Left internment camp in 1945 to see Cubs in World Series; ‘Montrose Harbor king’
In 1945, when he was released from the internment camp where he was incarcerated with thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II, Michio Iwao hatched an audacious plan.
He would make his way to Chicago to see his beloved Cubs play in the World Series.
Mr. Iwao played catcher in a league formed inside the internment camp, which was known as Gila River and located in the Arizona desert.
He was able to secure a standing-roomonly ticket to one of the games. The Cubs lost and ultimately lost the series in seven games to the Detroit Tigers.
But Mr. Iwao found his new home: Chicago. Mr. Iwao died Feb. 20 from congestive heart failure. He was 100.
He’d come to Chicago alone. His parents and three brothers moved back to California, where his family had lived and worked on a farm.
“I didn’t find out he was in an internment camp until I was in high school when I read about them in U.S. history and came home and asked my dad, and he said yes,” said his daughter, Jackie Denofrio.
“They were ashamed, and they didn’t want attention. They were taught because of the war to assimilate, and many of his generation did not teach their children Japanese because of the experience of being incarcerated. They wanted their children to be American and not different in any way,” she said.
Mr. Iwao had three children with his first wife, Jean Campbell.
He met his second wife, Emiko Kimura, at General Mailing Services, a West Side bindery where they both worked. It has since closed. She was born in Japan and was a stellar cook. Mr. Iwao loved to eat.
“I think that’s why he fell in love,” said Denofrio, who was Kimura’s daughter from a previous marriage.
“He just jumped right in, and we all became a family,” she said.
Mr. Iwao visited Japan for the first time in 1977 and found his relatives there.
“It was funny because he had to learn some of the customs. He had a Japanese face and he was in Japan, and for them, his Japanese was funny. He wasn’t fluent, but he could understand,” she said.
He was a lifelong Cubs fan and rejoiced when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016.
Mr. Iwao owned a building in Andersonville and would fish at Montrose Harbor every chance he got. His wife would often fry his catch into tempura.
In retirement, he rigged his daughter’s old pink Schwinn bicycle with holders for his fishing poles and a basket for his gear.
“He was the Montrose Harbor king,” she said. “Whenever we went fishing he’d say, ‘OK, let’s try to catch some mermaids.’”
Also in retirement, Mr. Iwao began whittling wood, a skill he picked up from an older generation of Japanese Americans during his time in the internment camp. He made small birds.
The creations were once featured in a traveling exhibit that made a stop at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie. Organizers of the exhibit presented a cardinal he made to the Empress of Japan.
In his later years, Mr. Iwao began to freely share his experience of living in the internment camp.
He described his time there to youth at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, where he was an active member.
The memories kindled in him a strong feeling of injustice.
“Much later in his life, he became angry when he looked back that he was incarcerated as a young man,” his daughter said.
Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order that resulted in thousands of Japanese Americans being incarcerated due to fear they might act as saboteurs on behalf of Japan.
“He’d say, ‘They locked me up. Like I’m the bad guy.’ He held on to that. And he was not hostile like that when he was younger, but the more he thought about it, the angrier he got,” she said.
Congress passed legislation in 1988 officially apologizing for the internment camps and providing $20,000 to everyone who was incarcerated, including Mr. Iwao.
“He was a U.S. citizen, an American, and his family was told one day to pack what they could carry, and they were shipped to an internment camp. They formed a community there with schools and everything. My dad served as a firefighter. But he felt, ‘Why am I being treated like this?’” his daughter said.
Mr. Iwao was active in his block club and the Japanese American Service Committee.
“He was a real gentleman,” the committee’s CEO, Michael Takada, said. “A classic member of the older generation — quiet, but eloquent when you spoke with him.”
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Iwao is survived by another daughter, Rhonda, and his son, David, as well as eight grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and nine great-greatgrandchildren.