By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
Min Tonai, a leader of numerous organizations in the Japanese American community, passed away on Sunday after a brief bout of pneumonia. He was 94.
The arc of Tonai’s life, born Feb. 6, 1929 in the fishing village of Terminal Island and incarcerated at Amache, Colo., formed the narrative of his life of community service. As a youth, he studied kendo as well as Japanese, first at a Japanese language school on Terminal Island and later at Compton Gakuen. Tonai spoke the Japanese of the Issei of Wakayama Prefecture with ease and felt it was important to maintain that heritage.
In a 2011 interview with Tom Ikeda of Densho, Tonai said, “One of the things is continuing the heritage we got from the Isseis, also not to forget our Japanese heritage. Those were some of the driving things that I had. The other thing is, of course, about the camps, that it’s extremely important that we not forget about that and to correct any mistakes that people have, are passing on or saying because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and it’s perpetuated. One person hears and passes it on, and I try always to correct it if I can, whether it’s written or otherwise.”
In 1934 he lived for eight months in Japan, and in 1936, the Tonai family moved across the channel to San Pedro. At the onset of World War II, his father was jailed along with other Issei community leaders. In May 1942, Tonai and his family were incarcerated, first at the Santa Anita Racetrack. In September they were shipped to Amache War Relocation Center in Colorado.
For years he led efforts to preserve Amache as president of the Amache Historical Society. In 2022, when President Biden signed the Amache National Historic Act, Tonai remarked, “Many young men at Amache served in the U.S. Army, though their country incarcerated them for their Japanese ancestry. I was 13 and incarcerated along with my mother and siblings at Amache, where I was also a Boy Scout. In 1943, our camp troop went to the Granada Railroad Station at four in the morning to see the young enlisted men off …
“In the 1980s, I worked to preserve Amache, organizing reunions and working on various preservation efforts. Thank you to President Biden for signing the Amache National Historic Act so that these efforts are not forgotten.”
Mitch Honma, president of the Amache Alliance, recalled that Tonai would often say that it was his dream to preserve the legacy and stories of Amache, often over a meal at the Loft Restaurant in Gardena.
“I am deeply saddened by the news of Minoru’s passing,” Honma said. “Min was one of the first to greet my father and his siblings in 2008 on their first trip back to Amache. He explained how important Amache’s legacy and preservation was. There are a few inspiring cornerstone heroes in my life and Mr. Minoru Tonai was one of them …
“He was the first person I asked to be a special advisor to our Board of Directors for the Amache Alliance. His legacy will continue and his spirit will be with us as we establish the Amache National Historic Site.”
During the Korean War, Tonai served as a combat medic; years later he was one of the leaders of the Japanese American Korean War Veterans (JAKWV) and helped to establish the Japanese American War Memorial Court in Little Tokyo. Tonai was a longtime board member of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) and also served for a time as its interim executive director in 2001.
Chris Aihara, former JACCC executive director, said that Tonai was a principled person and strong leader whom she would turn to for advice at times.
“Min was true to his own values and he was very committed, forthright and honest. I respected him very much. He showed real leadership in the community,” Aihara said.
During his time at the JACCC, Tonai was approached by Vietnam veterans who were looking for a site to build a monument to Nikkei soldiers killed in action. He proposed the concept to the board and was able to help get the monument established. Two years later the JAKWV group erected a wall at the Japanese American War Memorial Court.
Bacon Sakatani, Heart Mountain incarceree and a member of JAKWV, said, “Min was one of the veterans who helped form the Japanese American Korean War Veterans in 1996. Then he made it possible to have the National Japanese American War Memorial Court at the JACCC, which now has the names of all Japanese Americans who gave their lives defending the United States in times of wars and conflicts with other nations. He should be credited for this great achievement. We veterans will miss his friendship, generosity, and knowledge of many things.”
After the war, Tonai enrolled at Los Angeles City College under the GI Bill, then returned to UCLA, earning his B.S. in business administration in 1955. He began his work as an auditor at a local accounting firm and later went on to build his career in finance and management at high-tech companies, retiring in 1987. He met his future wife, Mary, at a Valentine’s Day dance in 1950. The couple married on Sept. 8, 1956 and raised three children, Susan, John and Teresa.
At UCLA he helped to fundraise and served as a member of the UCLA Foundation Board of Trustees, the Nikkei Bruins Club and the Japanese American Studies Chair Committee. He remained an avid fan of the Bruins.
Other organizations in which Tonai held board positions include Omotesenke Domonkai Southern California Region, Japanese American National Museum, Asia America Symphony Association, Nanka Wakayama Kenjinkai, Esumi Sonjinkai and Terminal Islanders. He was chair of the Terminal Island Memorial Monument Committee when the monument was dedicated in 2002.
In 1998, Tonai was recognized as grand marshal of the Nisei Week Japanese Festival. In 2015, the government of Japan awarded him a Kunsho for his efforts to promote the status of the Japanese American community.
In his later years, Tonai continued to be a mentor and share the stories of Japanese American incarceration to the youth. He was among the incarerees who helped to advise the ABC Unified School District and its annual Day of Remembrance program.
Kyoko Oda of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition remarked, “Min was fierce about telling high school and college students little-known facts about the U.S. government’s incarceration of Japanese. He said, ‘Living in the horse stables at Santa Anita was worse than serving in the Korean War.’ He had a zest in all he did in life especially when he was at Bruin basketball games.”
Tonai also worked with the Manzanar Committee on its college program, Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive.
Gann Matsuda, co-chair of the Katari program, said, “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.”
Tonai is survived by his children, Susan Drews, John Tonai and Teresa Tonai; his sisters-in-law, Yae Nagai, Elinor Sakado and Carole Endo; brother-in-law, George Endo; along with many nieces and nephews. He is predeceased by his wife, Mary Mitsuko; his parents, Gengoro and Toyone; brothers, Ichiro and Yutaka; and sisters, Mizuyo Mary and Rumi.
There will be a celebration of life on Saturday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. at the JACCC, immediately followed by bento reception. In lieu of flowers the family asks that a donation be made to JACCC or the Amache Alliance.