An enormously successful businessman whose products have graced U.S. homes and automobiles for decades, George Aratani could have easily enjoyed the fruits of his vast fortune without sharing a nickel of it.
But instead, Aratani—who survived incarceration in the remote, rudimentary, Japanese American internment camps of World War Two—poured millions of dollars in charitable gifts into the University of California, Los Angeles, in hopes that faculty and students would research, analyze and re-tell the narrative of one of the most shameful chapters of 20thcentury life in order to prevent its recurrence. Aratani died last week at age 95.
Perhaps the most notable of the many UCLA gifts from Aratani and his wife, Sakaye, was one that endowed the nation’s first academic chair devoted specifically to the study of the internment and the decades-long, post-war efforts by Japanese Americans for redress.
Dr. Lane Hirabayashi, a UCLA professor who holds the endowed chair named for the Aratanis, calls his position “a dream come true.”
Dr. David Yoo, a UCLA professor and director of its Asian American Studies Center, adds that “faculty, staff and students have benefited tremendously from the generosity and vision of the Aratanis.”
In 2004, George Aratani was awarded the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor, in recognition of the magnitude of his philanthropy across multiple areas of the institution.
Still, Aratani’s deep, wartime losses made his transformative gifts to UCLA all the more profound, school officials say. After the war, the notion of Aratani ever accumulating enough wealth to afford such donations may have seemed inconceivable.
A California native, Aratani grew up in the town of Guadalupe, where his father ran a thriving produce farm and distribution business that allowed him to branch into interests such as fertilizers and pig farming. The teen-age Aratani wanted to attend a U.S. college but was overruled by his father, who sent him to Japan to learn language and culture. There, he attended Keio University.
When his father fell ill, the bilingual and bicultural Aratani returned to California and, after his father’s death, took charge of the family business.
But following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the ensuing national hysteria and xenophobia, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the fateful Executive Order 9066 singling out people of Japanese descent. The measure called for mass removal of Japanese Americans from their homes, workplaces and schools. Some 120,000 people such as Aratani and his relatives were herded into hastily-arranged camps where they lived in cramped conditions arguably unfit for animals, much less humans, as armed guards kept watch. Aratani’s future wife, Sakaye, had to live at a camp as well.
While in a camp, Aratani was forced to surrender his family’s business to non-Japanese associates and lost everything. He was permitted to become a civilian language instructor for the U.S. government’s Military Intelligence Service and taught Japanese to soldiers. But he had already contracted coccidioidomycosis, a respiratory ailment caused by fungus resulting from his prolonged exposure to dust inside the camp.
After the war, he started over, relying on business acumen honed under his father’s tutelage. He went on to launch Mikasa, a brand of popular, contemporary tableware sold in department stores throughout this country. He also founded Kenwood, which sold Japanese-made electronics such as car stereos. His third company exported U.S.-made medical supplies and equipment to Japan.
As benefactors, Aratani and his wife established an endowment that finances community internships at Japanese American museums, senior healthcare facilities and nonprofit organizations so that UCLA undergraduates can work in fields as wide-ranging as gerontology, art history, public health and social welfare. A fellowship endowed by the couple allows UCLA graduate students to explore the Japanese American experience through research or creative projects. And yet another Aratani endowment supports individuals who partner with UCLA faculty and students on initiatives that benefit and advance Japanese Americans nationally such as completing archival projects, collecting data on pressing social issues and producing educational symposia on- and off-campus.
“Despite George’s outstanding successes as an entrepreneur, he never forgot his life experiences as an American of Japanese ancestry,” says Dr. Tritia Toyota, a UCLA adjunct assistant professor of anthropology and Asian American studies and the Asian American Studies Center’s research scholar. “Both he and Sakaye have given back to our community in countless ways; their generosity, sense of responsibility and spirit will continue to guide our endeavors.”
Aratani and his wife have been donors to East Asian studies, too. Officials say an Aratani endowment has supported field research in Japan by 40-plus UCLA graduate students.
In addition to UCLA, the couple has been similarly supportive of community organizations, museums and sports history projects that target Japanese American audiences.
A memorial service for Aratani is set for Saturday in Los Angeles.