Esther Kazue Nishio, who played an important role in the postwar resettlement of Japanese Americans, passed away peacefully at her home on Oct. 1 at the age of 94.
She was born in Venice to Shigehisa “Harry” Takei and Ninoe Takei in 1925. Her father owned several concessions, game booths, and rides on the Venice Amusement Pier. She was a very cute little girl, so was often asked to pose for local sculptors, photographers and painters. She grew up helping her parents in their businesses and was a talented artist and writer. She wanted a career as a journalist. She attended schools in Venice until WWII began.
The forced evacuation of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast at the start of the war derailed her plans and her goal of a college degree. Instead, she was sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center and later to the Amache, Colo. concentration camp. At Amache, she wrote a weekly column and drew a weekly cartoon series, “Ama-chan,” for the camp newspaper.
Nishio was famous in the Japanese American community and even ended up in U.S. history books because of what she did during WWII. In 1944, she was the first Japanese American to return to the West Coast from the camps to attend school. She was a test case.
She volunteered for the dangerous test because she wanted to earn her college degree and also prove that the Japanese Americans in the camps were loyal Americans, even if it cost her life. Hugh Anderson, her sponsor, arranged for her to attend Pasadena College, which later became Pasadena City College.
The plan was for Nishio to take a train, secretly, to Pasadena and quietly attend classes without the public knowing she was there. “Unfortunately, the school paper ran a story on her and all hell broke loose, with local and national papers exposing her,” said her son John.
Soon she was besieged by angry crowds, got death threats, was spit on and had things thrown at her. But the students and faculty of Pasadena College were very good to her. Another Nisei girl followed her to the West Coast a week later, but angry crowds at the train station caused her to return to her camp.
Nishio was staying with a Quaker family in Eagle Rock. Anderson had to send his own family to safety with relatives, as crowds drove around his house night and day, jeering at them. The Army escorted her at school and at home with armed soldiers.
Fortunately, her story was printed in Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for American servicemen fighting overseas and based at home. Several U.S. servicemen came to her defense, saying they were fighting for her rights as much as for all other Americans, because Nishio was an American citizen.
One sailor even hitchhiked across the country from the East Coast to help protect her. With this support, the protests went away and she was able to attend classes and even visit other concentration camps to try to get more students to attend schools on the West Coast.
Nishio’s father was the one who encouraged her to leave camp for school, to show that Japanese Americans were loyal Americans. As he saw her board the train from Amache to go to California, he suddenly realized he might have sent his own daughter to her death. The scary headlines that followed gave him sleepless nights for weeks.
“He told me that he regretted urging Esther to go alone, for the rest of his life, and made me swear I would never do that to my own children,” said her son.
Nishio attended classes at Pasadena College until the end of the war. The government had planned to release Japanese Americans from the camps in late 1946, but because of the success of the test case, the schedule was changed and people were released from the camps one year earlier, at war’s end.
Nishio had to leave college when her parents returned to Pasadena as they had lost everything because of the war. Her father was a very successful businessman before the war, but all of his businesses’ money and his home were stolen while he and his family were incarcerated.
Nishio had to get a job cleaning houses to help support the family, then got married in 1947 and had a child.
“I always felt bad she missed out on a college degree because I was born,” said her son. “A college degree was her lifelong dream.”
Nishio enrolled at Sawyer School of Business in Pasadena to become an executive secretary for the rest of her career. She worked for the legendary industrial engineer Henry Dreyfus and later for Flying Tiger Freight Airline until she retired. Her parents returned to Japan in 1958, so she used her airline privileges to visit them 28 times.
In 1981, Nishio and others testified before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to help win reparations for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during the war. A bill based on the commission’s findings was signed into law in 1988.
In 2010, the graduating class of Pasadena City College offered to hold a graduation ceremony for all of the Nisei students who were forced to leave during the war. They or their descendants received honorary degrees.
“Esther said that receiving that college degree was the happiest moment of her life, besides my birth,” said her son. “She treasured that college degree until she died.”
In 2012, State Sen. Carol Liu of La Cañada Flintridge awarded Nishio with the title of California Woman of the Year for what she did in 1944. She was also awarded many other times and had countless articles written about her. Many can be found at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
“Esther, my mom, was truly an angel on Earth. She was pure,” said her son. “Dad said she was the sweetest, most guileless person he had ever known. She refused to lie, even at her own expense at times, and we never heard her say a bad word about anyone. She often scolded us for doing that.
“She never complained about anything or about pain, even broken bones, emphysema and her blindness and cancer. We never knew if she was suffering.
“My parents were loving to each other their whole lives, always holding hands, always hugging and kissing. Very unusual for a Nisei couple. If I am a halfway decent husband, it is because they were my examples to follow.
“Esther was famous among family and friends for her huge smiles, hugs, and calling everyone her sweetie. Even in death, she was smiling when we found her. She always gave her help willingly to familiy, friends, co-workers, her church, and her community. When friends and relatives speak of her, the word they all use is describing her as ‘sweet.’
“The Japanese American community, the country, and our family lost a true heroine when she passed.”
Nishio is survived by her husband, Shig, son, John, and grandchildren, Michael and Kristin. A memorial service was held on Oct. 19 at First Presbyterian Church of Altadena.
A presentation on Nishio’s life was given to the PCC Board of Trustees on Oct. 15 by John and Susan Nishio, Wendy Anderson, Soji Kashiwagi and Darrell Kunitomi. The meeting was dedicated to her memory.