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Colonel Jimmie Kanaya Scholarship Essay

by Mari Kamemoto
May 2021, Volume 71, Issue 5

[NOTE: Mari Kamemoto is the daughter of Audrey and Derek Kamemoto.  She will be graduating from Bishop Blanchet High School this spring and has already made plans to attend Northwest Nazarene University next fall.]

The Japanese American Issei and Nisei generations overcame many difficult circumstances, discrimination, and prejudice during the World War II era. Many Nisei enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought the enemy in Europe yet also faced discrimination and prejudice at home in the United States. Their bravery, loyalty, and fierce determination contributed to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team being the most decorated unit for its size in U.S military history. At the same time, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forced into concentration camps (and some even had family members enlist and serve in the U.S. Army). The camps had poor living conditions, people had no rights, and guns and guard towers faced inwards, instead of outward. All due to racism. 

The Nisei veterans fought in World War II, despite the prejudice that their families and other Japanese Americans were facing in the camps. The veterans wholeheartedly served, sacrificed, and proved their loyalty to the United States. After the war ended, they returned to the cities and towns that turned their backs on them. Many of these veterans went on to college or got jobs, worked hard to rebuild and support their families, contributed to society, and raised their own families. They continued to serve in their communities and give back, even after they were mistreated and judged to be the enemy. 

My grandpa is a Nisei veteran that fought in World War II in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. His legacy has had a huge impact on my life. Hearing my grandpa talk about his childhood, wartime, and life after the war inspired me to learn more about the Japanese American experience. I wanted to hear more. My grandpa was just eighteen years old when he volunteered to serve in the Army. I am eighteen years old now. I can’t even imagine what he faced! He willingly put his life at risk for the good and service to our country.  

During World War II my grandma was relocated from California to the Gila River concentration camp. She left with very little and in an instant her whole life changed. She faced racial discrimination, isolation, was stripped of her rights, and was treated as the enemy. She was looked down upon and treated unfairly. But in a similar way to the veterans’ experience, this also required bravery, resilience, and sacrifice. My grandma’s teenage years were taken away. She didn’t have a high school graduation. Yet my grandma studied and worked hard and made the best of the difficult situation. The Japanese American community was resilient and had a fighting spirit. 

During her years in camp my grandma volunteered in the camp infirmary and chose to become a nurse. When she was able to leave the camp, she went to Chicago to go to nursing school. She was unable to go back home to the west coast to study. While in nursing school she hoped and planned to go back to the west coast, to give back to her community. 

Being inspired especially by my grandpa’s service and sacrifice, I started volunteering and getting involved with the Nisei Veterans Committee. I wanted to be able to learn more, and also get involved in sharing the stories of our veterans. I felt the importance of my generation and future generations understanding … not just history, but stories about real people.  

Since getting involved with NVC, I have learned a lot more about the legacy of the Nisei.  Last November, I had an opportunity to create a virtual Veterans Day video, with my younger brother, Brian, and my friend, Ben. This project not only honored the veterans, but it also highlighted the role the veterans played in securing our country’s freedom.  

We have so much to learn from the Issei and Nisei … from both the heroic wartime experiences to the terrible injustices Japanese Americans faced in the concentration camps. We can follow in the steps of the Sansei that worked hard, did well, and made their parents proud.  It’s now time for my Yonsei generation, and future generations, to keep learning from our elders’ experiences and promoting tolerance, justice, and respect, so injustices will never happen again. Just like I was moved by my grandpa’s and other veterans’ experiences, I hope that others will be inspired and learn from the stories of the Issei and Nisei generations.  

I am fortunate to be living in a time where Japanese Americans are not racially discriminated against, much due to the sacrifice and loyalty of the Nisei. But now it is my responsibility to help make sure that no other racial group faces discrimination. I will continue to share their legacy and tell their stories … the good and the hard stories. Education is key. I will continue to live and promote acceptance, tolerance, justice, and service to others.