Min Tonai in the Block 14 demonstration barracks at the Manzanar National Historic Site, telling students about living conditions in the American concentration camps during the 2018-19 Katari program, Nov. 3, 2018. (Photo by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee)

The Manzanar Commitee mourns the passing of former Amache incarceree Minoru “Min” Tonai of Woodland Hills on Sept. 3 at the age of 94.

Tonai, a native of San Pedro, grew up on Terminal Island, where the first of more than 120,000 Japanese/Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and unjustly incarcerated in American concentration camps during World War II.

Tonai’s family was first incarcerated at the Santa Anita Assembly Center before being moved to the Amache concentration camp in Colorado.

After the war, the family returned to California. Tonai went on to serve his country in Korea and Japan during the Korean War before returning to the Los Angeles area, where he attended UCLA and received his BA in business administration in 1955.

Over the past 60 years, Tonai has supported organizations such as the Japanese American National Museum, the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, and the efforts to create the Amache National Historic Site, just to name a few worthy causes, and he has supported UCLA in several capacities, including his work on the university’s campus-wide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the incarceration of Japanese Americans, sponsored by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center in 1992.

For the last six years, Tonai has worked with the Manzanar Committee as a speaker at the Manzanar National Historic Site during the annual Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive program for college students.

“I’ve known Min since 1991, when I met him at UCLA when I was the coordinator of UCLA’s year of events commemorating the ‘50th Anniversary of Japanese American Internment,’” said Gann Matsuda of the Manzanar Committee. “Min was a key player in helping organize our opening ceremony in Royce Hall, especially in identifying and locating many of the approximately 200 former UCLA students who were forced to leave the university before completing their studies because of the forced removal.”

“Min was a big supporter of our annual Katari program,” added Matsuda, co-chair of the Katari program. “He made the long drive to Manzanar each year so he could tell our students his story, and about living conditions that he had to endure at Amache during the war. I remember, vividly, students totally focused on his every word, pretty much whenever he spoke, throughout each Katari weekend.

“In fact, there was one year when, right after the weekend program ended, and we were all about to leave Manzanar, our students surrounded Min, asking questions, and thanking him for sharing his story. We almost had to drag our students to our van to get them back to Southern California at a decent hour. That was an incredible sight to behold.”

Manzanar Committee member Jason Fujii, co-chair of the Katari program, recalled that Tonai was dedicated to educating others, especially young people, about Japanese American incarceration.

“Min was truly an amazing person,” he said. “He was always there to educate students, never afraid to tell his story. The amount of knowledge, and his willingness to tell his story, has impacted my life and motivates me to tell my family’s story. He was always willing to answer any questions that students had. I must have heard his story at least ten times, but each time, I learned something new about him and his experiences before, during, and after the war.

“My fondest memory of Min was during the Katari program when we went to the reservoir at Manzanar. I was standing at the bottom of the long-empty reservoir, just taking everything in, and I saw Min slowly making his way down to where I was. I remember telling him that it wasn’t safe, but he told me that he had to stand in the middle of the reservoir, I believe, to pay his respects to the Manzanar incarcerees who built the reservoir.”

Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey hailed Tonai’s leadership in the Japanese American community, and his willingness to be a mentor to others.

“Min was a unique community leader, a rare Nisei, always willing to talk about ‘camp,’” he said. “He provided sharp and powerful recollections of life behind barbed wire, never shying away from the truth or sugar-coating what his family and our community endured. Min also drew upon his experience in Amache to mentor others, talking about life lessons he gleaned from camp.

“Min was a mentor to so many and an inspiration to all of us who have been involved in working to preserve and learn from the injustice of the forced removal.

“Min did so much, whether greeting the Rev. Jesse Jackson, or working to honor Korean War veterans, to making sure Amache was established as a National Historic Site. We’ll certainly miss his wit and penetrating analysis. On behalf of the Manzanar Committee, I want to extend our deepest condolences and best wishes to his son John, his daughters, Susan and Teresa, and all of his family and friends.”

Tonai was preceded in death by his wife, Mary, in 2017.

A celebration of life will be held on Saturday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. at the JACCC, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo.

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