Dan Krieger: Unjust past rectified by honoring present

June 5, 2010 

‘Shikata ga nai,” meaning “it can’t be helped,” was a common expression among the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during the late winter and spring of 1942.

The phrase conveys the notion of maintaining dignity when confronted with tragic or unjust circumstances beyond the control of individuals and groups.

Kazunori Katayama had come to Cal Poly in 1941 on an athletic scholarship. He played on the basketball team. He studied ornamental horticulture and worked on the landscaping of the school, particularly the gardens surrounding the newly completed Administration Building, now known as the “Clock tower Building.” Sadly, he was not able to complete the Spring 1942 term.

Kazunori is now 91. Candice Katayama, his granddaughter, writes “It was the one regret my grandfather had to not be able to finish his college education ... and we look forward to attending the ceremonies in June.”

On Monday, President Warren Baker will confer honorary bachelor’s degrees on students of Japanese ancestry who had to leave Cal Poly because of Relocation Order 9066.

Kei Mikuriya also studied landscaping and played basketball. His son, Robert, writes that “Kei ... was a student at Cal Poly when his family was incarcerated at Gila River, Ariz. ... [he]was drafted into the U.S. Army, participating in the occupation of Japan as an interpreter and supply sergeant.

“Needless to say, his education was disrupted and after the war, economic circumstances prevented him from returning to school. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 86, and I know that he always regretted not completing his degree.”

Nelson Takeo Akagi studied electrical engineering. He and his family moved to Idaho, which was outside the West Coast Evacuation Zone. They worked in the potato fields during the war.

In 1943, at the age of 19, Akagi joined Cal Poly Mustang sportswriter Jiro Kai, enlisting in the 442nd Infantry. The all-Nisei unit fought in Italy and France and became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Former Cal Poly President Bob Kennedy referred to Akagi, who is now 86 and living in Salt Lake City, in an August 22, 1944 letter to The Tribune that was printed in last week’s Times Past.

Jean Tsunashima writes about her father, Akira, who was born in San Luis Obispo in 1922.

“He often ... [talked] about hiking and fishing in the area ... His father had a small grocery store a mile or two outside the city of San Luis Obispo. When the war broke out, his father was immediately interned and my father, his mother, aunt and three cousins moved to Fowler. With the impending news that Japanese were going to be interned, he and his family drove to Idaho to work on a farm with relatives.

“Later, the army asked my father to enlist. They needed Japanese Americans to learn to translate and interpret. My father agreed, but only under the condition that his father would be released from Angel Island.

“Although my father was able to speak Japanese, he was not formally educated. The U.S. Army taught him how to read and write in Japanese. While on a ship to the Philippines, the war ended and he was diverted to Korea to help with the transition.

“Following his discharge, Akira moved to Los Angeles, where he enrolled at Los Angeles Trade Tech and learned to become a mechanic. ... He had a successful auto repair shop in Montebello with lots of customers who appreciated his honesty and skills at repairing their cars.”

Frank Sakamoto and Taro Kobara both had family who managed to return to our region. Frank’s family had a grocery store on Cypress Street in Pismo Beach that was a gathering place for the Japanese American community in prewar days.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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