George Aratani lost millions when he was forced to leave behind his family’s lucrative Central California agribusiness during the World War II internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent.
He later made millions back as a hard-driving entrepreneur who founded the Mikasa chinaware firm and the Kenwood electronics corporation.
But Aratani, 86, never forgot his shattering wartime experience, and a new gift to UCLA from him and his wife, Sakaye, will help preserve the memory of the internment for generations to come.
UCLA is set to announce this week that a $500,000 Aratani donation will establish the nation’s first endowed academic chair to study the internment and the decades-long, successful campaign to gain redress for it.
The internment was authorized 62 years ago this week when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 to remove all Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals from the West Coast after Tokyo’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1982, a national commission concluded that war hysteria and fear had prompted the internment.
Six years later, President Reagan issued a national apology, and Congress authorized reparations payments of $20,000 per internee.
“Japanese Americans suffered terribly with the forced evacuation,” Aratani said, “and a guy like me, fortunate enough to have succeeded in business, should help keep the memories alive.”
Numerous academic chairs have been established around the country to study the Holocaust, and at least one is dedicated to research the massacre of Armenians in the early 20th century. Aware of such efforts, UCLA Asian American studies professor Don Nakanishi said he had begun seeking support for a chair on the Japanese American internment a few years ago.
Nakanishi is also director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, which will house the chair. He said myriad avenues of research could be opened.
Scholars say that relatively little is understood about the experience of the Japanese immigrants who were detained first -- before the mass incarceration -- or of detainees in Hawaii and Latin America.
Nakanishi said the postwar period -- how Japanese Americans managed to rebuild their broken communities and rebound to become a relatively affluent and educated minority group -- is also ripe for research.
He said the holder of the chair, who has not yet been named, would also focus on contemporary issues, such as how the community’s rapid assimilation and shifting demographics will affect its survival.
“There is no end to the lessons we can learn from one of this country’s greatest mistakes and tragedies,” said Nakanishi, whose center is home to the nation’s largest Asian American studies program.
Franklin Odo, who directs the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American program, said the Aratani gift would elevate the study of the wartime internment by conferring the backing of a major research institute.
Odo said the chair would shine a light on the nation’s ongoing struggle to balance individual rights and national security.
Comparisons could be explored between the Japanese American experience and those of other groups, including Vietnam War protesters and black revolutionaries, as well as Arabs and Muslims in the current war on terrorism, he and Nakanishi said.
The chair represents the latest contribution from the Aratanis, Southern California’s biggest donors to Japanese American causes. The couple have helped sustain Japanese American retirement homes and cultural centers, museums and sports programs. They are Buddhist, but they also support Japanese American Christian churches. They are Republicans, but they also support Japanese American Democratic politicians.
“I like to see Japanese Americans get to Washington, even if I don’t believe in their philosophy,” George Aratani said with a chuckle during an interview.
A slender man with an easy smile and casual mien, Aratani figures he has given a total of more than $10 million to a handful of causes: the Japanese American National Museum, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Keiro Senior HealthCare, and UCLA’s Asian American and East Asian studies programs, among others. His Aratani Foundation helps support about 100 recipients.
“Their highest priority is to ensure the continuity of the Japanese American community,” said Irene Hirano, the national museum’s executive director.
She added that George Aratani had given, not only money, but also time, heading up fundraising efforts in Japan for the museum and other causes.
Hirano said such commitment is crucial in sustaining Japanese American institutions at a time when many are struggling to attract the support of younger, more assimilated generations.
For his part, Aratani says his giving is inspired by the example of his father, Setsuo.
A Hiroshima native, Setsuo Aratani overcame racist land laws to become a prosperous farmer and entrepreneur in the California seaside town of Guadalupe, near Santa Maria.
According to “An American Son,” an Aratani biography by Naomi Hirahara, the father grew lettuce, carrots, strawberries and other produce on 5,000 leased acres in the Santa Maria and Lompoc valleys. He also sold farm equipment, ran a packing and shipping business and launched other entrepreneurial ventures.
He quickly became known as “Boss,” sharing his leadership and wealth. According to Hirahara’s book, he gave -- not loaned -- money to friends, bought a new car for the local Buddhist monk and organized a Japanese cooperative to raise money for local schools.
His California-born son George did not intend to follow in his father’s farming footsteps. After injuring his leg and dashing hopes of a professional baseball career, he was accepted at Stanford. But, at his father’s urging, he studied instead at Keio University, a prestigious private school in Tokyo.
The senior Aratani died a year before the war started, forcing the son to return home and run the family agribusiness. Then Pearl Harbor hit, and Aratani’s life was changed.
Forced by the Roosevelt order to evacuate, he left the business in the hands of non-Japanese associates and ended up losing most of it -- in all, a value at that time of more than $20 million, he figures.
He never sued his partners or attempted to recoup his losses.
“If the president of the United States could put us behind barbed wire,” he said, “what chance would I have in court when the war was going on?”
Today, he expresses no bitterness. “What are you going to gain from being bitter?” he asked. “You have to be realistic and say you have nothing, and you have to put yourself together and get something going after the war.”
He did -- in a big way.
After serving in the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service teaching Japanese to American soldiers, he started Mikasa, Kenwood and a third business in Japan to import U.S. medical equipment.
He has since retired from all three and spends most of his time on philanthropic activities, serving as a community godfather of sorts.
Despite his high-profile giving -- and a circle of friends that has included U.S. senators, university presidents, Japanese political leaders and the late Akio Morita, who founded Sony Corp. -- Aratani is described by friends as modest and down-to-earth.
He and his wife, who have two daughters, have lived in the same three-bedroom home for more than 40 years: a retreat in the Hollywood Hills featuring a Japanese garden and tatami room. He says he is just as happy at Burger King as at the finest geisha houses in Japan. And when he was shown his family name inscribed on the George and Sakaye Aratani/Japan America Theatre in downtown Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, the first thing he recalls saying is, “The name’s too long.”
But the Aratani name is so common on buildings in Little Tokyo that, says museum spokesman Chris Komai, an archeologist in the distant future excavating the place would surely find his first question to be: Who is George Aratani?
The answer, Aratani said, is “just a regular guy who tried to help his community.”