Tooru Joe Kanazawa, a pioneering journalist and novelist who was one of the oldest members of World War II’s legendary Japanese American fighting unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, died Oct. 2 at his home in Topanga. He was 95 and had emphysema.
Kanazawa, who grew up in Seattle and Juneau, Alaska, escaped the World War II detention of 110,000 Japanese Americans in the western United States when he moved to New York in late 1940 to further his writing career.
A year later, disturbed by the federal government’s mass internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he went to work for the Japanese American Citizens League in Washington, D.C. As the civil rights group’s eastern representative, he advocated reversing federal policy to allow Japanese Americans to serve in combat.
More than 3,000 Nisei, or first-generation Japanese Americans, fought in the 442nd, including several hundred who volunteered from the internment camps.
Kanazawa was, at 36, one of the oldest volunteers when he joined the regiment in 1943. He served until 1945, earning a Bronze Star for meritorious service as a radio operator for the regiment’s Cannon Company.
He was the author of two books: “Close Support, A History of the Cannon Company of the 442d Regimental Combat Team” and “Sushi and Sourdough,” a novel taught in many Asian American studies courses.
His 1989 novel, completed when Kanazawa was 83, was extensively autobiographical, offering a glimpse into the insulated world of Japanese immigrants struggling for a piece of the American dream in Alaska’s salmon canneries during the 1920s. It describes the central character’s conflicts as a Nisei straddling two worlds, who faced discrimination as well as delicious freedoms on the Alaskan frontier.
“He captured in fiction a piece of our history that is not well known, and at the same time he talked about the universality of the immigrant experience,” said Phil Tajitsu Nash, who teaches Asian American studies at the University of Maryland and knew Kanazawa for 40 years. “It’s a nuanced book ... not rah-rah America, or America is unfair to immigrants.”
Born in Spokane, Wash., in 1906, he moved with his family to Alaska when he was 6. They lived in Douglas and later in Juneau, where his father was a barber.
Kanazawa worked in the canneries as a youth, but dreamed of a life as a writer. He enrolled at the University of Washington, graduating in 1931 with a degree in journalism. He sold some stories to the Christian Science Monitor and a magazine called Thrilling Sports.
But most mainstream newspapers were not interested in hiring Japanese American reporters. He went to work for the English-language edition of the Los Angeles newspaper Rafu Shimpo, for which he covered the 1932 Olympic Games.
“He was a very independent sort of guy. And he had a passion for writing,” said Bill Hosokawa, a former editor of the Denver Post who has written books about the Nisei. “He wanted to write fiction, magazine stories. He was writing freelance stuff for dime-novel type magazines. He was very ambitious and persistent. But his success was rather limited.”
When journalism work was slow, he went back to Juneau and drove a laundry truck for several years.
He was already living in New York when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. When the federal government ordered the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, his mother, two sisters and their children were sent to a relocation camp in Poston, Ariz.
His brother died in a detention camp in Lordsburg, N.M. Kanazawa would later tell his family that his brother’s spirit was crushed in the camp.
Among the rights and responsibilities lost in the national hysteria over Japanese Americans was military service: The Nisei were reclassified 4-C, the category reserved for declared, undeclared and enemy residents. Many of the 5,000 or so Japanese Americans already in uniform were discharged after Pearl Harbor.
Kanazawa left New York for Washington “because he wanted to do something about getting Japanese Americans into the Army,” said his daughter, Teru Sheehan of Topanga.
He went to work for Mike Masaoka, then executive secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League, who led discussions with congressional and wartime officials over allowing the Nisei to volunteer for combat.
Some Nisei thought it was the height of lunacy to volunteer to fight for a government that doubted their loyalty. Others bristled at the idea of a segregated unit.
Kanazawa believed the segregation was necessary, “both because of the racism within the ranks and because it was the only way the Nisei could stand out as being who they were,” Sheehan said. “He maintained they had to prove they were equal to any white soldier.”
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, organized at Camp Shelby in Mississippi in February 1943, was overwhelmed by volunteers. Masaoka was the first to join, followed quickly by Kanazawa.
The 442nd helped fight major campaigns in Italy and France and, with its “Go for Broke” motto, became one of the most decorated combat units in history.
Kanazawa spent the first part of his tour lugging radio equipment for Cannon Company. He later was assigned to citation writing. Acknowledging that “a typewriter was his weapon,” he began gathering notes for a history of his company.
About 40 years later, Kanazawa was attending a Smithsonian exhibit on the evacuations when he overheard a junior high school student tell her parents that she had never read about the detention camps in school, and could not believe the United States would “put its own people in concentration camps.” He decided then that it was time for him to write the history.
Kanazawa described “Close Support” as a “collective memoir” of Cannon Company, drawn from interviews with surviving veterans and his own recollections.
Some of the memories are harsh, such as an anecdote about a comrade killed during a ferocious battle in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. Kanazawa wrote about coming across his grave at the American cemetery in Epinal, France, and wondering why the soldier hadn’t wanted to be buried back in the States.
He was told that the soldier had spent time in a relocation camp before joining the 442nd and had been very bitter about it.
The soldier said that if he was killed in combat, “he would be much happier if he was buried where he fell, because the people of that country will show him much more respect and appreciation than the U.S. government, who showed hatred and discrimination by putting him behind a barbed-wire fence.”
After the war, Kanazawa returned to New York and was an executive in the travel business until his retirement in 1983. He was known as a political activist, outspoken on issues from women’s liberation to Japanese American reparations, and a lover of classical poetry who often recited long passages learned when he was boy.
He persisted with writing, even into his 90s, believing that, through writing, he could broaden cultural understanding.
“He thought the Nisei generation had been really deformed by racism in the country,” his daughter said. “I think that was the thing he felt he had done something about, through his writing. People could see he was a fully developed person. I think that is what excited him the most.”
Kanazawa is survived by his wife of 54 years, Mae; daughters Teru and Joy of Topanga; a son, Mark, of Minnesota; and several grandchildren.