Activists want a stamp to honor service of Japanese American soldiers in World War II

To mark the 75th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, a group of California-based activists is calling on the U.S. government to honor the lives of wartime Japanese Americans with a postage stamp.

The Stamp Our Story campaign has spent the past decade petitioning the U.S. Postal Service for a stamp to commemorate the service of Japanese American soldiers in World War II, many of whom were drafted out of internment camps and fought abroad as their families were incarcerated back home.

And now, the group says, is the right time for the stamp to be released.

"We really want to see the stamp next year to coincide with the 75th day of remembrance for the internment," said Wayne Osako, the Garden Grove-based coordinator and co-chair of Stamp Our Story. "That's an important year for the campaign and for American history."

Stamp Our Story started in 2005, with a group of three Japanese American women in California who had been incarcerated during World War II.

Fusa Takahashi, 88, who grew up in a Japanese farming community in the San Joaquin Valley, was interned along with her parents and six brothers and sisters in 1942. One thing that stuck with her from that time was how many young men her age — including her future husband — enlisted in the U.S. Army straight out of the camps.

"I had classmates, friends and friends' brothers who were killed in action," she said. "At the time, I thought, 'Geez, isn't it terrible that they made the ultimate sacrifice when we were imprisoned behind barbed wire?'"

Decades later, Takahashi and two other women, Chiz Ohira and Aiko King, decided that they needed to do something to honor these veterans, whose experience had been unlike any other American soldier but who are rarely recognized for their service to the country.

"We were at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles and saw an exhibit about Nisei soldiers and their accomplishments," Takahashi said, referring to the Japanese word for second generation. "Exhibits are nice, but they don't reach the broader audience, and I wanted something that would raise awareness to the public."

That's how she settled on a stamp.

"A stamp is universal and it's something tangible," she said. "For our future generation, I want them to be proud of what they are, where they come from and what their heritage is."

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans were considered a threat to the United States. A few months later President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forced 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes into internment camps. In addition, Japanese American men of draft age were classified as "enemy aliens" and prohibited from serving in the military.

But in 1943, Roosevelt, in need of more troops to fight in the war, lifted the ban and created a segregated unit of Nisei, or second-generation, Japanese American soldiers.

"It was such an irony because these young men and women were fighting for our country while their parents, sisters, brothers and friends were incarcerated in prison camps on American soil," said Linda Tamura, author of the book, "Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence."

The majority of the 22,500 Japanese American soldiers in World War II fought in Europe, said Tamura, but a few thousand became part of the Military Intelligence Service in the South Pacific, where they translated documents from Japanese and interrogated Japanese prisoners of war, earning them the nickname "the eyes and ears" of the allied forces.

On the European side, the newly formed 442nd combat team joined the 100th battalion, a group of Japanese American soldiers mostly from Hawaii who had enlisted before Roosevelt's 1942 ban.

According to Tamura, some of their top achievements include rescuing the Texas Battalion, which had been surrounded by German forces in France, breaking through the Gothic Line, a German defensive line in Italy, and breaking off the locks to liberate the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

"They were the most decorated military unit ever for their size and length of service," said Oregon-based Tamura, who also noted that Japanese American soldiers were "definitely" instrumental in the outcome of the war.

In 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to Japanese American World War II veterans.

While the forces behind the Stamp Our Story campaign were pleased by the honor — Takahashi herself attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C. —getting a stamp is still important, said Osako, who also had Nisei relatives who served in World War II.

"The stamp reaches people through a basic, everyday level," he said. "Some people don't know what the Gold Medal is. Their ceremony was televised, but the everyday person may not know that. But if someone receives a letter in the mail with the stamp, they can look at that stamp and learn a little bit about these soldiers' story."

The Stamp Our Story mission began with a letter to the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee. According to the U.S. Postal Service website, the committee evaluates proposals and makes recommendations to the postmaster general, who has final approval.

When the campaign members didn't hear back from the stamp advisory committee, they decided to enlist the help of Asian American public officials, including Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose).

"Since the Committee's inception, only 43 Asian American and Pacific Islander themed stamps have been issued," Honda wrote in a 2010 open letter to the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. "This does not do justice to the rich diversity of this community and the myriad contributions this community has made to our community."

He then listed Nisei veterans of World War II as an example of the "countless contributions to our country" that "warrant recognition on the face of a stamp."

"Then the postal service perked up and they finally opened a dialogue," said Osako.

According to Mark Saunders, senior public relations representative at the U.S. Postal Service, the proposal has not been rejected and is still under consideration. He also pointed out that Japanese Americans veterans have been honored in the past.

In 2013, the U.S. Postal Service released a stamp to commemorate the World War II Medal of Honor, and the accompanying stamp sheet featured images of the last living recipients, including Nisei veteran George Sakato. In 2014, a stamp to commemorate the Korean War Medal of Honor also included a stamp sheet with an image of recipient Hiroshi Miyamura.

In Stamp Our Story's talks with the Postal Service, the idea has been floated to place a rendering of the Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II on the proposed stamp. Although Osako said they are open to the concept, their preference is that the "soldiers themselves be front and center."

Stamp Our Story has generated local support in Orange County.

Mary Urashima, chairwoman of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force, has been fighting to maintain the site in Huntington Beach of 19th century Japanese settlements, which last fall was designated a National Treasure.

"It's been equally difficult as the effort to get a stamp," she said, "to recognize the contributions of the Nisei."

"The recognition of the history of Japanese Americans in tangible form — at a historic site and in these symbolic efforts such as a stamp — is long overdue. We consider it a part of a bigger effort to make American history more inclusive to recognize the contributions of everyone."

Dennis Masuda agrees. He is a former teacher at Marina High School in Huntington Beach whose uncle Kazuo Masuda was a Nisei soldier killed in action.

"There was no mention of this history in my high school textbooks," Masuda said of Japanese Americans during World War II. "So as a teacher in the 1970s and 1980s, I would go to all the U.S. history classes and give them an hour presentation on what happened. Some of the Japanese American kids had a faint idea, but most of them didn't know, and even the teachers didn't know."

A stamp, he said, would "bring some light" to this history. "It's recognition by the government that yes, this was an honorable group and they deserve recognition."

But for Takahashi, the stamp goes beyond the piece history she and her husband lived through. It's also about bringing important lessons of persecution to the present and recognizing parallels.

"One thing I want people to see is that it's never good to do racial or religious profiling," she said. "Especially in this day and age where there's so much talk about putting Muslims into internment camps, I feel that as a people we have to be more conscious of what happened to Japanese Americans."

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