrolled at Loyola University in the fall of 1946. He graduated in 1950 with a political science degree. That same year, he took a job as an assistant editor for The Shin Nichibei.
Honda became active with the JACL in the late 1940s, serving as chapter delegate to national conventions, Los Angeles Downtown Chapter president in 1950, and many other posts. After The Pacific Citizen relocated from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, Honda was appointed editor in September 1952, succeeding Larry Tajiri.
Honda worked with The Pacific Citizen in a number of capacities, including general manager/operations, senior editor, and editor emeritus. Throughout his tenure, he wrote a column entitled “Very Truly Yours.” Among the historic events he witnessed was President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided compensation and an apology for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.
He is also remembered for his role in Japanese American sports. When Rafu publisher Akira Komai decided to form the Nisei Athletic Union (NAU), he recruited Honda along with Dave Nakagawa, Yoshio Kodama, Paul Uyemura and Yuiichi Hirata to sit on the first Board of Control. Honda said that Komai picked him “because I helped out with the Rafu sports section” both before and after the war.
NAU was the successor to the Japanese Athletic Union (JAU), but Honda recalled that the name had to change because of the war. “I think at the time you didn’t want ‘Japanese’ in the title. I think ‘Nisei’ was very appropriate.”
Part of the original NAU board that oversaw both basketball and softball, Honda was described in 1947 by one Rafu columnist as a “veteran scorekeeper, columnist, and poet.” Honda remembered that fellow board members Nakagawa and Kodama were already involved in youth work and Hirata, a salesman at Asahi Shoe Sales, helped gained access to Chapman College’s gymnasium, where games were played that year. Uyemura was a regular columnist for the newspaper.
Fred K. Oshima, a longtime columnist for The Nichi Bei Times, observed that Honda supported Nisei sports in many ways: “Reporting the games to The Rafu Shimpo, the ball scores and perhaps a lead as a stringer for The Los Angeles Times (when the high school sports page was prominent as it never has been since), while he was sports editor at Belmont High, and acting as a scorekeeper in the late 1930s, the heyday of the JAU basketball games.”
After his retirement in 2002, Honda worked on the massive collection donated by JACL to the Japanese American National Museum and continued to attend and write about reunions and conferences held across the country and beyond. He attended every convention of PANA, which meets every other year in a different country in North or South America, including Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Canada and the U.S.
Honda was considered an expert on Japanese American history and his own files were a treasure trove of information. His numerous honors include the Aki Komai Memorial Award in 2001 and the Pacific Southwest District JACL’s “Living Legends” award last year.
The Manzanar National Historic Site said in a Facebook post, “He has been a great friend and amazing resource. He would not consent to an oral history interview because he said he preferred to write history. Actually, he made history.”
Honda and his wife married in 1957. Their daughter, Patty Arra, and her husband, Dan, have four children, Michelle, Joseph, Nicole and Benjamin. Survivors also include a nephew, Ted Kodama, and his wife, Gayle.
Services will be held on Monday, July 15, at 10:30 a.m. (visitation at 9:30 a.m.) at St. Francis Xavier Chapel/Japanese Catholic Center, 222 S. Hewitt St., Los Angeles.
(REgenerations Oral History Project and Chris Komai provided much of the biographical information.)