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NVC Memorial Day Event: Keynote Speech

by Katherine C. Tobin, Ph.D., May 26, 2021
June 2021, Volume 71, Issue 6

Good day, everyone.  Kon’Nichiwa! Blessings to you and your family on this Memorial Day weekend.  Thank you, Mike, for your kind introduction.

I am honored, very honored, to be invited to speak at the 76th Nisei Veterans Committee’s commemoration of Japanese American veterans.  In my remarks today, I want to tell you first about my connection to the Japanese American community and why I believe what we’re all doing here today is so important.  Second, I’ll tell you about the role and work of the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens Stamp Committee and its commemorative stamp program’s goals and process.  And third, I want to focus on the incredibly powerful lessons we must all learn from what the Nisei WWII veterans did through their service to America.

So, first, here’s my story.  My father was a WWII naval aviator, a pilot who flew B24s in the South Pacific throughout the war, in the Solomon and Mariana Islands area.  Years later, in 1962, Dad received orders to travel to Japan for duty at the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.  Our family, my mother and younger sister, were able to join him to live there in southern Japan for two years.  I was 12 years old.  It was a wonderful life experience.

We lived off base in the Japanese countryside during our first year, in a small Japanese home, along the Monzen River.  Iwakuni, as some of you may know is on the beautiful Inland Sea, and it is a short distance from the city of Hiroshima.  Thus, I grew up learning about Japan, its people, its history, its language and its culture.   

Shortly after we returned to the U.S., my father died suddenly.  I was just 14.  He died of war-related injuries. 

Needless to say, I loved my father, and from that moment on I dedicated my life to making him proud. 

The next year of my life was my junior year of high school, and in California that meant a rigorous U.S. history class…. Who was my teacher?  It was Mr. Mas Hashimoto of Watsonville High School.  He was the first person of color to teach there in fact.  I should tell you that he was the best teacher I ever had.  He was very demanding.  Mr. Hashimoto expected us to give our best to our studies and to always work to better understand American history. 

When it came to his life in WWII, we students learned that young Mas was just seven years old when he was rounded up at the Salinas County Fairgrounds in California.  Then his whole family including five brothers were taken by train to a prison camp in Poston, Arizona.

Why did that happen, we students wondered?  Very simple: he was a Japanese American and the U.S. was at war with Japan.  You all know this history, but this teacher’s goal was to tell others, his students, what happened to Americans. I’m only one among thousands of his students who benefitted from hearing his American story.  Mr. Hashimoto explained that civil rights are NOT to be taken for granted, and he showed us exactly and how simply civil rights can be transgressed.

To this day, Mr. Hashimoto is my sensei, and now he is my good friend as well.  In fact, I spent a day with him just last week.  He took my husband and I to the Salinas fairgrounds where he was rounded up en route to the camp.  There are fitting memorial plaques and gardens to reflect what happened there. 

Thus, to be brief, I know Japan.  I know very personally what happened in WWII, and I feel deeply connected to and grateful for all the Nisei Veterans and their families for their incredible service.  I am also a long-time member of JACL, the Japanese American Citizens League.  Let me offer my apologies today to this community for what our country did then that transgressed the law and our American values.  

Just as I dedicated my life to my father, I dedicated my energy and focus on the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee to having the Nisei Warriors of WWII stamp idea become a reality.

That is why I am honored to be with you today.  Part of my service to this country has been serving the U.S. Postal Service.    

I join you today to express gratitude to your forebearers.  I understand from Lt. Colonel Yaguchi that in recent years, about ten Nisei WWII veterans have been healthy enough to attend your Memorial Day conference.  I very much hope that some are watching with us today.  To them I say, “God bless you! Domo arigato gozaimasu.  We are all eternally grateful for your brave, heroic service.”

Now let me tell you about the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee.  Since 1957, leading individuals have been appointed to serve the U.S. Postmaster General through the work of choosing who and what American events should be commemorated with a U.S. postal stamp.  Committee members include historians and other social scientists, businesspersons, athletes, artists, designers and philatelists.   Members can serve for 12 years. 

The Committee meets four times a year to discuss and recommend commemorative stamp subjects to the Postmaster General for his or her consideration.  There are criteria for what can be honored and what cannot be honored.  There are goals and standards that must be met. 

Each year’s stamp program needs to reflect a balanced diversity of both American subject matter, as well as people.  We aim to have a mix of fun stamps, holiday stamps, historical anniversaries and stellar people.  Most years we have only about 15 commemorative stamps.  So, from thousands upon thousands of ideas, only a few make it through a long process that entails ongoing winnowing out of potential stamp subjects.  Just a small number get through all the legal, ethical, and design hoops which result in an issued stamp. 

Many, if not most stamp ideas, come from the public.  Citizens like you can submit ideas.  If you ever wish to submit an idea, please feel welcome to do so.  Sometimes we hear from students even, which is great.  The Committee and Post Office welcome hearing from fellow Americans.  Take a look online to learn how to do that. 

Other ideas are proposed by committee members, and still others are discussed and chosen due to a particular historical anniversary.  For example, in a few years, our country will celebrate its 250th anniversary.  You might expect to see that national milestone honored with stamp recognition. 

Some of you may know that three Japanese American women first suggested a Nisei Veterans stamp sixteen years ago.  They are:  Fusa Takahashi, Aiko King, and the late Chiz Ohira.  At that time, I was serving on the U.S. Postal Service’s Board of Governors.  Through the press, I heard about their idea, and it seemed to me like a very worthy one, but it was not the governing Board’s role to discuss or recommend stamps. 

Time passed – and as luck or life would have it – the then Postmaster General invited me to serve on his Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee.  That was in 2013.  I believe in the USPS’s mission, and I love stamps, so I said YES. 

Meanwhile, more ideas came forth from citizens.  The Japanese American community persisted.  Other approaches to the Japanese American story were suggested.  Let me name a few:

  • One idea was to focus on the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism, a spectacular and fitting monument in DC, near Capitol Hill. 
  • Another idea was to showcase the Art of Gaman which would be the artwork created by Japanese Americans in WWII who were incarcerated.
  • At one point, Ruth Asawa’s name was raised with the idea of visualizing her art.  She was a Japanese American artist who had been incarcerated in a camp during WWII and she learned there to create art.   Last year, a beautiful pane of stamps was issued showcasing her work.   Take a look.  Here’s the pane.

Time passed again.  It’s now 2021.  With persistence and determination, citizens, government leaders, a committee, a Postmaster General, art designers and even the lawyers – all enabled the idea of a Nisei Veterans stamp to go forward.  The stars aligned and next week on June 3rd a U.S. postal service stamp honoring the Nisei WWII vets will be issued.  Take a look at this magnificent image of Shiroku, nicknamed “Whitey,” Yamamoto, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat team.  Whitey is no longer with us.  He was from Hawaii.  This image is created from a photo taken of him during the war and his image on a stamp serves to represent all those Japanese Americans who served in WWII.   I wish I could see the faces of those of you Nisei WWII veterans here today.  Isn’t it powerful?

What an honorable way to recognize the Nisei veterans of WWII’s service, what a fine way to remind our country that these veterans were literally “Going for Broke” in service to America.  These fine men are now recognized FOREVER with this forever stamp issuance.  Congratulations and thank you to those veterans who are still with us and those who have passed on.

Anyone who wants these stamps can pre-order online.  In fact, you can order any USPS stamp that’s still in print at www.usps.com.  So, get your “Go For Broke” panes of stamps now!  Alternatively, go to your local post office if you like, and if they don’t have the stamps yet, ask them to get them in stock for you and others to buy. 

Remember these are what’s called a Forever stamp.  That means if you buy a pane of stamps now, at the current postal rate, even if the rate goes up what you purchased is good “forever” at today’s rate.  It will work for years and decades to come.  

I like to think of the Forever designation in another way though.  Just as your Committee has honored the Nisei veterans annually, so now does the U.S. Postal Service honor them forever more. 

The Nisei Veterans of WWII represent the “best of the best” of America.  I plan to use these stamps this year for all my correspondence, including our family’s holiday cards.  The stamp’s image tells a story, your story, that of the Japanese American community across this country. 

The Nisei Veterans of WWII knew exactly what their identity was.  They were Japanese Americans.

The U.S. was at war, and they knew that the honorable thing to do for self, for family, for country was to directly serve their country, to fight for America, to GO FOR BROKE for its values.  These men did not say “No-No” but “Yes-Yes” to military service and patriotism.

They fought valiantly.  And - this is where you fit in, all of us attending this 2021 Memorial Day event today, you have NOT forgotten the Nisei Veterans either.

So, what lessons have I learned?  I’ve learned not to give up if you believe a cause is right and worthy.  I’ve learned to persist, to pursue, to go for broke, as for example, on a stamp idea.  We all need to live our lives with this powerful lesson in mind. 

In closing, America still very much needs each and every one of us.  We have so many issues, not just military ones, to work on as a country.  So, ONWARD, let’s GO FOR BROKE, nobly, steadily, determinedly as the Nisei Veterans did.  The baton has been passed.

Thank you.  Arigato gozaimasu.