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April 2017


Sketches in Courage: The Drawings of Artist Jack Yamasaki

Jack YamasakiIn the spring of 1943, Thomas Kinaga of San Jose, California, found himself incarcerated with thousands of other Japanese Americans on a barren plain in the shadow of Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Despite the sweeping violation of their Constitutional rights during World War II, some Nisei men volunteered for the U.S. military from concentration camps. Kinaga, age 20, was among them.

Kinaga's parents cried but did not try to dissuade him from serving, which Kinaga felt was essential to prove that the Nisei were loyal Americans. He served with Company M, heavy weapons unit, 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, battling through Italy and surviving the now-legendary fight to rescue the Texas Lost Battalion.

After the war, Kinaga studied electrical engineering at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, married, moved to Los Angeles, and raised a family with his wife, Rose, whom he had met at a Heart Mountain camp dance. He occasionally spoke to his three children of his wartime experiences, and brought home books about the incarceration and the history of the 100th/442nd and Military Intelligence Service.

In 1974, Kinaga was president of the 442nd Veterans Association of Southern California, which hosted gatherings where Nisei veterans basked in the camaraderie that bound them in a lifelong brotherhood. At one event, a fellow Heart Mountain veteran approached Kinaga carrying a stack of old drawings, including one of Kinaga himself from 1943. "Here," he told Kinaga, "see if you can find some of the guys who volunteered with you." He gave no other clues, no further information about the black-and-white images of several brave young men.

Kinaga labored for years to identify his comrades. He reached out to Nisei veterans' groups, filed through old records and even cold-called families. Slowly, he penciled in names on a few of the drawings, but eventually hit dead ends. He set them aside among his personal papers, saying nothing about them to his children.

Kinaga's daughter Patricia, a lawyer in Los Angeles, recalls the day that her father showed her the sketch of himself as a 20-year-old. "I had no idea this portrait even existed," she said. Her father passed away soon afterward in 2010, at age 87.

Fast forward to May 2016, when Patricia Kinaga volunteered to help with the grand opening of GFBNEC's Defining Courage Exhibition and brought her mother to the celebration. "My mother gave me a Nordstrom shopping bag, and these pictures were in it," she recalls. "She told me, 'You know, I've got all of these portraits, and I'd like to donate them to Go For Broke.' I had never seen them, but she had been waiting for the right time and the right repository for them." The Kinagas then generously donated the Yamasaki sketches with the hope that GFBNEC could help to identify the soldiers and, perhaps, reunite the portraits with the veterans or their families.

In May 1943, at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, Jack Chikamichi Yamasaki took out his 12-by-17-inch sketch pad and lead pencils and began to draw. His subject: a young Nisei man barely out of his teens who had just volunteered for the Army.

The noted Issei artist captured his subject's serious, clean-shaven face, jaw set with determination over an open-collar work shirt. Later, the 39-year-old artist sat another soldier down-a dignified young man in a suit and tie, looking resolutely through rimless glasses-and continued to draw. Then another. And another. Yamasaki skillfully captured perhaps a dozen or more pencil images, one by one. On some, he inscribed the soldiers' names; other drawings remained nameless.

Today, some of those delicate, yellowing sketches provide a mystery-the identities of a handful of young Heart Mountain warriors from more than 70 years ago.

Jack Yamasaki was considerably older and more worldly than the young recruits that he sketched. A native of Kagoshima, Japan, Yamasaki immigrated to the U.S. at age 18 and later studied at the California School of Fine Arts. In the early 1930s, he found his way to Woodstock, NY, and studied at the Art Students League. His art was included in several group exhibitions through the 1930s, and he became known for his work in oil paint, sculpture and drawing.

While it's impossible to say what inspired Yamasaki to draw the Nisei soldiers, clues may lie in his social activism. Yamasaki was one of 54 signers of the Call for the American Artists Congress in 1936, a leftist artists' initiative that opposed war and the burgeoning fascism in Europe. He returned to the West Coast and was living in Los Angeles in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. During his incarceration at Heart Mountain, Yamasaki painted works that illustrated daily life in camp and drew illustrations for the camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel.

Today, Yamasaki's works reside in institutions and private collections around the country, including the Japanese American National Museum. "Jack Yamasaki was my father's uncle," said Lynn Yamasaki, School Programs Director for the Museum, who holds a bachelor's degree in art history. Although she was too young to have known her great-uncle well, Lynn Yamasaki grew up surrounded by his artwork. In 2015, she discovered that the Museum's collections include some of her great-uncle's paintings and sketches.

Yamasaki said that while her great-uncle had an affinity for portraiture, she had not known of the drawings before GFBNEC reached out to her in January 2017. "He had a strong sense of what was right and may have done it as a gesture of respect," she says.

Summer Espinoza, GFBNEC's former Director of Archives and Special Collections, has been combing through archives, concentration camp records and the internet for clues. The tentative identifications of the Yamasaki portraits include: Bobby S. Tasaka, Dick Kawamoto, Ernest Kitagawa, George Hata, Masao Okamoto, Hiroshi "Ben" Kamada, Don Matsuda, and Noboru Tsutsumi. Two other images remain nameless- one of a clean-shaven man with a sculpted jawline gazing away from the viewer, and a second whose deep-set eyes and full mouth convey a sense of stoic reserve.

Espinoza has identified one of the ten sketches definitively: Don Matsuda's high cheekbones and sweep of thick hair remain recognizable in GFBNEC's Hanashi Oral History video interview recorded some 50 years after Matsuda headed to combat.

Don Matsuda's daughter, law professor Mari Matsuda, confirmed that the signature at the bottom of the sketch is her father's. "My dad and I both knew Jack Yamasaki," she says. "I was just a kid in Los Angeles during the 1960s, and I remember him as sweet, always smiling, and very social."

Both Yamasaki and Don Matsuda were engaged in leftist and progressive political circles, she says, and vehemently opposed Hitler and the spread of fascism. "Given the level of casualties in the war, I think artist and subject were both aware that this might be their last portrait," Mari Matsuda says. "Many Nisei soldiers never came home."

Update: Since this story first ran in the Spring 2017 edition of the Torch, GFBNEC has been hearing from people around the country with possible leads. Through readers' diligence, we have been in contact with the family of the late Dick Kawamoto, whose adult children are living in California. We will continue to write more about each veteran's personal and family story as the search continues.

Editor's Note: The story of Yamasaki's drawings will be continued as more facts and details are uncovered. GFBNEC is also asking for any help in identifying and offering additional detail about the portraits. If you have any information regarding these sketches, please contact Gavin Do at


Go For Broke National Education Center (GFBNEC) is asking the public for help in identifying and offering additional detail about the two unnamed portraits above. If you have any information regarding these sketches, please contact Gavin Do, GFBNEC's Acting Director of Archives and Special Collections, at

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