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Remembrance - Remembering Akira Otani

Words to remember Akira Otani by: “When my country calls me, I go!”

In those sweet pre-pandemic days that we can barely remember now, one of my favorite stops every so often was the United Fishing Agency office, located a few yards from the ocean’s edge at Pier 38, to meet with the company’s chairman, Akira Otani.

Even in his late 90s, he was still going in to his office for a few hours a day. When he stopped driving, his daughter would pick him up at his home every morning, drive him to the office and then come back a few hours later to take him home. The outbreak of COVID-19 put an end to that. For the health and safety of their elderly parents, his family decided that he should steer clear of COVID by staying at home with his wife May.

On July 24, Akira Otani died peacefully at his home, surrounded by his family — May, his wife of nearly 75 years; and his three adult children — daughter Laura Gota and sons Daniel and Floyd Otani, who worked alongside their dad at United Fishing Agency, Hawai‘i’s popular fresh fish auction. He would have turned 101 in January.

Sometimes when I visited him, I would see three generations of Otanis in his office. On the left side of the room was a tall black and white photograph of Matsujiro Otani, the Issei founder of the United Fishing Agency, with a huge hapu‘upu‘u (Hawaiian sea bass). Akira Otani and his younger son Floyd shared the office. Floyd occupied the front half and kept an eye on his dad as he aged. His father had the desk in the back corner. Mr. Otani’s space — yes, I always called him “Mr. Otani” — was like a man cave, adorned with mementos and photos, including one of his favorites: a copy of the iconic March 28, 1943, farewell ceremony for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team volunteers in front of ‘Iolani Palace. Mr. Otani remembered exactly where he was standing on that day and recognized himself in that photo. He had even marked a colored star over the left side of his chest in a framed photocopy.

I met Mr. Otani for the first time in 2012, just before the Varsity Victory Volunteers celebrated its 70th anniversary. I had arranged to interview Triple V veteran Ted Tsukiyama and, at Ted’s suggestion, Mr. Otani, at the United Fishing Agency office. The two had been friends for over 70 years, from their days as ROTC cadets at the University of Hawai‘i.

In February 2015, four surviving veterans of the Varsity Victory Volunteers were recognized by the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa on the 73rd anniversary of the all-AJA labor battalion’s formation in World War II. From left: Yoshiaki Fujitani, Ted Tsukiyama, Akira Otani and Takashi Kajihara were photographed near the sculpture that honors the VVV in the Queen Lili‘uokalani Student Services Center. They were joined by 2015 UH Army ROTC cadets behind them. Kajihara is believed to be the only surviving Triple V member; Tsukiyama died in 2019, Fujitani passed in May of this year, and Otani, two months later, in July. (Photos by Karleen Chinen)

Ted, a lawyer and labor arbitrator who loved researching World War II history, knew every detail of the Triple V story. He and Mr. Otani had lived it all — the call to duty of the ROTC cadets within hours of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor; activation of the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard later that afternoon; expulsion of the AJA Guardsmen six weeks later because of their Japanese ancestry; formation of the Varsity Victory Volunteers a month later; the opportunity to volunteer for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and, finally, service in the Military Intelligence Service.

Mr. Otani had remained silent as he listened to Ted retell this chapter of World War II AJA history. It wasn’t reliving the war that he enjoyed; it was remembering the camaraderie of the men with whom he had served, especially those in the Triple V. They had become a band of brothers as they labored under the blazing sun to prove their loyalty and desire to serve their country.

“Ey, you gotta interview this guy,” Ted said, pointing to Mr. Otani after he had gone over the history. “He has a good story.”

Mr. Otani did have a good story to tell. It was a story of patriotism and pure love of country.

Akira Otani was a year older than Ted and had already completed his required freshman and sophomore years of ROTC training when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and other military installations on Dec. 7, 1941. That morning, his father, Matsujiro Otani, had planned to have a small reopening reception for his fish market. After years of peddling fish house-to-house and then renting a stall at ‘A‘ala Market, Matsujiro was doing well enough to open his own fish market with space for a few tenants. The market had sustained some fire damage, so he had hired some workers to repair the damage. He had invited the workers and tenants to a reopening party on Dec. 7 to thank them. Akira Otani and his older brother Jiroichi had gone to the market early to set up for the party when they suddenly heard loud explosions and saw black smoke rising over Pearl Harbor in the distance. There would be no celebration that day.

Jiroichi drove their father home while Akira put things away and then headed home. He said he was angry at Japan for attacking Hawai‘i. He found the family huddled around the radio at home, listening to reports about the bombing.

A short time later, two FBI agents appeared at their Mänoa home with guns drawn, demanding to see their father, who was resting in his bedroom. One of the Otani children went to get him. Matsujiro came out dressed in a yukata kimono and house slippers. Without saying anything more than Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, they ordered him out of the house and pulled him towards their car. His wife Kane insisted on coming with him, but they wouldn’t let her.

It was December: The days were already chilly, and the agents were dragging her husband away dressed in nothing more than a cotton yukata. Mrs. Otani ran back into the house and quickly gathered a coat and a pair of shoes, and dashed out of the house. The agents wouldn’t even allow her to pass the items to him, so she threw them into the car through an open window. The FBI agents sped off without telling the family where they were taking him. The Otani children would not see their father for the next four years.

The family remained glued to the radio, anxious for any news about the bombing and their father’s fate. Meanwhile, the ROTC cadets were activated as the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard and ordered to report to the armory adjacent to ‘Iolani Palace for guard duty assignments.

The Otani family eventually learned that Matsujiro had been imprisoned at the Sand Island internment camp and then transferred to the continental U.S., where he was incarcerated along with other Issei from Hawai‘i.

Despite the cruel and humiliating treatment his father had received, I still remember what Mr. Otani said that day I interviewed him: “When my country calls me, I go!”

Although he had already completed his ROTC training, Akira Otani decided to report to the armory to help however he could. He was immediately activated as a member of the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard and told to pick up a pair of shoes and a uniform that were several sizes too big. And then he got to work guarding various installations around town. In an April 14, 1993 oral history interview, Mr. Otani told Michiko Kodama-Nishimoto of the University of Hawai‘i Center for Oral History that between their guard duty assignments, the HTG members were sent to the Koko Head firing range to practice firing their rifles.

Six weeks later, the HTG members of Japanese ancestry were told that the unit was being disbanded. It was reorganized the next day, but this time without any Japanese Americans.

Feeling sad, angry and dejected, many of the HTG members, including Mr. Otani, who was the first in his family to attend college, returned to their classes. During breaks, they gathered to commiserate over the unfair hand they had been dealt — a scene that caught the sharp eye of YMCA executive and Morale Section member Hung Wai Ching from his office in the Atherton YMCA across University Avenue. Ching crossed the street and gave the young men a “tough love” lecture: They could either continue to sulk or find a way to continue serving their country, even if it was not in the military. Ching suggested that they petition Military Governor Delos Emmons and offer their service and strong, young bodies as a volunteer labor battalion, unless, of course, doing manual labor was beneath them.

Their petition, written with the help of public-school teacher and Morale Section member Shigeo Yoshida, was signed by 169 men, including Akira Otani. It read, in part:

“We, the undersigned, were members of the Hawaiʻi Territorial Guard until its recent inactivation. We joined the Guard voluntarily with the hope that this was one way to serve our country in her time of need. Needless to say, we were deeply disappointed when we were told that our services in the Guard were no longer needed. Hawaiʻi is our home; the United States, our country. We know but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes. We wish to do our part as loyal Americans in every way possible and we hereby offer ourselves for whatever service you may see fit to use us.”

Emmons accepted their offer to serve. Just over a month after being expelled from the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard, the dejected Guardsmen formed the Varsity Victory Volunteers, an auxiliary battalion, and were trucked to Schofield Barracks, where they were assigned to the 34th Construction Engineer Regiment. For the next 11 months, their weapons were sledgehammers and shovels and hammers as they broke rocks, built roads, dug ditches and built hutments. Whatever the Army needed them to do, they did, including donating their blood.

In January 1943, due to the exemplary training record of the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), an oversized battalion of AJA draftees from Hawai‘i, and the service of the Triple V, the War Department announced that it was forming an all-volunteer Japanese American infantry unit: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Within days of the announcement, the Triple V requested deactivation so that its members could volunteer for the 442nd. Akira Otani and most of his VVV buddies were the first to volunteer for the 442nd. They were among the 2,686 who assembled at ‘Iolani Palace on March 28, 1943, for a farewell ceremony organized by the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce.

The 442nd RCT trainees arrived at Camp Shelby, Miss., in May 1943 and spent the following year in training. In May 1944, they boarded a troopship and sailed to Europe to enter combat. However, Mr. Otani and other sergeants were held back to train the incoming recruits.

In 1945, Mr. Otani was transferred to the Military Intelligence Service and sent to Fort Snelling in Minnesota for military language training. He had attended Japanese language school while growing up, so he was relatively proficient in the language. He just needed to learn the military terminology.

He was just about to be sent to Japan when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, ending the war with Japan. His orders did not change, however: He was still being deployed to Japan. With a few days open in his schedule, he decided to visit his father, who was incarcerated at the Granada War Relocation Center in Amache, Colo. It had been almost four years since he had last seen his father on Dec. 7, 1941, when the FBI agents had taken him away at gunpoint. In that time, Matsujiro had lost quite a bit of weight.

Upon arriving at Amache, Mr. Otani learned that his father was being released and sent back to Hawai‘i by way of Seattle, so he decided to take him to Seattle on the train. Upon arrival, a close friend assured him that he would look after his father and make sure that he was safely on the ship to Hawai‘i. Mr. Otani then continued to the Presidio in San Francisco, his point of departure for Japan.

Before leaving, he learned that his flight would be stopping in Hawai‘i first and then continuing to Johnston Island, so he and his travel mates obtained permission to spend a few days with their families in Hawai‘i. They flew to Johnston, then to the Philippines, and, finally, to Osaka, where Mr. Otani, by then a first lieutenant, was assigned to the Civil Censorship Detachment. He was responsible for reviewing the work of Japanese censors. After six months in Japan, he was allowed to return to Hawai‘i.

Before leaving Japan, however, he requested some time to visit his father’s family on the tiny island of Okikamuro in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Akira Otani was honorably discharged from the Army in 1946 and returned to the University of Hawai‘i to complete his bachelor’s degree in business before joining his father in his business. He had served in just about every World War II AJA unit: the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard, Varsity Victory Volunteers, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.

His words from our interview remain with me to this day: “When my country calls me, I go!”

Akira Otani’s story was so compelling that I often referred non-Hawai‘i reporters who contacted me, looking for a good World War II story, to him. On one occasion, a reporter from one of Japan’s major dailies asked me to help him line up World War II AJA veterans to interview. Mr. Otani was at the top of my list, and I helped schedule their interview appointment.

Later in the day, after the interview, the reporter dropped by the Herald office. The interview had not gone well, he said. He had only managed to ask Mr. Otani a few questions. I was puzzled, as Mr. Otani was always an affable, easy-going man. After the reporter left, I called Mr. Otani to find out what had gone wrong.

He said the reporter was trying to goad him into admitting that he felt conflicted about serving his country in the military when the U.S. government had arrested and incarcerated his father — something he did not feel. So he stood his ground, shut down the interview and showed the reporter the door.

We became friends after that first meeting with Ted. I continued to call him “Mr. Otani,” even though I felt as close to him as I did to Ted.

I was happy that he considered me a friend. What I will always remember about him were his special phone calls. Whenever the Herald published a story about the World War II AJA veterans — whether it was coverage of an anniversary or special event or a feature on a veteran — he would call me to thank us for “covering ‘the boys,’” even if he didn’t know the veteran himself. If I was not in, he would always leave a message on my office voicemail — every single time, without fail.

Last week, local and national media attention was focused on the 80th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the dwindling number of survivors who had been aboard the USS Arizona and the other battleships that fateful morning.

Hawai‘i had other heroes on Dec. 7, 1941 — people like Akira Otani, who had every reason to turn their backs on a country that treated them like they were the enemy. Instead, patriots like Mr. Otani stepped forward and said unconditionally, “When my country calls me, I go!”

Mahalo nui and aloha ‘oe, Akira Otani . . . until we meet again.

 

This article was originally published in The Hawaii Herald on December 22, 2021.

 

© 2021 Karleen C. Chinen

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