George Aratani: A WWII Internee Turned History Buff

George Aratani was as personally well-known as the  imported products sold by the companies he founded – most notably, the Mikasa line of dinnerware, and Kenwood home audio equipment.

Nevertheless, Aratani helped ensure that Americans knew the larger the story of the injustice inflicted on him and 122,000 Japanese Americans at the outbreak of World War II, when they were forced to leave their homes and live behind fences and under armed guard in internment camps, often losing their property and businesses as a result. In 2005 he and his wife, Sakaye, also an internee, endowed an academic chair at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center devoted specifically to preserving and teaching one of the most shameful stories in modern American history.

The California-born Aratani, who died on Feb. 19 at age 95 in Los Angeles, was a star athlete who was scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates when he was in high school, before a football injury derailed his sports career. According to American ethnic historian Elliott Robert Barkan, after the death of Aratani’s father in 1940, the young Aratani had to quit law school at Stanford University and take over management of his family’s thriving produce farm and other businesses. But that didn’t last long. In March 1942, after the Japanese empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the now-infamous Executive Order 9066, ordering the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, and Aratani was sent to live in the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. While confined, he contracted coccidioidomycosis, a respiratory fungal infection probably caused by the dusty conditions in the camp. Finally, in 1944, he managed to get out of the camp by agreeing to serve as a civilian language instructor for the Military Intelligence Service school in Minnesota.

After the war ended, Aratani went back to Los Angeles and started over as an importer. In 1957, he launched Mikasa, which quickly became successful by importing bargain-priced china made in Japan for sale in U.S. department stores. A few years later, he founded Kenwood, which became a popular brand name among American stereo buffs, and then another business that exported U.S.-made medical equipment to Japan.

But even as Aratani prospered, he didn’t forget the hardships he had experienced. He used his wealth to help other Japanese Americans. In 1964, for example, helped found what is now the Keiro Nursing Home in Los Angeles, putting up his own home as part of the collateral for a loan. Three decades later, he and his wife established the Aratani Foundation, which has provided funding to a variety of Japanese American organizations, ranging from the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles to the Nisei Baseball Research Project, an effort to document the century-old history of Japanese American baseball. In 2001, the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles renamed its theater to honor Aratani and his wife.