Jason Kelly | March 15, 2017
Phil Sakimoto has a quintessential American story, but he’s reluctant to tell it. Although it’s a proud family history of resilience and courage, it’s also one of national shame.
We’re sitting at a campus café a few days after the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, an unsettling time of year for Sakimoto. He’s the son of the leader of a U.S. Army antitank company that earned 43 Purple Hearts in European combat. Born in Los Angeles, he is also an American of Japanese ancestry. Every December 7, his resemblance to the enemy of distant memory draws angry epithets.
“That still happens,” Sakimoto says.
He’s hesitant about mentioning that treatment or drawing public attention to the wartime oppression of his parents’ generation. He’s shared the story with his sons’ junior-high classes, which my brother happens to teach, so I’ve heard it secondhand. I invited him to lunch, hoping to hear it from Sakimoto himself.
He’s ambivalent. The director of Notre Dame’s Program in Academic Excellence and a former NASA official doesn’t want to be perceived as an angry messenger of American dishonor. On the other hand, he believes what happened to his family and thousands of others should be remembered as a defense against history repeating itself.
The story starts in Japan.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Sakimoto’s paternal ancestors, descendants of a long line of Buddhist priests, lived in a small village near Hiroshima. They followed ancient tradition, passing the village priesthood from father to eldest son.