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Voices of the Volunteers: The Building Blocks of the Japanese American National Museum

Kihachiro Tajima

Kimio Tajima was an American-born Nisei, but he died a Japanese soldier, while at war in New Guinea. He was 28 years old. His son, Kihachiro, was only ten months old when Kimio was drafted. Kihachiro grew up being called a war orphan, not remembering his father’s face.

When he was in elementary school, he asked his mother, “Why am I a war orphan?” She told him, “Your father died in war as a Japanese soldier, but he was born in the U.S.” Through her stories, Kihachiro began to adore his late father whom he had never met and dreamt of going to America.

Kihachiro as a newborn baby and his mother in 1942. Photo courtesy of Kihachiro Tajima.
Kihachiro’s father who died at New Guinea. Photo courtesy of Kihachiro Tajima.

Kihachiro was born in 1942 in Fukuoka Prefecture, but his American roots went back to his grandfather. He came alone from Yame district in Fukuoka to Idaho to learn how to grow potatoes. He called for Kihachiro’s grandmother from the same hometown and married her. Then, Kihachiro’s father Kimio was born.

Grandparents with his auntie and father in the 1910s at Portland. Photo courtesy of Kihachiro Tajima.

The grandfather built his fortune in the U.S., and when Kimio was around five years old, the family went back to Fukuoka. Kimio returned to the U.S. to go to high school in Los Angeles. During his sophomore year in college, however, his parents told him “As the chonan (eldest son), you have to return to Japan.” Kimio returned to Yame and eventually married Kihachiro’s mother from the same town. Soon after, the war between the U.S. and Japan broke out.

Kihachiro’s father died in the war, and his grandparents died after it ended. As the wife of the eldest son of the honke (main family home), however, his mother stayed on to raise Kihachiro alone there.

When Kihachiro was 23 years old, there was a mine explosion in Omuta, Fukuoka, in 1963. He saw in the newspaper that Mr. Shichiro Ogomori, representing the Southern California Fukuoka Kenjinkai in Los Angeles, had come to Japan bearing a sympathy offering to the victims. Mr. Ogomori was a distant relative of the Tajima family, who had looked after Kimio in the U.S. When Kihachiro went to meet Mr. Ogomori, Mr. Ogomori said, “Oh, you are Kimi-chan’s boy!” Kihachiro told him that he was interested in going to the U.S. Mr. Ogomori suggested that he study abroad and agreed to become his sponsor.

Kihachiro could not speak English at all, so he began studying diligently. For a time, he thought that 23 years old might be too old for learning a language, but he didn’t want to have regrets decades later. So he made up his mind. At 26, in 1968, he left for the U.S.

Kihachiro Tajima. Photo courtesy of The Japanese Daily Sun

Since moving to the U.S., Kihachiro says that he has never experienced any apparent racial discrimination. “I believe it is because of the existence of Japanese American communities and the contributions of the Nikkei and 442nd Regimental Combat Team,” he says.

As he settled in his new country, he became active in the Fukuoka Kenjinkai and spent most of his time where he could hear Japanese. “I was protected by the Nikkei community,” he says.

In 2008, the Southern California Fukuoka Kenjinkai held its centennial celebration. The late U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, honorary member of JANM’s Board of Governors, made an appearance. Senator Inouye’s ancestors were also from Fukuoka. This was when Kihachiro began to develop his interest in Japanese migration history. He joined JANM as a volunteer and became a docent. “I am happy I can share the stories of the Japanese Americans who worked hard in this country and tell the history of the country where my father was born, instead of him,” he says. “My father must be very happy.”

Taking a tour at the Japanese American National Museum. Photo courtesy of JANM.


* Mr. Tajima was interviewed by Tomomi Kanemaru and the article was written by Ryoko Onishi for Voices of the Volunteers: Building Blocks of the Japanese American National Museum, a book presented by Nitto Tire and published by The Rafu Shimpo. This story has been modified slightly from the original.


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© 2015 The Rafu Shimpo

fukuoka janm Japanese American National Museum kibei Kihachiro Tajima Shin-Issei volunteers

About this series

This series introduces the experiences of the volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum from the book Voices of the Volunteers: The Building Blocks of the Japanese American National Museum, which was sponsored by Nitto Tire and published by The Rafu Shimpo.

A few years ago, Nitto Tire began working with the Los Angeles Japanese-language newspaper The Japanese Daily Sun to interview the Japanese American National Museum (JANM)’s volunteers. When Nitto Tire approached The Rafu Shimpo in late 2014 to edit and compile these interviews into a book, we were happy to do it. As a former JANM intern, I knew how important the volunteers were, how hard they worked, and how much their presence humanized history.

In the process of editing this book, I read each story so many times I began to dream about them. I know that I’m not alone in this absorption. Everyone who gave his or her time to this book lived within these stories and felt their effect. That’s the power of a first-hand account.When visitors come to JANM for a guided tour, they experience a similar kind of accelerated intimacy that brings the Common Ground exhibit to life. The volunteers have been putting a face to history for thirty years. For all that time, they have upheld the story of our community. It’s time now for us to uphold their stories.

Edited by Mia Nakaji Monnier with additional thanks to Contributing Editor Chris Komai; Japanese Editors Maki Hirano, Takashi Ishihara, and Ryoko Onishi; and Volunteer Liaison Richard Murakami. Interviews conducted by Tomomi Kanemaru (The Japanese Daily Sun), Alice Hama (The Japanese Daily Sun), and Mia Nakaji Monnier.

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