Sam Mitsui brought an uncomfortable, but very important, part of United States history alive when he came to speak to our eighth grade class at Lake Washington Girls Middle School last week. Anytime someone can speak from personal experience, history becomes more meaningful and more relevant. We were lucky that Mr. Mitsui, a second generation Japanese American, a Nisei, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest during World War II, could do that for our class.
Mr. Mitsui relayed his life experiences of as a young boy in Skykomish WA, doing well in school with lots of friends, playing on the school basketball team, and proudly identifying as a citizen of the United States. Those are things we can all relate to, but that is where the similarities stopped. Once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, his life changed as did the lives of 120,000 Nisei and Issei living on the West Coast. In that instant, they became pariahs in their communities, even though they had done nothing wrong. The war hysteria coupled with racism and fear caused many of their friends to turn their backs on the Japanese Americans. Mr. Mitsui remembers just one person in his community who publicly stood up for him - his basketball coach.
When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the Japanese community’s fate was sealed. All Nisei and Issei were sent to one of 10 concentration camps scattered throughout the western United States. Mr. Mitsui was sent with his family to Tule Lake in Northern California. He told us a little of what life was like in the camp: grim, with very intense weather. It was either very cold or very hot, and extremely boring. Some of the families had to go to temporary camps and sleep in horse stalls. He also told a story of a son telling his father that the stalls weren’t clean and smelled of horse manure. His father told him, “Remember, son, a lot of good things grow from horse manure.” Which as it turns out, was eventually true.
The Nisei decided that the only way out of the camps was to prove their loyalty to the United States. So, they offered to serve in the US Army. Finally in 1943 they were permitted to serve. Nearly 15,000 Nisei from Hawaii and from the camps volunteered to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And they became the most decorated regiment in history. In addition, 6000 Nisei served in the secret Military Intelligence service, and were credited with shortening the length of the war by two years!
Finally in 1988, forty-six years later, the story about the value of horse manure began to ring true when President Reagan signed a letter of apology for putting our American citizens, 120,000 Nisei and Issei into detention camps. In 2000, a National Japanese American Monument was dedicated in Washington D.C., in 2001 the Federal Courthouse in Seattle was re-named in honor of a Nisei veteran, and in 2002 the Medical/Dental Center in Fort Lewis was named in honor of another Nisei veteran. Mr. Mitsui talked about how “we had come full circle” when the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association invited the Nisei Veterans Committee to attend their Memorial Service in 2003. He was hesitant to attend, but was amazed and relieved to be welcomed with open arms.
Because Mr. Mitsui shared his personal experiences with us, we now have an even deeper understanding of what Japanese and Japanese-Americans experienced. The conviction that states the importance of never disrespecting a person for the color of her skin, religion, or sexual orientation was branded even more deeply into our minds and hearts. Like he reminded us, everyone is human and just wants to love and be loved.
Thank you, Mr. Mitsui.