By CHRIS KOMAI, Rafu Contributor
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Go For Broke National Education Center (GFBNEC) commemorated the 21st anniversary of the opening of its monument in Little Tokyo with its first virtual tribute program live-streamed through YouTube, Facebook and the GFBNEC’s website on June 6.
GFBNEC President and CEO Mitch Maki and ABC7 evening news anchor David Ono, who serves on the GFBNEC Board, co-hosted the program from the organization’s permanent exhibition, “Defining Courage,” located in the renovated former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple building. Given the different format, Maki explained that on top of creating a moving tribute to the Japanese American World War II veterans, this was “our opportunity to connect with new audiences from around the globe.”
According to GFBNEC, the anniversary program drew 4,600 views through Facebook and 3,700 views via YouTube. The website had 1,809 visits and 47,118 hits. Viewers were connecting from Hawaii, Florida, Maryland, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Oregon, Utah, Atlanta, Las Vegas and all over California.
Acknowledging that the country is currently “struggling through a health crisis as well as a social crisis of conscience,” Maki stated, “we come to you today recognizing that as we celebrate the legacy of our Nisei veterans of World War II, our nation continues its ever-present quest of being ‘one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.’ “
Four Nisei veterans — Hidenobu Hiyane of Honolulu; Hason Yanaga of Denver; Harold Okamura of Maui; and Yosh Nakamura of Los Angeles — conveyed their best wishes from their homes. The program was also highlighted by a video excerpt of Ono’s visit to the site of what he described as “one of the Nisei’s most legendary battles,” and keynote remarks by Kisa Ito, granddaughter of Lawson Sakai, 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran. George Henning, chair of the Board of Directors for GFBNEC, provided welcome remarks, while Helen Ota sang the national anthem.
The event’s Presenting Sponsors are Rick and Patee Shinto of Yorba Linda. Rick Shinto’s father was part of I Company and he remembered participating in veteran-related events such as Nisei Week, bowling and mochitsuki while growing up. “It is part of my fabric,” he explained in an interview after the event.
Shinto, who runs a medical-related business, wanted to support the event because of what his father, his uncles and the veterans “have done for me.” He and wife are proponents of the GFBNEC educational initiatives and traveling shows, since they believe the best way to create a greater general awareness of the Nisei veterans’ story is through education.
Ono, who has produced documentaries such as “The Legacy of Heart Mountain” and a piece nominated for an Emmy on Medal of Honor recipient Sadao Munemori and his statue at Evergreen Cemetery, toured France’s Vosges Mountains with a video crew. He was accompanied by Glen Hajiro, the son of Medal of Honor recipient Barney Hajiro.
Pinned down by German forces who held the high ground, Barney Hajiro and Goro Matsumoto led the charge up the steep terrain of what the 442nd called Banzai Hill. Matsumoto was killed, but Hajiro knocked out two machine gun nests and the Japanese American unit took Banzai Hill on its way to rescuing “The Lost Battalion” of Texas.
One popular story is that when Hajiro and Matsumoto jumped out of their foxhole, they yelled “Banzai” before leading the advancement, thus giving the hill its name. But Ono dispelled that notion, explaining that Hajiro himself said that he and his friend mostly swore in English. Ono added that Hajiro recorded his full story as part the GFBNEC’s Hanashi Oral History project, which has more than 1,200 interviews in its collection.
In her keynote speech, Ito recollected that when she was growing up, she thought of her grandfather as a fun-loving, socially popular individual. It took years for her to appreciate the role her grandfather played as part of the 442nd during World War II and afterwards. Sakai founded the Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans (FFNV) nonprofit group, where Kisa’s mother Janet volunteers.
“I’ve since had the opportunity to participate in some FFNV reunions and events, and am always struck by the enthusiasm and warmth of the participants who’ve grown to be close friends of my grandfather’s,” Ito revealed. “At these gatherings, my grandpa and his fellow vets were abIe to open up about the 442nd and 100th, and I learned so much about their experiences. This is, in part, why I am so grateful for the people and organizations dedicated to continuing to share these stories of Nisei veterans.”
Ito noted that last year she accompanied her grandfather and mother on a trip organized by FFNV to France, where she saw a different side of him. “He recounted painful memories of battles, shared stories about those who sacrificed their lives and didn’t make it home, and introduced us to friends he had made over the many visits to France,” Kisa recalled. “It was also the first time I had witnessed such a somber version of my typically bright and charismatic grandpa. I finally understood that, though he seldom mentioned his time in the 442nd to us while growing up, it continues to play an instrumental role in the way that he lives his life with gratitude and joy.”
After talking to the children and grandchildren of other Nisei veterans, Ito discovered a common experience they share in that most of them had not been told these stories directly. “I’m deeply grateful for organizations like (the) Go For Broke (National Education Center) and FFNV that sustain the legacy of the Nisei veterans; provide valuable education on this chapter of history; and, for me, provide the chance to learn more about my grandpa’s experience and my family legacy,” Ito said.
Ito belongs to GFBNEC’s Torchbearers, a group that Ono said represents the next generation of support. Staci Toji, who sits on the GFBNEC Board and was the Keynote Address Sponsor, joined fellow Torchbearers Alan Hino, Emiko Kranz, Kent Marume and Nicole Sato in sending taped greetings for the event.
Maki provided a list of highlights, including GFBNEC’s traveling exhibition, “Courage & Compassion,” visiting 12 host cities around the country, and the organization’s website receiving 2.6 million hits and 150,000 unique visitors. Also, the organization continues its merchandise partnerships with Japangeles in Little Tokyo and Akashi-Kama, an online retailer based in Northern California.
Maki also commended the organization’s partners, who participated in the program. They included: Lauren Harris of Spokane, author of a children’s book, “The Plum Neighbor,” published with GFBNEC; Jolie Noguchi, owner of Pacific Mercantile Company in Denver, which sells GFBNEC merchandise; Dale Ikeda, JACL Fresno; Deidre Tegarden, executive director of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, Maui; Ann Kabasawa, 100th Infantry Battalion Club, Honolulu; Kylie Pine, Williamette Heritage Center, Salem; and David Bonner, JACL Houston.
As a live event, the anniversary program set aside time to answer questions from the viewing audience. Maki and Ono took turns answering inquiries about how to find out more about family members who served and when Ono’s footage taken in Europe might be made available. The program concluded with the opportunity drawing.
The Pacific Bridge Companies sponsored the pre-show, which featured photos of veterans submitted by their families. Union Bank was the GFBNEC Story Sponsor, while Bill, Christy and Kiana Seki sponsored the video tribute to the veterans. Stephen Kagawa, chair of the GFBNEC Circle of Ambassadors, underwrote the veterans’ video greetings.
For more information on the Go For Broke National Education Center or to view the anniversary program, go to goforbroke.org.