Prejudice still proves problematic: Filmmaker, panel remember Japanese-American heroism


Courtesy of Grace Amemiya

Grace Obata Amemiya smiles with Sgt. Min Amemiya on the day she accepted his marriage proposal. He had recently returned from serving the U.S. Army in Japan during World War II, while she served as a cadet nurse at Schick General Army Hospital in Clinton, Iowa. Both volunteered for service while they were being held in Japanese-American internment camps.

Kelly Mcgowan

The post-Pearl Harbor Executive Order 9066 forced more than 120,000 Japanese immigrants and families from the West Coast into exclusionary internment camps. Approximately 33,000 patriotic Japanese Americans still volunteered to serve in the United States military. Seeing stereotypical mistakes of the past helps avoid repeating them, a professor says.

A Japanese-American soldier dozed off in the passenger seat of a doorless medical jeep on an overnight transport during World War II. Fearing the soldier would lean too far and fall out, the sergeant driving tied rope around him to keep him in the vehicle.

“Doc, we need you,” the sergeant said. “So we’re going to take really good care of you.”

A few years earlier, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“Almost immediately, nobody liked Japanese people,” said Niel Nakadate, professor emeritus of English. Nakadate’s father was the soldier whose sergeant roped him in to save his life.

The view that Asians were a danger to the western civilizations and the United States, “Yellow Peril,” had swept the West Coast. More than 120,000 Japanese immigrants and descendants were sent to desolate internment camps. Hostility toward Japanese Americans ran high in the U.S. Despite all of this, an outpouring of American patriotism emerged from the community and 33,000 Japanese Americans joined the U.S. military.

A panel discussion followed a screening of “Honor and Sacrifice, the Roy Matsumoto Story,” in Iowa State’s Great Hall on Feb 17. Panelists included Nakadate, filmmaker Lucy Ostrander, Asian-American Studies Director Jane Dusselier and Grace Amemiya, Ames resident and former exclusion camp internee.

The film told the story of Matsumoto, a Nisei, the term used to describe second generation descendants of Japanese immigrants. Similar to many other Japanese-American soldiers, Matsumoto used his bilingualism to further the American cause in spite of a war that divided his family, eventually becoming an American hero.

Nakadate’s father, Katsumi Nakadate, a “very patriotic” Nisei, an Eagle Scout and son of a traveling salesman, was inspired to work as a second generation immigrant in America. This led him to be a doctor in the reserves before the war started.

After the start of the war, there was indecision from the Department of Defense, then called the War Department, on whether to allow Japanese Americans to fight. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese regiment in the then-segregated military, was activated in 1943.

Members of the 442nd and the 100th Infantry Battalion together earned 9,486 Purple Hearts and 5,200 Bronze Stars. The 442nd remains the most decorated unit in U.S. military history, according to the Center of Military History.

Nakadate’s father trained with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and then was reassigned to the 17th Airborne, a non-Japanese-American unit stationed in Europe, due to a lack of doctors.

“It’s interesting how necessity makes segregation less important,” Nakadate said.

In the Belgian winter, Nakadate’s father suffered frostbite, lacked medical supplies and nearly bled to death after being hit by shrapnel through the bottom of a glider.

After being sent to England to recuperate from his injury, “he went back to the war like John Wayne,” Nakadate said.

He received a Purple Heart and three Oak Leaf Clusters for the first and subsequent three injuries he sustained. His father never felt the prejudice that plagued the country while serving in the military, Nakadate said. He remembers his father saying they were all trying to fight the war and stay alive.

Matsumato and Nakadate were among many Japanese Americans who were loyal to America through the war.

“Whether it’s my dad or Matsumato,” Nakadate said. “They were all saying, ‘well I’m going to serve my country even though there are these camps. I’m as patriotic, as willing to risk my life as anyone else.’”

President Harry Truman gave a citation to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in 1946.

“You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice,” Truman said to the regiment, according to the Center of Military History. “And you have won.”


Nisei women also served the U.S. in World War II. One such woman, Grace Amemiya, served in the Cadet Nurse Corps. She shares her story in hopes that it will prevent similar prejudice from affecting other groups in America.

Amemiya was 21 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. She said she was horrified.

“Even though our parents came from Japan, Japan was the enemy,” she said.

She had wanted to be a nurse since she was 8 years old, but was taken from her pre-nursing studies at the University of California, Berkeley when she had to go to the Gila River, an internment camp near Phoenix.

Her family sold their car for $25 before going to the camp and had to get rid of most of their belongings. They were able to bring only what they could carry and were recommended to pack silverware and dishes because the government would not supply them. She started her new life with two suitcases.

She served under a registered nurse in the camp.

Some people were allowed to leave the camps if they had a job set up, so she left and became a cook and housekeeper, and then joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

The last six months of the program required cadets to choose an area of specialization. She had two brothers in the military, so she wanted to help soldiers in an Army hospital, she said. This was her way of showing loyalty to the U.S.

That decision brought her to Schick General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa.

“We took care of our boys and really truly got to understand what it felt like to be a soldier and a patient,” Amemiya said.

She became friends with the patients. She laughed and cried with them. She even bought liquor for them. Iowa was a dry state at the time, so Amemiya and other nurses would cross the border into Illinois to buy liquor for their soldiers.

“We’d get out of uniform and they’d pay us to take a cab to Illinois, bring the liquor home and sneak it up,” she said. “We never got caught.”

“The Army hospital was a wonderful experience,” she said.

Amemiya married Sgt. Min Amemiya when he returned from the war. He had also volunteered for military service out of a camp. He passed away in 2000.

They were not bitter about their internment and had to go with the flow because the government was doing what they felt it had to do, she said.

“If you carry any anger in yourself, you’re just ruining yourself,” she said. “You’re hurting yourself, you’re not hurting anybody else. There’s nothing positive about it.”

Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This gave surviving camp members $20,000 each and apologized for their internment, saying that the camps were “motivated largely by racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership,” according to the National Archives.

Amemiya said stereotype avoidance must be taught and lived to avoid prejudice against any other group of people and that loyal American citizens should be treated well.

“We did get a lot of prejudices, being put into camp and all,” she said. “But we as American citizens wanted to do our best to help our country and our country per se was the United States of America.”


Cultural and religious stereotypes have continued to impact America. American minority groups are inevitably affected by the United States’ relationship to their country of origin, Nakadate said. He related this to stereotypes some Muslims face now.

“Suppose you’re Muslim today,” he said. “How you’re treated in the United States is affected by what some people claim Muslims are doing a world away … just like the Japanese Americans were effected by our relationship with Japan in 1942.”

Of the 1,163 hate crime offenses reported in 2013, 165 were motivated by anti-Islamic bias, according to a FBI Hate Crime Statistics report released in December 2014.

“Islamophobia” is defined as an “exaggerated fear, hatred and hostility toward Islam and Muslims … perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life,” according to a report from the Center for American Progress about the roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.

Stereotypes against American Muslims and Islam are the latest chapter in America’s tendency to scapegoat based on religion, race or creed, according to the report.

“We always want to find a scapegoat — someone to beat up so we feel safer,” Nakadate said. “That’s not a good way to be American.”

Japanese-American incarceration is not a well-known piece of American history, Ostrander said.

“I hope [the film] touches people and moves people,” Ostrander said. “I hope they see it was a part of American history that isn’t known, but should be known.”

Dusselier said that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was unconstitutional and that it is important to teach, even though it is a scar on American history. She also said that more emphasis should be placed on ethnic studies courses, so students can be prepared to make the world a better place.

“Honor and Sacrifice, the Roy Matsumoto story” is available at Parks Library.