George Aratani died Feb. 19 at age 95 from complications of pneumonia. He was a philanthropist, community leader and business pioneer who overcame the injustices of World War II Japanese-American incarceration.
"He was synonymous with financial support for almost every cause in the Japanese-American community," said Bill Watanabe of the Little Tokyo Service Center.
While most Southern Californians may not be familiar with the Aratani name, they've probably purchased a piece of his Mikasa tableware or have heard of Kenwood Electronics. They are just two of his many successful companies, yet his business prowess what's earned him a coveted place in American history.
In 1942, he and 120,000 other persons of Japanese ancestry were forced into camps run by the federal government.
"They really felt betrayed, because as Americans - as loyal Americans - I think it was very hurtful for them to be incarcerated in this fashion," says UCLA's Dr. Lane Hirabayashi.
Hirabayashi holds a special endowed chair and professorship created by Aratani and his wife, Sakaye, to study the Japanese-American incarceration and redress. The half-million-dollar educational endowment is unique in higher education.
"It's the only one in the United States at an American university to have a professor dedicated to teaching about the mass incarceration, the camps, the constitutional violations and the injustices," Hirabayashi said.
Aratani's biography, "American Son," details the losses his family endured during the 1940s. Despite that, he chose to serve his country as an interpreter in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service.
Aratani believed preserving the history of what happened during the war would help ensure such injustices would never happen again. His foundation annually funds research projects and organizations that further this mission.
Through his guidance and contributions, Aratani restored numerous historical buildings in Little Tokyo and was key to the creation of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, as well as other community organizations.
Aratani lived his last days at the Keiro Senior HealthCare center he founded. Aligned with his legacy, it's a nursing facility where Japanese-American culture, respect and the human spirit are all valued.
"They say people like him maybe come only once in a lifetime," Watanabe said. "For my lifetime, he's the role model, he's the one that everybody looks up to in terms of what it means to give back to the community."