On Saturday, Eddie Horikawa, my friend who is 91 years old and my ikebana teacher’s husband, was honored with ninety other Nisei veterans and received the Congressional Gold Medal for their WWII service. Nisei, are second generation Japanese American; those born in the United States to Japanese immigrant parents. It was an honor to see him and all the others on stage to receive the long overdue recognition for their services to the country. Eddie was a member of the U.S. Army 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In addition to the Gold Medal, he also received his third Bronze Star for his valor.
The moving ceremony, brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes as I tried to comprehend what these men went through in their early 20’s. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese and Japanese-Americans became innocent residents who were interned just for their Japanese ethnicity. It didn’t matter what they said or what they did, because at that time in history, life was just the way it was and their voices were not heard. The common attitude in those days was acceptance. In Japanese, they often said “shoganai”, meaning “it can’t be helped” or as one would say today, “it is what it is”.
I have known Eddie for about eight years now. He’s always very quiet and enjoys reading all day, but once in a while he’ll share some of his past with me. You see, Eddie is also an ikebana master, an artist in his own right. One day his wife showed me an old Seattle Times newspaper clipping of Eddie. He was the first Japanese American who graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of Washington. Like most Asian men from that generation, Eddie is extremely modest and won’t share much unless asked. So, I asked him about when he joined the military.
Interned at Minidoka, Idaho in his early 20’s, Eddie had an older sister but his parent’s had already passed on. He was young and restless, and life at camp was limiting to say the least. Then the government changed their position and the young Nisei men were offered the opportunity to join the military. First, they were required to answer a questionnaire. There were two questions. One asked if you were willing to fight for the United States. The other question, he can’t remember. But what Eddie does remember was that your answers were either “no, no” or “yes, yes”. This became a classification amongst the Nisei men. Eddie was a “yes, yes”. This meant he was ready to fight the war.
All those who said yes, were sent to Fort Lewis, WA. for their physical. Eddie failed the physical due to his eyesight. They told him he was nearsighted. Because of this he was advised that they were sending him back to camp. But, Eddie told them that he couldn’t go back because the “no, no’s” would kill him. You see, the “no, no’s” believed the “yes, yes” were traitors and said if they ever came back, they were going to kill them. There was no going back, as now even his own Japanese people rejected him. But, upon agreeing to join the military, he was now considered a free man, not an enemy. Therefore, free to go anywhere. Penniless and with no real family left, the government sent him to Camp Heart Mountain in Wyoming, a low security internment camp, where he didn’t know anyone.
Upon moving from one state to another, those with Japanese ethnicity had to register with the military. In Wyoming, he was sent for another physical examination and this time he passed. Eddie entered the armed forces where he eventually operated a machine gun. The Nisei 442nd regiment was sent to Europe where they didn’t have to fight their Japanese ancestors. And this is where Eddie’s story ends for now. I wanted to keep asking more questions, but at 91, he tires easily and it will have to wait for later.
As a Japanese American, I want to say a big and sincere “thank you” to Eddie and those who quietly suffered and served their country. They did this with a pure heart, not ever knowing if they would come back alive. And although at the time, the U.S. government was unjust, to make a wrong right after all these years, is such a wonderful thing. To be able to admit and apologize is a great step forward for us all. And as Eddie said in the car ride home after the ceremony, “iki tete yokkatta” meaning, “I’m glad I’m alive to see this day”.
Congratulations to Eddie and all the Nissei soldiers, we are all so proud and grateful.
Below are pictures of Eddie and Norigiku Horikawa after the celebration.