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Transforming Tragedy Through Philanthropy

This is an excerpt from the July/August 2001 Advancing Philanthropy feature, "The Donor's Turn."

Japanese American philanthropist George Aratani grew up in a small agricultural town in central California, never expecting to leave the family farming business. Then World War II intervened, and Aratani's entire family was interned. They lost everything they owned.

This searing experience lies at the root of Aratani's giving: His goal is to help institutions involved with Japanese Americans help others with similar legacies of discrimination and loss. 'They, too, went through trying and difficult times,' he explains simply. That's a modest description of the price Japanese Americans paid during the internment and its aftermath, but then, his colleagues agree that George Aratani is a modest man.

William H. 'Mo' Marumoto, president of Interface Group, a Washington, DC, executive search firm, has served on several boards with Aratani over three decades. 'Although he has made numerous major contributions to a number of organizations, he keeps a low profile about his giving,' Marumoto says. 'But he is incredibly generous.

' In the postwar era, Aratani founded two highly successful American businesses, Mikasa Chinaware and Kenwood Electronics. Aratani wanted others to share the benefits of his success when, as he says, 'I became fortunate enough to be in a position to help.' Using the wisdom gained from his wartime tragedies, Aratani began the work that 30 years later has enriched and changed untold lives.

A vision comes to life

Aratani and the institutions he supports see the history of Japanese Americans as one of overcoming prejudice and fear. Telling that story will benefit all Americans by fostering a climate of mutual understanding and respect. Although Aratani supports some Pan Asian and some national causes, he directs his giving predominantly to Japanese American organizations in the greater Los Angeles area -- many in that city's historic Little Tokyo district. Through major contributions, continuing support, and everyday ventures like raffles, his generosity spans the entire spectrum. The beneficiaries are too numerous to name, but the following three stand out:

  • The Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
  • The National Japanese American Memorial in Washington, DC.
  • The Asian American Studies Center at UCLAA.

New legacy of hope

In the words of Don Nakanishi, Ph.D., professor and director of the Asian American Studies Center, 'The image and knowledge that most Americans had of Japanese Americans was so limited and distorted that it was possible to make wild things believable. So it's up to Japanese Americans to tell their story. The Center makes history come alive.'

'George has a real passion and unflinching commitment to the Japanese American community,' Nakanishi says. 'He takes his responsibilities as a board member very seriously. Having seen how isolated Japanese Americans were from the mainstream and how easy it was to demonize them, he feels he has to do this for the community.'

'The breadth of George's giving is unusual,' agrees Irene Hirano, president and executive director of the Museum. 'He looks across the range of Japanese American organizations and supports them at varying levels.' Noting that Aratani's contributions go far beyond money, Hirano relates that Aratani was a major architect of the Museum's philosophy. 'He knew it was critical to build a strong base of support for the museum within the Japanese American community first,' she says. 'Without that in place, there would have been no hope of success in soliciting other sectors, such as foundations and corporations.'

The impressive breadth of his vision is matched only by his extraordinary ability to effect change. From prejudice and injustice, desolate concentration camps, impounded wealth, and savaged spirits, he has created a living legacy of fulfillment and achievement. Marumoto sums up the view of the people and institutions fortunate enough to know and work with Aratani: 'Everything about George is positive.'

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