We need heroes now more than ever.
Despite being displaced from their homes, placed in camps and forced to relinquish all their possessions, these heroes overcame anger and resentment to help weave the fabric of this nation and even contributed to the war effort.
While we may look to distant places for heroics, in those of the athletic, entertainment and political worlds, I have been inspired by faces I have grown to know well—whose physical characteristics I see in my own reflection. These are the heroes rooted in my own family tree.
My heroes wear bifocal glasses, decorated by crow’s feet and garnished with silvery hair that at one time, many years ago, was black. These are the heroes who have owned modest businesses, worked diligently at day jobs and cared for their growing children and grandchildren. These are the heroes who experienced hardships that I will never comprehend because they lived as Japanese—Americans during World War II.
My grandfather, Frank Hiraoka, is 94 years old and a model of perfect health—always smiling. However, behind his smile and within the recesses of his memory is his own story —one shared by countless other Japanese Americans. Frank was born in Norwalk, California, as an American Citizen to first-generation immigrant parents. Prior to the war, Frank was the produce manager at a local grocery store. He knew the town mayor, was well acquainted with bankers, and established in his line of work. Due to his success in the grocery business, Frank and a colleague were approached by the owner of one of the largest grocery market chains with a challenge. If they could put the competing Safeway store out of business within three years, he would finance the creation of their own grocery store. During the next three years Frank and his partner outperformed the Safeway by sourcing quality products at prices that their competitors could not match. At the conclusion of the three years the Safeway had changed managers three times and finally abandoned Norwalk. Frank and his colleague would have a store of their own.
On December 7, 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The attack ignited US involvement in World War II and meant severely misdirected consequences for Japanese Americans such as Frank. Under Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans were ordered to “voluntarily evacuate” inland or be forced to go to relocation camps. Despite finally getting an opportunity to own his own store, Frank voluntarily left Norwalk, California rather than risk his luck at an internment camp. “They put people in Santa Anita in horse stalls. That was a real bad deal. The MP had guns and everything. I did not want to go to camp,” he explains. The remnants of Frank’s life in Norwalk were packed into a suitcase, which was all that he could carry onto the train. Frank took his seat and headed east.
Mas Yoshida, my uncle, was one of the Japanese Americans who did end up in camp. His family was sent to the Granada Relocation Center, referred to as “Camp Amache” in Granada, Colorado where they remained for four long years. The camp was a desolate place in one of the hottest parts of the state. Like many of the 110,000 citizens removed from his home, he was only a child. Years later Mas Yoshida of barrack 7H, would marry into another family displaced from California — the Domotos of barrack 12H, who had also left their home, friends and a living room full of wedding presents. “My parents had to make their own furniture. When they went into (the camp) there was a room and a stove. That was it. In fact, when you looked up through the barrack—there were three or four units in each barrack—the wall didn’t go up to the ceiling so you could hear what they were saying next door and all the way down the barrack. There was no privacy. No bed. No nothing,” said Mas.
Enduring the hardships of Executive Order 9066 could have defined Japanese Americans of the World War II era, but today is only part of the story. Despite being displaced from their homes, placed in camps and forced to relinquish all their possessions, these heroes overcame anger and resentment to help weave the fabric of this nation and even contributed to the war effort. After evacuating California, Frank farmed for a year in rural Colorado, but still in the midst of war, decided to voyage to Chicago where he passed an Army Specialized Corps Japanese course at the University of Chicago. Frank would become an instructor to Army Specialized Corps Japanese translators who were later sent to the Philippines during the Pacific campaign. During this time he also attended school to become a dental technician. After the war, Frank returned to Denver. He worked in dentistry and founded his own small grocery store in the Five-Points area of Denver—finally fulfilling a desire that had been taken from him during the war.
Mas Yoshida grew up to become an engineer at Bell Laboratories and evolved into a skilled pilot, a passion which he still pursues today. However even after the passing of decades, he still remembers the doctrine of his parents as he grew older and made his way in the world as a former child of the internment camps. “My parents stressed education so that you would prove wrong the people who had sent the Japanese to camp. They said that their situation should never be used as a source of shame. Don’t let this prevent you from succeeding they said.”
Perhaps it is my father who summarized the mentality of these Japanese Americans best. “They had a chance to turn around their situation if they worked hard, to break the existing stereotypes of who they were. And they did.”
As on the situation at hand and the hurdles that stand between today and a brighter tomorrow, it is perhaps in genealogy that we will find our most resonating examples of strength. We all have a family tree, and in the sound of its leaves rustling in the winds of history, do we find the voices that inspire us to transform the situation, and thus become heroes ourselves.