Published : Friday, October 11, 2019 | 5:09 AM
Esther Takei Nishio may have been petite, but when she passed away earlier this month she left a large and heroic legacy.
Esther Nishio was the first Japanese-American allowed to return into American public life following detention at Japanese American Internment camps during World War II. And her return came as a student at Pasadena City College in 1944.
Her presence was not welcome. It required from Esther Nishio a great deal of strength and courage to face the hordes of anti-Japanese protestors who rallied against her and the family with whom she stayed during her student days.
But she used the remarkable experience to open discussions on prejudice and spoke at events and at political functions on her experience.
Esther was born and grew up in Venice, Calif., where her father, Shigehisa “Harry” Takei and mother Ninoe Takei in 1925 had a thriving businesses operating the entertainment rides on the Venice Pier.
“My mother was a talented artist and writer,” son John Nishio said. “She helped her parents with the business because she was cute and she worked with the people.”
She was always known as “sweet,” the son said.
“My mother was guileless,” son John Nishio said. “Even to her own detriment, she was sweet. But she was determined.”
Esther Nishio knew little about Japan because she was born in California. Her parents Harry and Ninoi Takei emigrated to California and rose the ranks to run the business on the Pier, and it was a good business.
But it was all lost when the Takei family, like so many other Japanese-American families, were rounded up and detained at internment camps across the U.S. when World War II broke out.
As with most Japanese-American families felt, the Takeis felt a desire to prove their devotion to the United States. These were no traitors who needed to be detained, but rather, they were immigrants, like so many other nationalities, trying to make a life in the new world, and trying to be true Americans.
While in the internment camp, Esther Nishio made a name for herself as a cartoonist in the camp newspaper.
“My mother wanted more than anything to be a journalist and it was the dream of her life to get a college degree,” John Nishio said.
So, naturally when she was selected to attend Pasadena City College and lead the way for Japanese-Americans to re-assimilate into American society, she jumped at the chance.
“My mother had tremendous bravery,” John Nishio said. “My grandfather encouraged her to go, but didn’t know it was so dangerous. Until the day he died he said he regretted making her take that chance.”
But Esther Nishio saw every experience as an opportunity, John said. There was no opportunity at the concentration camp in Amache, Colorado concentration camp, where the family was being held, he said.
Hugh Anderson, a Quaker who Esther Nishio’s father knew, would be the sponsor for the young student, and he arranged for her to attend Pasadena City College.
She was to secretly take a train to Pasadena and quietly attend classes without the public knowing she was there. When the school paper ran a story on her, “all hell broke loose,” Nishio said.
“The school newspaper did a story on her, and then so did the local and national papers,” he said. “There were many death threats and she was in danger all the time. People spit on her and they threw things at her.”
But the other students were good to Esther and she was seen as a trailblazer. Another Japanese girl tried attending Pasadena College but the angry crowds forced her return to the camp. So Esther Nishio’s experience was not for the faint of heart.
The threats were so strong, in fact, that Anderson sent his family to go live with other relatives because of the crowds of people driving around his house day and night.
The United States Army escorted Esther Nishio at school and at home.
While Esther Nishio never reached her dream of becoming a journalist, her story attracted newspaper editors to write about her, but fortunately there was some good press.
After a story ran in Stars and Stripes, U.S. servicemen came to her defense, saying they were fighting for her rights just as much as for all other Americans because Esther Nishio was an American citizen.
John Nishio said there is an instance where a sailor hitchhiked across the U.S. from the East Coast to protect his mother.
With this support, the protests dissipated and Esther Nishio was able to attend classes and she frequently visited other camps to help enroll young Japanese people into school on the West Coast.
Esther Nishio left college when her parents returned from the war, but the family had been wiped out financially and she took a job as a housekeeper to support the family, and then got married and gave birth to her son, John.
Her parents, meanwhile, returned to Japan because they were broken-hearted over the prejudice they faced in America and what had happened to their life and their business.
Esther Nishio took a job working for Henry Dreyfus, the legendary industrial designer, and then for Flying Tiger Freight Airline. She took advantage of her flight privileges to vist her parents 28 times, John said.
But Esther Nishio finally did get to wear a cap and gown. That happened in 2010, when the graduating class of Pasadena City College invited the “Niseis” (a person born in the US or Canada whose parents were immigrants from Japan) who were forced to leave college, to their graduation ceremony.
“Esther received an honorary degree on that day and said it was the happiest moment of her life,” John Nishio said. “Except for when she had me, she told me.”
Esther Nishio made it her life’s work to enlighten people to prejudice and encourage people to rise above. She was named California Woman of the Year by Senator Liu of California in 2012 because of her heroic act in 1944.
Today, John Nishio follows in his mother’s footsteps as an advocate for the people. The Pasadena resident runs a charity to help get clean drinking water to Japanese children affected by radiation fallout from the nuclear power plant.
“My mother would be very proud of the charity,” he said. “Upon her death many people were sad, but proud of her, and I’m the most proud, because I’m her son.”