MSHS students conduct research for historic Nishimoto project
For The Madera Tribune
Sunny Nishimoto is seen here in his U.S. Army uniform. Nishimoto joined the Army after being sent to a relocation camp for Japanese during World War II.
I’m a proud Madera citizen, born and raised, but as an 11th grader this year at Madera South High School, I’ve had an opportunity to learn about a part of our town’s history of which I was not previously aware.
In this selective class of 10 students, we are learning about Sunny Nishimoto, a strong and heroic Japanese-American who was raised in Madera and grew to become one of Madera’s most respected and compassionate community leaders and the owner of the successful grocery, The Bridge Store.
Growing up in Madera, the Nishimoto name was familiar to me because of Nishimoto Elementary School, which is actually named after Sunny and his family. As I’ve come to learn more about Nishimoto, I can now say I understand why the school carries his name.
The history of Sunny Nishimoto and his family, as we are uncovering through research, is truly heartwarming.
Sunny was born on May 20, 1922, in Madera. His father, Tamaichi Tom Nishimoto, was a local produce farmer, and his mother, Kameyo Nishimoto, an immigrant from Japan, had a mind for business. Together, the couple founded The Bridge Store.
The popular market started out as just a one-room grocery store at the corner of D and South streets and, over the years, grew into a well-loved market known throughout the town, employing as many as 70 workers.
In a series of oral history interviews conducted with Sunny Nishimoto in 2005 by the Japanese American Military History Collective (JAMHC), Nishimoto expresses his gratitude toward the community that helped the store grow and prosper. Although The Bridge Store closed in 2017, I can remember shopping there as a child with my mother.
While Nishimoto was known as a generous businessman who helped his community, what many may not know is the tragic background Sunny and his family faced during World War II.
Prior to this class, I had very little knowledge about Japanese internment during WWII. For those who are unaware, as I was, after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States government, afraid of Japanese and Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast sabotaging war efforts, signed into law executive order 9066, requiring all Japanese immigrants and their American-born children living in California and other West Coast states to evacuate their homes and move to concentration camps.
At this time, Sunny Nishimoto was 19. In his interviews, Sunny recalls how each member of the family could only pack and take one bag of belongings. He also breaks down in tears talking about the lawyer, Mr. Barcroft, who helped his family secure a five-year lease so they wouldn’t lose The Bridge Store. The Nishimoto’s were one of the few families able to return to their homes and businesses after the war while many others lost everything.
Nishimoto, fortunately, didn’t have to spend as long as most in the camps, having enlisted, like his older brother, Keith, in the Army’s military intelligence service, for which he learned the Japanese language fluently in order to intercept and translate sensitive war documents coming from Japan.
Still, as my classmates and I learn of the harsh living conditions in the internment camps and the racism Japanese Americans endured prior to, during, and after the war, we are challenged to view the events of WWII with fresh eyes in considering everything from the Nishimotos’ perspectives.
Astonishingly, even though they were mistreated by the United States government, the Nishimotos did not hold a grudge. Most shockingly, when reparations of $20,000 per surviving internee was issued in 1988, Sunny and his sisters donated the money to various charities in Madera. This fact alone speaks volumes about the Nishimoto family and their legacy and inspires me to dig deeper and share the story of their experience during WWII.
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Students conducting the Nishimoto project are Emily Herrera (grade 12), Ailin Leon-Torres (11), Ana Miguel-Leon (9), Javier Ornelas (9), Esequiel Padilla Gurrola (9), Joshua Perez (9), Mia Reyes (9), Brianna Tudon-Mendez (9), Josiah Zamudio (9), and Jessica Giron (12).