I am greatly saddened to have recently learned of the passing of Akira (Ken) Nakano. I was informed of his passing by a charming Japanese elder statesman while waiting for a flight in the Oakland airport. I couldn’t help notice that this gentleman made use of a beautiful wooden walking stick. When I saw the beautiful cane, I asked him about its origin, and from there, we began to talk as we waited to board a flight to Seattle.
Sage: A Connection
He told me that his walking stick was made of sage, and was one of many created over long years of internment by Japanese American citizens imprisoned during the War in a desert camp. I was well acquainted with the qualities of sage, having grown up in Richland, Washington, in the vastness of the desert of Eastern Washington. My childhood is filled with memories of violent sandstorms, of raging winds flinging massive sagebrush missiles down the streets of town.
As we continued to speak together, we realized that we both knew an amazing man, Ken Nakano. It was through Ken’s community service with the Japanese American communities in Seattle that this man with the walking stick had gotten to know Ken.
It was Richland, place of desert sage, that established my connection to Ken Nakano. He was kind, intelligent, quick with a smile, and so down to earth that it was always hard for me to believe he had survived the horrors of the bombing of Hiroshima.
To One Man
As a child of Richland, I grew up next to the Hanford facility. Hanford produced plutonium for the nuclear weapons detonated over Japan. Hanford’s plutonium served as the trigger for the nuclear bomb which decimated Nagasaki in August of 1945. Ken never held my parents’ role in bomb making against me. He saw me, rather, as someone who, like him, was forced to cope on a daily basis with the health effects of radiation exposure.
I am a “Downwinder.” I bear the scars of total thyroidectomy and the other health issues that result from childhood exposure to radioactive iodine and the other radioactive substances released from Hanford.
Ken made me aware of common issues in the plight of Japanese nuclear bomb survivors and of those of us exposed to radiation released from Manhattan Project atomic bomb production and testing sites. He shared with me, and my fellow Downwinders, all that Japanese survivors (“Hibakusha”) had endured. He taught us about the lifetime medical care provided to Hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the government of Japan, and about the effort it had taken to secure that care. Ken encouraged Hanford downwinders to seek medical care from our own government for the injuries our exposures had caused.
An American Hibakusha
Ken introduced me to Hibakusha who now live in the US, and he arranged for me to travel to Japan to speak with Hibakusha there, and to consult with medical professionals who care for the Hibakusha.
Ken came to California to visit with my husband (also “Ken”), our children, and our neighbors as he traveled in California working on community service projects. We loved spending this time with him.
We were so pleased when Ken received the Jefferson Award in 1997 to honor his community service in securing redress for Japanese Americans who had been held in internment camps during WWII and for his efforts assisting the Hanford Downwinders in our attempts to receive some modicum of justice for the injuries we have suffered.
Ken was a warm, intelligent, and wonderful human being who contributed so much to the lives of so many.
He will be greatly missed.