Sam Honda, vice president (left), with Edwin (Bud) Nakasone, president, representing the Japanese American Veterans of Minnesota at the Military Intelligence Service recognition program held at Normandale Japanese Garden in Bloomington on Sept. 12, 2004. (JACL contributed photo)
The Japanese American community lost a revered leader, organizer, and champion of human and civil rights. Osamu Honda, 83, known informally as Sam, passed away of colon cancer on November 24, 2010.
Born in Fresno, California in 1927, Honda grew up, along with a sister and two brothers, helping on the family farm in Fresno. His father, Shusaku Honda, came to America in 1916 from Hiroshima, Japan, and in 1922 married Asako Honda also from Hiroshima.
In 1942, the order to evacuate all persons of Japanese ancestry from the west coast forced Honda’s family to be relocated from Fresno to the War Relocation Authority camp at Jerome, Arkansas. At age 18, Honda was drafted from the internment camp into the army, and trained with the Military Intelligence Service at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling in St. Paul. He was then stationed at various army bases on the U.S. mainland.
After an honorable discharge in August 1947, Honda joined his parents who had re-settled in Chicago. In June 1952, Honda married Lily Yuri Kaname whom he had met at General Mailing Company. He found employment as a draftsman, but to advance his career in engineering, he took night classes, and was hired at Revere Camera in the tape recorder division. When the company was bought by 3M, Honda’s division was transferred to Minnesota, and the family moved to White Bear Lake in 1964. He continued to work at 3M as a professional product designer into his 60s, hired back as a contract worker for several years after his formal retirement.
To maintain his cultural ties, Honda joined the Twin Cities Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), where he served as chapter president and as treasurer for the Midwest district. He became involved in the JACL redress campaign, volunteering hours and effort to lobby every Minnesota congressman.
Honda also met with educators to ensure awareness about the significance of the wartime concentration camps as a sad chapter in American history when natural-born citizens were denied their civil rights. It was his initial idea to place the redress money into a fund with the primary purpose of educating the public on this shameful event in American history, not as payments to individuals.
Honda felt strongly about protecting the civil rights of all Americans. Around 1966, a co-worker at 3M got him interested in the John Birch Society, which appealed to his sense of patriotism. But the organization’s negative campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. prompted him to quit and volunteer to help the Democratic Party. Several state fairs were spent at the DFL fundraising booth making and selling mini-donuts.
After Honda’s marriage in a Christian ceremony, he had no involvement with Buddhism, the religion of his parents. When his father passed away in 1984, he gained a renewed interest in learning the Dharma and became active with the Twin Cities Buddhist Association. He became involved at the district and national level of the Buddhist Churches of America, was a long-serving treasurer of the Eastern District Council, and was one of a handful of leaders who, early on, received training in conducting Buddhist services.
Along with others, Honda organized the Nikkei Project in Minnesota almost 30 years ago as a way to take the aging first-generation Japanese Americans on monthly outings so they could enjoy coming together for social activities. As those elders passed away, the Nikkei Project became an important social outlet for his generation, the Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans.
Honda also served, almost from its inception, as vice president for the Japanese American Veterans of Minnesota, where for the past 15 years, he organized an annual memorial service at Fort Snelling National Cemetery to honor Japanese American Veterans. He was one of the Minnesota veterans interviewed by the Go For Broke Foundation in Torrance, California about his military service and World War II experiences.
Honda had six grandchildren, whom he enjoyed babysitting and attending events and special occasions. He also enjoyed golfing with friends, family and other 3M retirees. He helped organize the Houston Capers, a nationwide group of Japanese American golfers who met four or five times a year in different locations to play golf, socialize and sightsee.
In his eulogy, son-in-law Gary Nakai stated, “from my friends on the East coast, I quickly got a sense of how he was held in high esteem for his integrity…he was a stalwart supporter of what he came to know was the truth, and lived by that creed no matter how popular or unpopular it might have been at the time.” Nakai continued, “His sense of stewardship for sustaining the good purpose of many organizations is the hallmark of his involvement. His reputation for thoroughness was well deserved as he fortified the foundation for others who would serve after him.”
“Sam was the one who got me involved in the JACL when I moved here,” recalled Cheryl Hirata-Dulas, a past president of the Twin Cities JACL. “He was humble and modest, and led by example, without fanfare. He just got the job done, efficiently and effectively. I worked with him on a number of projects, including the 60th anniversary commemoration of Camp Savage [Military Intelligence Service Language School] that we put on at the Minnesota History Center in 2001. After that, I received a package of office supplies in the mail from Sam to thank me for sending him photos and serving the JACL. He was always like that, thanking people for their efforts. We owe him an enormous amount of gratitude for all that he did to pave the way for the younger generations of Japanese Americans and the work he did to educate the broader community.”
Rev. Yukei Ashikaga, Head Minister at The Buddhist Temple of Chicago where Honda’s daughter Patti is Associate Minister, referred to him as an illustration of the Japanese Buddhist saying “He who brightens one corner is a national treasure.” Nakai explained the reference, “We have seen how bright he had made his corner; the civil rights causes, the human rights causes, his family, his grandchildren, his friends, his fellow veterans, the aged, and even people he hardly knew.” Honda was “a treasure representing ideals, a treasure representing hopes and aspirations, a treasure representing decency, a treasure representing the highest example of brotherhood, a treasure representing the best of humanity; all of these and more, are what we Americans hold dear and honor.”
A memorial service, held at Bradshaw Funeral Home in White Bear Lake on December 3, 2010, was chaired by Dr. Todd Tsuchiya of the Twin Cities Buddhist Association and officiated by Rev. Ron Miyamura from the Midwest Buddhist Temple. Honda is survived by wife, Lily, two daughters Patti (Gary) Nakai and Nancy, son Mark (Andrea), six grandchildren, and brothers Ben (Yoshi) of Fresno, CA and Harry (Charlene) of Federal Way, WA.
This article was written and contributed by members of the Twin Cities Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.