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Indignities Suffered During World War II
Recalled by Japanese American Couple
February 21, 2000

Remembering what he went through in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, Norman Ikari said it was "mind-boggling" that President Clinton last year appointed a Japanese American - four-star Gen. Eric Shinseki - as Army Chief of Staff.

Ikari, who distinguished himself as a member of the highly decorated 442nd Regiment but suffered many indignities because of his ethnic origin, was speaking at the Asian American Cultural Center Wednesday, as part of a remembrance of the Japanese American experience during World War II. The event was sponsored by the Institute for Asian American Studies.

He began his story with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on "that terrible fateful day," Dec. 7, 1941.

When President Roosevelt declared war on Japan, "waves of bitter anti-Japanese hysteria swept across the U.S.," he said. "Rumors, accusations, and suspicions were directed against the Japanese population that some might be spies, saboteurs."

Ikari, the American-born son of Japanese parents, then in his second semester at college, was drafted into the army. Soon after, however, the draft was closed to Japanese Americans and some who had been in the army before Pearl Harbor were dismissed and reclassified as "enemy aliens."

During the massive evacuation of native Japanese and Japanese Americans to internment camps that followed, Ikari's mother and siblings were incarcerated in three different camps; his father opted for repatriation to Japan, never to return.

Ikari, a sergeant with a medical unit, was transferred to the 442nd Regiment - a newly formed infantry unit of 4,000 Japanese Americans, headed by white officers - and was demoted to the rank of private.

He was wounded in action in Italy, when he was one of two men sent ahead of his unit against a German unit. He was shot and had to be carried off the field.

He stayed with the regiment, however, when the 442nd was transferred to France and recalled an incident when a French woman leaned out of her window and called to the passing troops, "What are you?" "We're Americans," they replied. "Oh," she said, "I thought all Americans were white."

"That's happened many times since then," said Ikari.

Despite heavy casualties, the 442nd Regiment earned many citations. Its 4,000 men won 9,000 Purple Hearts - the medal awarded to servicemen wounded in action.

Ikari recalled another incident back in the United States, when he was deployed to train recruits being sent to the Pacific. The army was using dogs to sniff Japanese Americans, ostensibly to pick up a "Japanese odor" so that they could detect people in the jungle.

Ikari refused to cooperate. He was saved from being court martialed by the end of the war.

Now, said Ikari, the nation is recognizing the contributions of Japanese Americans during the war. He said there are many memorials, including one recently unveiled in Los Angeles that bears the names of 16,000 Japanese Americans, and a memorial that is being constructed in Washington, D.C.

"There are 650 separate memorials for men killed in battle fighting for an America that could not or would not believe in them," he said.

Ikari's wife, Kyoko, also spoke during Wednesday's event. Also the American-born child of Japanese parents, she was 13 years old when her family was evacuated.

Kyoko Ikari said she was too young to fully understand her experience at the time.

"I was angry but I didn't know who to put my anger on," she said. "It wasn't until later that I could couch these experiences in terms of abrogation of civil liberties, denial of due process. This was all something that came into my lexicon later. At different stages in my life I have had to evaluate the experience."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu