Japanese Americans fought two wars during World War II. More than 30,000 served in the U.S. military at the same time some 120,000 were incarcerated in camps on the homefront. In an address welcoming home the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—a segregated Japanese American unit that fought in the European Theatre and became one of the most decorated in U.S. military history—President Harry Truman said, “You fought not only the enemy…you fought prejudice and won.”
The 442nd’s motto was “Go for Broke,” a Hawaiian gambling term that means putting everything on the line. That motto—and that spirit—came to be adopted by all of the Nisei (first-generation Japanese American) soldiers, and eventually inspired the Go For Broke National Education Center in Los Angeles. Founded in 1989, the organization works to preserve and honor the unique legacy of Japanese American World War II veterans.
Since 2016, Dr. Mitchell T. Maki has served as Go For Broke’s president and CEO. Dr. Maki spent more than 25 years in higher education and is considered an expert on the post-war redress movement—when Japanese Americans successfully mobilized to fight for an apology and monetary reparations after internment. Now overseeing an organization invested in the Japanese American World War II experience at a time of renewed anti-Asian violence, Dr. Maki works to bring lessons from the past into the present. Here, he discusses why he believes all Americans should know the story of the Nisei soldiers—and how it speaks to the heart of what being an American really is.
More than 75 years after the end of World War II, why should people still care about the experience of Japanese American soldiers?
In the Japanese American community, there’s a phrase, okagesama de: ‘I am what I am because of you.’ It’s a way of paying respect to those whose shoulders we stand on. That’s a feeling I believe everyone should have for our World War II veterans: the privileges, the opportunities and the standing that we have in the world is because of what those men and women did 75 years ago—all American veterans, not just Japanese American veterans.
As a slice of that pie, there’s this very special story of the Japanese American soldiers, who despite having their constitutional rights taken away from them, despite being treated as second-class citizens, despite being thrown into prison, went on to become the most highly decorated unit for its size in American history. To me, and I hope to many, it embodies the American promise: the promise that, in our nation, no one is to be judged by the color of their skin, the nation of their origin or the God whom they choose to worship. This isn’t just a great Japanese American story, this is a great American story.
How does the Japanese American WWII experience connect to the Japanese American experience today?
They’re completely interrelated. Let me tell you a story that captures it in a nutshell: During WWII, there was a soldier named Kazuo Masuda. His family was in one of the concentration camps, and he was fighting in Italy. Someone asked him, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you putting yourself in harm’s way when your own family is being denied their civil liberties?’ And his response was the response that all of the Nisei soldiers would have given, which was, ‘Because this is the only way I know that my family can have a chance in America.’
Fast forward 40 years. The redress bill for an apology and reparations for Japanese Americans has passed the House, it’s passed the Senate. We need only one more signature, and that’s President Reagan’s. Now, Reagan was very conservative, and many of us thought, ‘There’s no way he’s signing that bill.’ But the thing about Reagan is he was a great communicator—he had the ability to tell stories that would touch people’s hearts and move them in a certain direction. The opposite was true, too: If you could tell him a story that would touch his heart, you’d have a great advocate on your hands. The question was, what story could we tell Ronald Reagan that would make him understand this issue?
Sgt. Masuda, two weeks after he gave that interview, was killed in battle, fighting for America. After the war, his family is released from camp, and they go back to Santa Anna, California, where they’re met with hate speech and threats. The Army realizes that this is a PR fiasco: one of its own soldier’s—its own hero’s—family can’t even move back home. So the Army sends out a contingent of officers to give a medal ceremony to the Masuda family. That night at the dinner, there was a young, white American captain in attendance named Ronald Reagan. Reagan addressed the audience that night and he said, ‘Blood that has soaked into the sands is all one color.’
Years later, that story was relayed to President Reagan, and his response was, ‘I remember what those soldiers did for America.’ He signed the bill.
How does the mission of Go For Broke connect to fighting present-day anti-Asian violence?
This gets to the heart of one of the challenges for the organization, which is how to make the story relevant for today’s young people. If we keep telling 75-year-old war stories, people are going to say they’ve heard enough. So the key is how to tie them into what’s happening now. Unfortunately, you don’t have to dig too deeply to see some of the parallels between what happened to Japanese Americans during the war and what is happening to other groups today: the cries to incarcerate Muslim Americans; the discrimination that LGBTQ individuals face.
Anti-Asian hate has come back in a really apparent way. And yet the story of the veterans also speaks to the very heart of what being an American truly is. I’m hoping that people of all backgrounds—racial, ethnic, religious, regional—can find common ground in their story.
How can people get involved in Go For Broke?
One way would be the Hanshi Oral History project. We’re not doing as many right now because the veterans are old, and it’s hard to find someone who we haven’t done already, but every so often we’ll hear about a new veteran and we’ll interview them. We’ve done more than 1,200. Lately we’re doing more with videos, social media and virtual reality, and are interested in spreading out to cities across the nation. So one way that people can get involved is by hosting an event in their town, or putting together a Zoom meeting, or something along those lines. We’re interested in being able to tell this story in places where we haven’t gone before.