Pioneer of Lit­tle Tokyo gal­va­nized his com­mu­nity

BRUCE TERUO KAJI, 1926 - 2017

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Deb­o­rah Vankin

When the Ja­panese Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum — now a sta­ple of Los Angeles cul­tural life — opened its doors in Lit­tle Tokyo in an old Bud­dhist tem­ple in 1992, it was well un­der­stood that with­out Bruce Teruo Kaji, the in­sti­tu­tion might never have come to life.

“It is not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that with­out his vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship, the Ja­panese Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum might never have been founded,” Nor­man Y. Mineta, the mu­seum’s board chair, said in a state­ment.

Kaji, who never strayed far from his deep L.A. roots, died Oct. 26 at his home in Tor­rance, sur­rounded by fam­ily. He was 91.

A World War II vet­eran who served in the U.S. Army, Kaji was born Teruo Kaji in 1926 in the Bunker Hill area of down­town L.A. His par­ents were im­mi­grants from the is­land of Kyushu in Ja­pan. In Amer­ica, his fa­ther worked as a re­pair­man for South­ern Pa­cific Rail­road while his mother raised the fam­ily. Kaji was the youngest of three sib­lings.

As a youth, Kaji tasted both dis­crim­i­na­tion and pa­tri­o­tism. When he was 16, Kaji and his fam­ily were hauled off along with tens of thou­sands of other Ja­panese Amer­i­cans to the in­tern­ment camp at Man­za­nar, where he was in­car­cer-

ated for three years. He was then drafted in 1945 — dur­ing the wan­ing days of the war — to serve a coun­try that had held him captive.

Dur­ing the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion of Ja­pan af­ter the war, Kaji served in the Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice as a Ja­panese-lan­guage in­ter­preter for the War Crimes Tri­bunal in both Tokyo and Manila.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Los Angeles in 1947, Kaji earned a de­gree in ac­count­ing at USC and legally changed his first name to “Bruce,” af­ter child­hood hero Bruce Wayne, the comic book char­ac­ter who morphs into Bat­man.

In 1951, Kaji es­tab­lished his own ac­count­ing firm and was part of a group that founded Merit Sav­ings & Loan, one of the first and one of the few Ja­panese Amer­i­can-owned banks.

In ad­di­tion to his work launch­ing the Ja­panese Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum — he was a key fig­ure in fundrais­ing, se­cur­ing a build­ing lease and mak­ing ini­tial hires — Kaji was a com­mu­nity ac­tivist with deep ties to both his na­tive Los Angeles and the lo­cal Ja­panese com­mu­nity. In 1960 he was elected city trea­surer in Gar­dena, and in the early 1970s he was ap­pointed to the board for the newly built Los Angeles County Martin Luther King Jr. Hos­pi­tal.

In 1963, Kaji and the Rev. Howard To­ri­umi of Union Church es­tab­lished the ad­vo­cacy group Lit­tle Tokyo Rede­vel­op­ment Assn. in re­sponse to the city’s ef­forts to seize an en­tire block of Lit­tle Tokyo through em­i­nent do­main to build a new po­lice head­quar­ters. The group’s ef­forts helped spark eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in the area.

In May, the mu­seum pre­sented Kaji with its Le­gacy Award. Board mem­ber and ac­tor-ac­tivist Ge­orge Takei said in an email that Kaji “per­son­i­fied the very spirit of Amer­i­can­ism.”

“Bruce was an ex­tra­or­di­nary leader who had a vast vi­sion for the fu­ture of Ja­panese Amer­i­cans at a time when the com­mu­nity was still strug­gling in­di­vid­u­ally to get back on their feet af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion of im­pris­on­ment in barbed-wire in­tern­ment camps,” Takei said. “His per­sonal vi­brancy and en­ergy was able to gal­va­nize the com­mu­nity to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of ac­tively en­gag­ing col­lec­tively to es­tab­lish our place in the larger Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.”

Kaji was hon­ored with the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal — along with fel­low mem­bers of the Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice as well as the 100th Bat­tal­ion and 442nd Reg­i­men­tal Com­bat Team — in 2011. Kaji also re­ceived the Or­der of the Ris­ing Sun, Gold and Sil­ver Rays, from the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment in 1997.

He also wrote the 2010 self-pub­lished au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “Jive Bomber: A Sen­ti­men­tal Jour­ney.”

“In spite of be­ing born in poverty and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the shame of his loy­alty as an Amer­i­can be­ing ques­tioned, he was able to suc­ceed and do it with a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude,” said Jonathan Kaji, one of his sons.

Kaji is sur­vived by sons Jonathan and Troy, daugh­ter Miki Hamill and eight grand­chil­dren. His long­time wife, Frances Tashiro, died in 2016.

Ed­ward Or­nelas Los Angeles Times

‘VI­SION­ARY LEAD­ER­SHIP’ Bruce Teruo Kaji was a key fig­ure in start­ing L.A.’s Ja­panese Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum.

Tracy Ku­mono Ja­panese Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum

COM­MU­NITY AC­TIVIST Bruce Teruo Kaji, left, ac­cepts the Ja­panese Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum’s Le­gacy Award in May.

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