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TOMI-TALK: The Character of the Nisei Soldier

My name is Delia Tomino Nakayama and I wrote the English column “Tomi-Talk” for San Francisco Japantown’s Hokubei Mainichi newspaper for approximately 10 years until it concluded its 61 years of service in October of 2009.

I was born in Venice Beach, grew up in the Bay Area and moved to New Orleans in 2003, just a few years before the city sustained tragic and profound changes due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its aftermath.

As a Hapa Yonsei, I write from the perspective of an artist and a citizen of the world. I hope that my words will be of use and inspiration to you.

It’s been three years since I’ve written “Tomi-Talk,” and I must admit I feel a bit rusty writing in this way, for you all, specifically. I have been relatively out of touch with the Nikkei community living down here in New Orleans, where our Japanese population is small (under 300) and made up mostly of Japanese nationals. There’s about 20 Japanese Americans here and I am one of them!

I hope my numbers are conservative and please let me know if they are. It is often hard to find each other when there are so few of us.

This past weekend, however, the New Orleans Nikkei population grew quite suddenly. The Congressional Gold Medal’s seven-city tour, commemorating the military contributions and sacrifices of the Nisei veterans of World War II, began here in New Orleans. It is organized by the National Veterans Network, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National World War II Museum and sponsored by Cole Chemical. More information is available online at

Group photo of the WWII veterans who attended the launch of the Congressional Gold Medal tour at the National World War II Museum, New Orleans, LA. (Photo courtesy of the National Veterans Network)

It was a revelation to be reunited with the Japanese American community, and here in my handpicked hometown, far from San Francisco. To see Rosalyn Tonai’s familiar face (from the National Japanese American Historical Society) took me by delighted surprise, and the general camaraderie (cheery and chattily curious about each other’s histories) of being with other Japanese Americans was nourishing and enjoyable.

Breaking bread with Texas veterans George Fujimoto (aged 93) and Tsutomu “Tommie” Okabayashi at the Crowne Plaza Luncheon on Saturday was a humbling honor, especially after witnessing the CGM launch ceremony at the museum.

Amid our community’s historical facts and struggles, what strikes to the quick are the sacrifices of the Nisei soldiers, who proved without a doubt the loyalty and “American-ness” of who we were and are at the core, despite the fear that prevailed during a shameful period in American history. The freedoms and opportunities that their lionheartedness bled for benefit us all today. Something not to take lightly or for granted.

As a Hapa Yonsei, I can’t help but be awed by their integrity and bravery. Though I am the grand-niece of Dr. Hajime Uyeyama of Berkeley (who practiced just below the racial dividing line on old Grove Street and treated African Americans and politicos like Mario Savio, in addition to fellow Nikkei), and gratefully inherited his outspoken “no-no” ways, I cannot fathom what decision I would have made were I an 18-year-old male during those treacherous times.

I appreciate the tenacity and clarity of purpose on Both sides: The Nisei soldiers and the “no-no boys.” Both groups had to fight to come to be, exist And represent our diversity of thought—and represented the split that the American government created in our community at that time, through terrible and vague questions re: true allegiance.

Much is yet to be written about the no-no boys, as we continue completing and fleshing out this layered history to better understand our collective experience.

* * * * *

What motivated the young Nisei soldiers to enlist and fight for a government that was simultaneously incarcerating their own family members? What fueled their vision and bravery? These are the questions that I am hoping find answers to, with the help of the veterans themselves, their wives and family members, and hopefully, with your help, too.

It seems the fact that the cultural aspect, the Japanese language, was intact during the Issei and Nisei generations is a major factor. 442nd RCT Veteran Herbert Yanamura of Hawaii shared these telling words with me: “Yamato damashii—the Japanese spirit that the Issei brought to America from Japan.” It was also relayed to me by others, that many parents of the Nisei soldiers did not want their sons to go and fight—but as goodbyes were being said to their sons, “Do not shame your family” was the message that traveled thousands of miles.

Young men of any generation and country throughout history are driven and need something to fight for, defend and something to prove. Seeing their families and all the Japanese people they knew accused of and punished for being disloyal and “un-American,” many young Nisei soldiers-to-be might have thought to themselves, “This can’t be! It isn’t fair! I am just as American as Johnny So-and-So … I play baseball, and listen to American music … There must be something I can do to change this.”

Who could have known that these young men would change the course of history? Did they or their parents know? Who can say?

It is stilling to look back on those times and appreciate the lives of our elders and ancestors. How we live our lives today expresses our gratitude for and honoring of their efforts and hardships … Let us not shame Them, Now.

*This article was originally published in The Rafu Shimpo on January 29, 2013.

© 2013 Delia Tomino Nakayama

American Heroes community Congressional Gold Medal Delia Tomino Nakayama hapa hokubei mainichi Louisiana loyalty medal new orleans nisei veterans No-No Boys soldiers tomi-talk veterans World War II yamato damashii yonsei