HORSE’S MOUTH: My Friend, Ralph Yempuku




This past week when I was invited to give a talk in front of an organization called the Nikkei Widowed Group, I didn’t have the faintest idea about the organization. Which meant that I was unsteady about what I should talk about.

Well, when I arrived at the Keiro Retirement Home, the guard at the parking lot asked me what was the purpose of my visit to Keiro. I told him I was going to give a talk to the Nikkei Widowed Group and he asked me, “What’s your name?”

When I told him, he said, “We have a parking space saved for you.”

Sure enough, he pointed to an open spot in the parking lot and when I was reading to drive into the space, I saw a sign which read, “Parking reserved for G. Yoshinaga.”

Wow! I thought to myself, I guess I was really expected by the group.

In all the years I’ve been attending various functions, I don’t ever recall having a parking space saved for me with my name on it.

After my talk, however brief, members of the organization wanted to chat with me so I had quite an enjoyable afternoon.

In talking with the members, I thought to myself, “Gee, some of the stories I exchanged with the members were really interesting. And a source for column material.”

So, one of the members, Paul Saito, said he would provide me with the background on the group:

The organization was formed in 1979 by Bill Watanabe, who was not widowed, but a concerned soci­ologist. He solicited the aid of Hazel Endo, who was a recent widow at that time, to assist him.

Since its inception, the purpose of the group was to support the recently widowed of the Nikkei community, with compassion, understanding and friendship and buoyed them through the traumatic period of grief.

As only the widowed really understands, this common bond of surviving without a marriage partner drew kinship of togetherness.

Today, there are130 to 140 active members. They hold support meetings in private homes on the first Saturday of each month. On the third Friday of each month they hold a Friday breakfast.

They also have theater outings and two to three day trips to Las Vegas.

In July, they have their annual installation luncheon and an annual Christmas luncheon in December.

They also print a monthly newsletter of eight to 10 pages.

The Directors of the organization rotate their responsibilities of serving as president for two month. The emphasis is on sharing the duties of president among all directors.

As stated earlier, the purpose is to encourage the surviving partners to overcome bereavement by making new friends and participating in activities to adjust to a lifestyle without a spouse.

What a grand idea.

I’m glad I was able to join with them this past Sunday and give my talk however it was accepted by the members.

Thanks to Paul Saito for providing with the information.


Needless to say, there have been a lot of stories over the past few weeks regarding the Japanese Americans who have served in the military during the three major wars beginning with World War II.

George Wakiji sent me a clipping on one of those Nisei who served. It was more than interesting to me because it was about a dear friend, the late Ralph Yempuku.

I guess that’s because of the way we met following WWII.

He didn’t talk too much about his career except that he mentioned he founded the Varsity Victor Volun­teers, composed of JAs who were members of the Hawaii National Guards, who were all discharged because of their Japanese ethnicity.

Before I touch on his military career, let me relate how we first met.

When I was managing boxers, I used to take some of them to Honolulu for matches promoted by the late Sam Ichinose, who was popularly known in the Islands as “Sad Sam.”

Well, on one of my trips, this Nisei fellow came up to me at the boxing arena and asked, “How much is Sad Sam paying your fighter for his match?”

I looked at him and without thinking said, “What the hell business is it of yours?”

Another guy connected with Sad Sam’s promotion heard my remark and said, “What the hell is the matter with you? You can’t talk to Ralph Yempuku like that.”

Naturally, I responded, “Who the hell is Ralph Yempuku?”

I found out that he was the “money man” behind the boxing promotion.

Later, when I saw him again, I apologized for my statement.

He laughed and said, “That’s okay. Most people don’t know what my connection is with Sad Sam’s boxing.”

I found out later that Ralph was involved in most of the promotions in Hawaii from bringing the sumo wrestlers over from Japan and putting on an yearly circus.

When Ralph learned that I had lived and worked in Japan, we found a common ground and became life-long friends as well as partners in promotion between the U.S. and Japan.

We took a number of American circuses to Japan and on one of the trips, I was bitten by one of the tigers in the show and lost the tip of my little finger on the left hand. Still a constant reminder of those days.

When Ralph decided to bring the sumo wrestlers to the mainland, we worked together for promotions in Los Angeles and San Jose.

So that’s the story of our association.

As to his military career, he first wanted to join the 442nd/100th, but he injured his knee and was declared 4-F, unfit to serve.

However, after he overcame his injury, he joined the 442nd/100th at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, but later volunteered for the office of Strategic Services to serve on a “special mission in the Far East.”

The mission was more dangerous than combat duty.

He infiltrated the Japanese lines in Burma to rescue U.S. Air Force personnel who had been shot down in jungles. Ralph and his fellow Nisei would be the only unit to practice guerrilla warfare during WWII.

They engaged in combat which drove the last Japanese Army out of north Burma to earn the Presidential Unit Citation.

For his service, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the Brnoze Star with cluster, the Legion of Merit and the Yun Hui Medal from the Republic of China.

Gee, I didn’t know I was associating with such a war hero. I might not have complained to him about losing the tip of my little finger to a tiger bite.

Ralph passed away in July, 2002.


We all know that there are a lot of hapa (“happa” to many) athletes that are often overlooked in the Japanese vernacular press because even though they are part Japanese, they have Anglo names.

If someone mentions Dan Naiman to a Japanese American, the response might be, “Who is he?”

Well, he’s a popular comedian who has performed in the Los An­geles area.

I guess I wouldn’t have caught the “hapa” angle if the headline over the story on his L.A. appearance didn’t read, “An Indian Japanese Funnyman.”

His father is Indian and mother, Japanese.

In his comedy routine, he lets everyone in the audience know of his ethnicity. He can do jokes in both accents.

One of his jokes is: “I get my sushi at 7-Eleven.”

He opens his routine with, “So, you’re probably wondering what race is that guy anyway?”

It might be interesting to see his performance.

Maybe he can do his routine before an all JA audience. Most of his appearances are before predominately Indians. That’s Indians from India. Not the Pechanga Indian reservation.


Well, one thing about news, it keeps popping up. News with a “Japanese angle” stimulates a lot of responses.

The newest one was the bowing of President Obama before Emperor Akihito, being one of the top stories in Wednesday’s Rafu.

I had a number of people ask me, “What do you think?”Let’s see what rhymns with “think?” Well, there’s “stink.”

That word comes to mind because the furor being caused reminds me of a bowl of natto if you get the drift on what I mean.

In the first place, bowing has an entirely different meaning to the Japanese as it does to the Americans.

If the President of the U.S. offered someone his hand for a handshake, it’s a gesture of friendship. I think the bow has the same effect. It has nothing to do with lowering one’s self the presence of another.

Everyone knows I’m not an Obama fan, but I can’t see myself criticizing him for bowing to Akihito.

I think all Japanese think that it’s a gesture of sincere friendship and understanding of Japanese culture.

We all know that at many events in our own Japanese American com­munity, those at the gathering will join voices in hailing, “Banzai.”

Those who aren’t familiar with Japanese may interpret this the wrong way, too. However, just what is, “Banzai?” It’s merely hollering out, “Hooray.”

However, because of World War II, a lot of people attach a different interpretation to “Banzai.”

All I can add to the current issue about the President bowing to the Emperor is, ”Banzai.”


I’m not sure what network will carry it, but a U.S. version of the “Hachiko Story” will be aired on Dec. 18.

In case some of you may not know what the “Hachiko Story’ is about, it’s the story of a dog’s loyalty to its owner. It was created in Japan.

As the story goes, the owner of the dog named, “Hachiko” would take his pet to the train station in Shibuya, as he left for work. And, when he returned, “Hachiko” would be waiting for him.

Unfortunately, one day, he owner failed to return and “Hachiko” waited patiently day after day.

This prompted someone to erect a statue in front of the Shibuya station in remembrance of the dog’s loyalty.

Since I lived in Shibuya and frequently rode the train to get around Tokyo, I used to see the statue of “Hachiko” mounted on a cement base in front of the station.

At the time, I didn’t know the story about “Hachiko” and its owner but my curiosity got to me one day and I asked one of the employees at the office where I worked about the statue and he told me the entire story.

I was kind of moved by the tale after that, every time I passed the statue I would pat it on the head.

It will be interesting to see the American version of the story and am looking forward its release next month.

As far as the Japan “Hachiko” is concerned, I was told that they moved the dog’s statue but I can’t confirm that since it’s been a while since I’ve been to Japan.

When I used to travel to Japan I always made it part of my trip to revisit Shibuya and the apartment where I lived.

It always brings back memories of those days back in the early 60’s.

By the way, I don’t know if any of you readers are aware of it, but my third son was born in Tokyo.

That’s a story in itself.

I know when we returned to the U.S. and my son started school here, he was self-conscious about telling people he was born in Japan. However, in later years, he seemed kind of proud to say, “Hey, I was born in Tokyo.”

Today, I kid him by telling him, “Hey, you’re an Issei.”

He doesn’t see much humor in that because he’s not familiar with the Issei/Nisei era.

I don’t know about most of other Nisei parents and their Sansei kids, but mine never ask me about their grandparents, the Issei.

On the other hand, my Yonsei grandkids call me, “Grandpa.”

Oh well…


It’s kind of in the future, but on Jan. 17, 2010 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Veteran’s Hall at the Gardena JCI, there will be a forum held at which the main discussion will be the future of the Rafu Shimpo.

It will give the people opportunity to express their thoughts about the future of the paper.

The result of the forum may give a clearer picture of the future of JA papers.

With the two major publications in the San Francisco area shutting down, this has become a matter which needs to be addressed.

Input by those who attend may provide answers to some of the issues regarding the future of JA newspapers.

It is hoped that the forum will draw a large audience.

So for those of you who are interested, please keep the date open.

I will discuss this matter from time to time in the future until the Jan. 17 date.

We will try to get as many of the Rafu staffers to be on hand to answer any questions from the audience.


The previous may have been a bit gloomy so I guess I’ll lightened the mood with some quickies about one of my favorite subjects. That would be “blondes.” Try these about blondes:

• She was sooo blond, she thought a quarterback was a refund.

• She thought General Motors was in the Army.

• She took a ruler to bed to see how long she slept.

• She sent a fax with a stamp on it.

• She tripped over a cordless phone.

• She spent 20 minutes looking at the orange juice because it said, “Concentrate.”

• She sold the car for gas money.

• She thought Taco Bell was a Mexican phone company.

• She studied for a blood test.

• When she went to the airport and saw a sign that read, “Airport Left.” she turned around and went home.

• When she heard that 90 percent of all crimes occur at home, she moved.


Yup. It’s time to go off laughing:

Sitting by the window of her Convent, Sister Barbara opened a letter from home one evening. Inside the letter was a $100 her parents had sent.

Sister Barbara smiled at the gesture. As she read the letter by the window, she noticed a shabby dressed stranger leaning against the lamp post below.

Quickly, she wrote: “Don’t Despair. Sister Barbara” on a piece of paper, wrapped the hundred dollar bill in it, got the man’s attention and tossed it out the window to him. The stranger picked it up and with a puzzled expression and a tip of his hat, went off down the street.

The next day, Sister Barbara was told that the man was at her door, insisting on seeing her. She went down and found the stranger waiting.

Without a word, he handed her huge wads of $100 bills.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“That’s $8,000 you have coming, Sister,” the shabby man happily replied. “Your horse, ‘Don’t Despair,’ paid 80 to 1 at the race track.”

What? That wasn’t funny enough?

Try a few of these:

• Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly for the same reason.

• A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove you don’t need it.

• Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

• Oh well, if I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.


George Yoshinaga writes from Gardena and may be reached via e-mail at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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