There are many stories that can be told about World War II, from the tragic to the inspring. But perhaps one of the most heartrending experiences was that of the Akune family, divided by the war against each other and against their own identities. Ichiro Akune and his wife Yukiye immigrated to America from Japan in 1918 in search of opportunity, opening a small grocery store in central California and raising nine children. But when Mrs. Akune died in 1933, the children were sent to live with relatives in Japan, their father following soon after.
Though the move was a difficult adjustment after having been born and raised in America, the oldest son, Harry, formed a close bond with his grand uncle, who taught him the Japanese language, culture and values. Nevertheless, as soon as Harry and his brother Ken were old enough to work, they returned to the country they considered home, settling near Los Angeles. But then, December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now at war with Japan, the United States government did not trust the loyalty of those citizens who had family or ancestral ties to the enemy country.
In 1942, about 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were stripped of their civil rights and forcibly relocated to internment camps, even though most of them, like Harry and Ken, were Nisei, American or dual citizens who had been born in the US to Japanese immigrant parents. The brothers not only had very limited contact with their family in Japan, but found themselves confined to a camp in a remote part of Colorado. But their story took another twist when recruiters from the US Army’s military intelligence service arrived at the camp looking for Japanese-speaking volunteers.
Despite their treatment by the government, Harry and Ken jumped at the chance to leave the camp and prove their loyalty as American citizens. Having been schooled in Japan, they soon began their service, translating captured documents, interrogating Japanese soldiers, and producing Japanese language propaganda aimed at persuading enemy forces to surrender. The brothers’ work was invaluable to the war effort, providing vital strategic information about the size and location of Japanese forces.
But they still faced discrimination and mistrust from their fellow soldiers. Harry recalled an instance where his combat gear was mysteriously misplaced just prior to parachuting into enemy territory, with the white officer reluctant to give him a weapon. Nevertheless, both brothers continued to serve loyally through the end of the war. But Harry and Ken were not the only Akune brothers fighting in the Pacific. Unbeknownst to them, two younger brothers, the third and fourth of the five Akune boys, were serving dutifully in the Imperial Japanese Navy, Saburo in the Naval Airforce, and 15-year-old Shiro as an orientation trainer for new recruits. When the war ended, Harry and Ken served in the allied occupational forces and were seen as traitors by the locals.
When all the Akune brothers gathered at a family reunion in Kagoshima for the first time in a decade, it was revealed that the two pairs had fought on opposing sides. Tempers flared and a fight almost broke out until their father stepped in. The brothers managed to make peace and Saburo and Shiro joined Harry and Ken in California, and later fought for the US Army in Korea. It took until 1988 for the US government to acknowledge the injustice of its internment camps and approve reparations payments to survivors.
For Harry, though, his greatest regret was not having the courage to thank his Japanese grand uncle who had taught him so much. The story of the Akune brothers is many things: a family divided by circumstance, the unjust treatment of Japanese Americans, and the personal struggle of reconciling two national identities. But it also reveals a larger story about American history: the oppression faced by immigrant groups and their perseverance in overcoming it.
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