By ELISE TAKAHAMA, Special to The Rafu Shimpo
The story of the Japanese American World War II soldiers is not a new one.
Instead, many Japanese American children grew up learning that entire battalions were made up of soldiers who looked like them, and who fought for the United States despite the fact that their friends and family were locked up in incarceration camps. The story is one that entire communities were built off of, one that has been weaved into the fabric of Japanese American identities today.
But because the number of those who lived the story dwindles every year, a new group has formed to continue telling it: the Torchbearers.
The group is part of the 31-year-old Go For Broke National Education Center (GFBNEC), a organization based in Los Angeles that educates the public on the experiences of Nisei WWII veterans and their contributions to the country. The Torchbearers serve as a bridge between older and younger generations — established by a mostly millennial group to tell the 70-year-old tale.
“We’re passing the torch on to the next generation,” said Staci Toji, a GFBNEC board member and one of the leaders of the Torchbearers.
On Saturday, June 6, GFBNEC will celebrate its 21st monument anniversary, marking the dedication of LA’s Go For Broke monument, which is engraved with the names of more than 16,000 Japanese American men and women who served during the war.
This year, GFBNEC will hold its first virtual anniversary celebration, due to concerns about the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. The live anniversary tribute will be available online for free on June 6 at 12 p.m. PST on Facebook, Youtube and the Go For Broke website (www.goforbroke.org).
Kisa Ito, Saturday’s keynote speaker, said there’s a silver lining in moving the ceremony completely online this year — the reach is much farther, giving the Go For Broke story a larger, more diverse platform for listeners of all ages and backgrounds.
Courtney Ozaki, for example, is helping broadcast the anniversary celebration from Colorado.
“I want to help them have their message and mission more broadly shared in this area of the country,” said Ozaki, who’s also pitching in to support GFBNEC’s Torchbearers. “But then also experiment and learn ways to educate and engage broader demographics of people also with these important stories.”
Ozaki, who works at the Japanese Arts Network in Denver, added that while the city was a place of welcome for Japanese Americans after WWII, there’s still a lot to be learned in the area.
And in Hawaii, Kimberly Haruki is helping lead the charge.
“Although I’m new to GFBNEC and Torchbearers, I believe it’s a microcosm of young people all around us rising up to be more vocal about social justice as well as interculturalism and diversity,” Haruki said. “There’s balance in preserving tradition and heritage while leveraging history to be more mindful about our future — and that mission is one that I’m passionate about supporting.”
In fact, she said, she was inspired to join her current organization, the Honolulu-based Central Pacific Bank, after she learned it was founded by Japanese American veterans.
Ito, whose grandfather served as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, said she thinks more and more young people are becoming interested in learning about their families’ and community’s history.
“A lot of that comes from the looming truth that we will eventually lose all the people in that generation,” Ito said.
Future generations have an important role to play in this story, she said.
“With my mom’s generation, a lot of them dealt with it at home. The pain their parents suffered … it probably made it really difficult growing up,” she said. “But I think what’s unique and what Yonsei and Gosei [fourth- and fifth-generation Japanese Americans] are able to do now is frame the story in a broader context that allows us to also talk about the injustice part of it in a way that might have been too painful to focus on in previous generations.”
While many Nisei veterans and their families felt it was their duty to follow orders, serve their country and prove their loyalty, younger generations often feel differently. Many groups today instead want to call more attention to the racial inequity and lack of human rights at the time, using the story as a way to support Asian Americans and other ethnic groups currently facing similar pain and heartbreak.
“The message would resonate with today’s younger generations,” said GFBNEC President and CEO Mitch Maki. “In my mind, it’s an evergreen lesson in terms of who belongs in America, especially with all this going on right now with all the racism and scapegoating. It’s a constant reminder.”
With that in mind, Maki and his team created the Torchbearers.
It’s a new group, Toji said, but members have organized several events to bring together younger community members and WWII veterans, including a Little Tokyo pub crawl, a Spam musubi eating contest and a collaboration with Japangeles, a clothing store based in Little Tokyo.
The Torchbearers, along with members of UCLA’s Nikkei Student Union, also made a trip to Evergreen Cemetery in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, where a lot of World War II veterans are buried. They spent the day cleaning the headstones of Nisei veterans.
“It was to make sure they’re well-respected,” Toji said.
A handful of other events are in the works, she said, but a lot of their plans have been put on hold because of the pandemic.
“The number of living vets gets fewer and fewer each year,” Toji said. “That’s why my involvement has skyrocketed in the past few years. We are the last few generations that have contact with these vets. It’s going to be our responsibility to pass that on to future generations.”
Alec Nakashima, a 27-year-old who launched Japanese American clothing brand Akashi-Kama, said he felt the same way — it’s one of the reasons he wanted to launch a collaboration with GFBNEC.
“There’s no more American hero story than the story of Go For Broke,” said Nakashima, who has family members who served in the 442nd. “I wanted to let them know I’m a huge supporter of theirs in mission and everything they stand for … It’s an incredible, truly American story of these soldiers who completely believed in America when America didn’t believe they were anything.”
Nakashima, who’s based in the Bay Area, is currently working with GFBNEC to develop a limited-edition jacket in honor of the 442nd.
His plan is to create a version of Akashi-Kama’s Noragi jacket, a light jacket made from Japanese double gauze cotton, by taking inspiration from soldiers’ original jackets.
“We sourced this Japanese military green twill we’re going to make a jacket out of,” he said.
He’s hoping to officially release the jackets in the fall, but said he wants to tease it out before then. All proceeds will go to GFBNEC, he added.
“It’s a true passion project for me,” he said. “It’s one of the things [Akashi-Kama] can bring to the table. We do have a younger audience, and we can help tell this story in a new, fresh way to, frankly, a world that needs it more than ever in 2020.”
This article is the second of a two-part series that aims to celebrate the Go For Broke Monument 21st Anniversary Tribute virtual program and the thousands of Nisei World War II veterans. Read the first story here.