A loyal American who cherishes Japanese values inherited from his issei parents, Henry Ikemoto’s life bridges two cultures.
His career has ranged from military service in Europe and the Far East to voluntary service among Japanese retirees in Los Angeles. The contributions of Ikemoto, his peers and their children have taught America to value those of Japanese descent who made the U.S. their home.
That recognition came at a price.
“I realized what racial discrimination was, even in the United States,” said Ikemoto, who is currently visiting Japan.
His “handsome, levelheaded and kind” father managed a large farm in Northern California. Like all issei, he was denied citizenship under the 1924 Exclusion Act. With the outbreak of war in the Pacific in December 1941, however, came orders to detain not only issei but also their citizen-born children.
“I was interned like the others in May 1942,” Ikemoto recalled. “I was a very angry young man. It was a helpless feeling in camp or on the streets as a 4C.”
He said 1A was the status given to citizens above suspicion. All Japanese-Americans were classified 4C simply because of their ethnicity.
Ikemoto’s two years in camp also brought positive experiences. A friend introduced him to the Bible, and, “At the first Christmas service in camp,” he recalled happily, “I accepted Jesus and became a Christian. That experience changed my heart and life.”
The following winter he enrolled at Baylor University in Texas, where he was later to meet his wife Mildred. Also Japanese-American, Mildred was from Hawaii, where those of Japanese descent comprised almost 40 percent of the population.
Hawaiians formed the majority of Ikemoto’s comrades in arms when he volunteered for service in 1944. That painful label of “4C” had inspired many Japanese-Americans to prove their worth as U.S. citizens.
“Most of us, our aging parents, our kid brothers and sisters, took action as loyal Americans. Young men signed up for the army. When the opportunity came, we knew what we had to do.”
Service in the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised of nisei, was that opportunity. Volunteers outnumbered openings almost three to one. Some recruits were just 17 years old, concealing their age in order to enlist, although “at the sound of fire we grew up pretty quickly,” Ikemoto said with some emotion.
A congressional review of wartime honors to ethnic minority units last June found that the heroism of the 100th/442nd was not adequately recognized at the time, and many awards to its men were upgraded. Even so, the 5,000 nisei soldiers earned 9,486 Purple Hearts — and with them the respect of America.
There was admiration, too, on the other side of the Pacific. In 1947, Ikemoto was one of 20 nisei who received direct commissions.
“I was assigned to interview high-ranking Japanese military officers in Tokyo. Almost every one told me that he respected the nisei who served in the Pacific. In my shoes, they said, they would probably have done the same.”
Alongside his military fact-finding, much of it classified for over 50 years, Ikemoto was part of a group of Christian GIs reaching out to Japanese civilians through English language lessons, and hospital and orphanage visits. Strong friendships were formed, and Ikemoto warmly recalled those “growing days, when I learned firsthand that the ‘enemy’ were simply people like us.”
On active reserve until 1975, Ikemoto also pursued a career as a senior probation officer. A third pursuit, however, has been his constant involvement with the Los Angeles Japanese community.
In 1998, Ikemoto was part of a group that dedicated a monument in the city’s Little Tokyo, celebrating the service overseas of more than 16,000 Japanese-American men and women.
The 1995 visit of the Emperor and Empress to the Los Angeles Japanese Retirement Home, where Ikemoto is a volunteer, was a powerful experience for all present.
Even now he clearly remembers the Emperor’s moving words: “I heard about the difficulties you overcame to establish your homes and raise your children, build up your businesses and become model Americans. I saw the photos of your evacuation from the West Coast because of your Japanese faces. . . . I believe that the reputation you and your children established was one of the reasons why (the postwar reconstruction of) Japan was able to enjoy the support of America and of the nations of the world, and we want to thank you.”
Both the Emperor and Empress bowed toward the residents. “There wasn’t a dry eye among us,” he said.
While visiting Tokyo this spring, Ikemoto has reunited with some of his Japanese friends, who learned English from him “during those Occupation days, 55 years ago,” and who played their own part in rebuilding their country. But he is principally here for family reasons: his youngest daughter, Sharon, is the financial director of the Universal Studios Japan theme park that opened in Osaka late last month.
She is one of many sansei achieving big things in the U.S.
What does Ikemoto think makes Sharon and sansei like her such a successful force in American society today?
“Inherited Japanese values, I am sure, and also her experiences in (America’s) public schools and universities, and the churches,” he said.
In other words, the very blend of East and West that shaped Ikemoto himself — without the wartime heartache.