About Art Ishii

This video is part of a series of interviews with Japanese American Veterans of the Vietnam War - folks who also came out of the war and became involved in the Asian American Movement and participated in pro peace actions.

Art Ishii is sensei of the Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu Dojo of Little Tokyo and a community leader in the Japanese American community.  This is a brief interview highlighting some of his stories and memories of growing up in Los Angeles, entering the Vietnam War and coming back to education and activism in the early days of the Asian American Movement.

The Story of Art Ishii

Told By: Daniel Kim, Jarred Kozaki, Jessica Nguyen, Man Wong

L to R: Man Wong, Daniel Kim, Art Ishii, Jessica Nguyen, and Jarred Kozaki

L to R: Man Wong, Daniel Kim, Art Ishii, Jessica Nguyen, and Jarred Kozaki


Our group had the great pleasure of interviewing Art Ishii.  Art Ishii is a distinguished community leader and Vietnam War veteran who has been a driving force in the Japanese American community for many decades.  However, in order to understand the man Art Ishii is today, we must first take a look at some his life experiences.  The story of Art Ishii begins with his involvement in the gang called the “Ministers,” where Japanese Americans joined together on the West side of Los Angeles.  His association with a gang was uncommon for many adolescent Japanese Americans.  However, Art knew he was different from many of his peers because he would not tolerate the injustices that his fellow Asian American schoolmates endured on every December 7th.  Because December 7th was the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, many White Americans took the liberty to beat up Asian Americans at school.  As a result, many Asian American children stayed home from school in order to avoid getting beat up by White kids at school.  Despite this, Art and his gang of friends did not stand for this injustice and took it upon themselves to go out and return the favor by beating up White kids as a way to send a message.  The remnants of injustice that Art, his family members, and fellow Japanese Americans experienced in the Internment Camps continued on throughout his life.  However, Art did not let the racism and discrimination stop him from fighting back.

Even though, “[the] Whole Japanese thing was just don’t cause problems, just go with the flow which, [to Art], it is what put their asses in the camps in the first place…but [Art and his gang] were a different way.”  He recognized the abuse he received as a form of oppression that he did not want other Japanese Americans to have to face.  The bigotry directed at Japanese Americans was based on a false pretense because many Japanese Americans had family members fight for their shared country of the United States of America.  Art’s own father was part of Military Intelligence (MIS), which marched along side Mao Zedong.  Also, on Art’s mother’ side, her brothers fought in the famous 442 Regimental Combat Team, and to this day, Art’s uncle is still missing in action from the war in Korea.  Thus, Art knew that his family was loyal to the United States, but because he was perceived as a “foreigner” and a person of color, he was not treated and respected in a way that all Japanese Americans deserve to be treated.

The heroes of Art’s era were mainly White men who Art could not identify with because he knew that the movies portraying these White heroes were discriminatory toward the Asian community.  While many of Art’s classmates considered John Wayne as their hero, Art looked to the Samurais he saw at the theater.  For him these Samurais not only looked like him, but he also thought that it was “Cool to see a strong Asian presence, particularly after the war…[because] Japanese Americans [were] self conscious… ”  Thus, looking toward these Samurais as not only physically relatable figures, but as men who stood as strong and confident individuals, which gave Art a new sense of courage to not fear being a person of color and of worth.

Art reminds people that, “You know John Wayne was a hero –a great American hero–but the way we look at it is well every time you saw John Wayne in a movie he was killing a Jap, bombing a Jap, bayoneting a Jap, dropping torpedoes on us—he was killing an Asian.  He was a superior white guy.”  Thus, it becomes understandable that a Japanese American like Art cannot identify himself with this man who claims to be proud of killing people of Japanese descent.  Even if Japanese Americans or any person of color looked toward John Wayne as a hero, it was apparent that “None of us would ever be mistaken for John Wayne.”  Art knew he could not change the way he looked, but he could change the way others looked at him.
The animosity and racist mentality of many White Americans took a toll on these Japanese Americans socially, physically, and psychologically.  After returning from the Camps, many Japanese Americans developed the philosophy in response to their traumatizing experience.  They would often tell their children, “You have to prove that you are as good as white people.”  The concept of “out-whiting the whites” was the driving model of Art’s generation.  Many Japanese Americans were then pushed to excel in school and prove they “are worthy Americans.”  But for Art, being treated as a second-class citizen was not something he could stand for.

His anger manifested in gang violence and retaliation.  Excelling in school was not a priority or a concern for him because in high school he knew he was not college bound.  Therefore, most of Art’s time was spent with the Ministers fighting with their rival gangs on the East side of Los Angeles.  In one extreme altercation with an East Los Angeles gang, a gunfight broke out outside of a local bowling ally.  Art’s name appeared on the LAPD wanted list for jail, but fortunately Art’s uncle worked on the LAPD and helped clear Art’s name.  Nonetheless, Art’s uncle told him that in order to clear his name, he had to get out of town.  Today, Art confesses that even if he was not busted then, he would have been busted later.  It was his lifestyle that would have eventually led him to a run in with the police.  Thus, Art took the opportunity to “get out of town” by joining the Air Force.

Art Ishii had a successful career in the United States Air Force.  His experience in the military was life changing and mind-altering.  Today, he serves as a community leader in his town where is he is seen as a role model for the youth as well as his peers.  The distinguished and honorable man that he is now, however, is a far picture of the young boy that he was only a few decades ago.  During his adolescent years, his association with gangs led him to make poor choices that put him in unfortunate situations with the law.  Ultimately, due to his multiple offenses, he was forced to make a decision between joining the military and going to jail.  For a growing young man, this choice did not come with hesitation.  Before he knew it, he was enlisting to join the United States Air Force, humorously not for their prestige and honor, but rather for their cool uniforms.  At first, the idea seemed adventurous and exciting, but upon arriving to boot camp in Texas, his opinion quickly changed.  His environment was no longer made up with the close brothers that he once had, but rather, it was filled with unfamiliar faces that did not resemble his own.  Soon, he found out that he not only was the only Asian American on base but that most of the people there had never seen an Asian American before.  This feeling of isolation made him feel a deep sense of loneliness.

Fortunately his friend from home, a fellow Asian American, joined him on base and everything changed.
As a duo, they were able to rely on each other to create a better life on base.  It became easier to assimilate with the other men and they gathered a large group of friends.  This however, did not replace the sense of home he felt when he was among other Asian Americans.  After three years in Texas, Art’s desperation to leave lead him to request a transfer to Vietnam during the time when Vietnam was at the brink of war and no soldier wanted to be transferred there due to the high risk that was associated with it.  His request was denied but instead he was assigned to Okinawa, Japan.  Although it was not his first choice, Art still felt grateful to leave Texas. When he was about to leave, his superior officer told him that his assignment was once again moved from Okinawa, Japan to Tachikawa, Japan.  This was good news to him because just like his younger days, he was once again going to be living in a big city with Tokyo being just a few minutes away from Tachikawa.  Once again, Art’s life took a big turn for the better.

The time he spent at Tachikawa was one of the best times of his life. There, he was able to live life as a Japanese American in Japan and nothing felt better.  His ethnicity and culture became helpful in sticky situations where he was able to act as one of the locals when he needed to but when the situation called for it, he was also able to act as a visiting military man. This advantage of finally being able to blend into his environment was a gift he truly appreciated. During the end of his military career, he was given a temporary assigned duty in Vietnam. There he spent two weeks completing tasks that he did not expect.  He was disappointed that he was not able to fight in the front of the battle lines but rather he was assigned to perform behind-the-scene tasks he did not necessarily associate with war.  He did, however, still feel the great impact of war.  During one visit at the hospital, he witnessed a bloody scene of wounded soldiers. Vividly, he painted a scene of blood and gore – with one soldier suffering from a wound on his chest so large that there was a hole that you could see through and another soldier missing a leg.  With this experience, he returned home.

From the very beginning of his military career, Art’s life in the Air Force led him to a path that ultimately shaped the person that he is today.  His experience in boot camp opened his eyes to a much larger picture of the world that his hometown could not have offered.  Indeed, Asian Americans were a minority in the United States and felt intense discrimination.  However, Asian Americans were not the only minority group that experienced this prejudice but so did blacks.  In Texas, he witnessed numerous racial injustices such as separating water fountains only for blacks and only for whites.  There, he also experienced racial riots that further showed him the growing issue of discrimination.  Carrying this information with him, his time in Japan felt even better.  Free from discrimination, Art felt like a prisoner who was finally set free from his chains.  Today, he works to give Asian Americans this wonderful gift of freedom and self-identity.

Art returned to Los Angeles after the war. He had no trouble transitioning to civilian life and it was also easy for his wife, a Japanese national, because of Los Angele’s big Japanese population.   He recalls that the transition was serene because he was gainfully employed.  The Ministers, along with Art were able to assimilate back into their regular lives.  They were involved in some street bawls, but not “a gang kind of thing.”  Some Japanese women married GIs who moved their lives to the Midwest or other regions of America with a low Japanese American or Asian American population.  Art recalls, “I always felt sorry for those GIs who married those Japanese and ended up in like Tennessee or Wyoming or some place where there are no Japanese.”  In those situations, transitioning back to civilian life must have been difficult.
Many Vietnam War Veterans personalize their experiences and never tell their stories to anyone.  People will ask Art to speak about his experiences in Vietnam.  “Shit, how can I mention something like this?  Someone can look into this and say, well you’re talking atrocities, what the fuck did you see? What did you see and what did you do?”  Art Ishii talked about how Bradley Manning, the private arrested for divulging secret military intelligence to Wikileaks, paid the price for breaking the code of honor, in addition to breaking the legally binding statutes for all soldiers.  Art said that he was bound by a code of honor, and that if the country gave him a top-secret clearance, he could not talk about it.  From the onset, Art understood that knowing the truth behind President Nixon’s promise not to invade Cambodia was false, but his position in military intelligence would not allow him to tell anyone.

A lot of us were in the same situation, but we couldn’t say, “Hey man, that’s not true what the president’s saying.” I was bound, you know, honor bound, or legally bound. You never know, you’re involved in intelligence in the military, and you don’t know how long the statute is on that. They’ll come after my ass on that.  You know it’s strange when every action in the military has written orders. When you’re put into actionable environment without written orders. You don’t want any written trail. (Art Ishii)

The attention toward post-traumatic stress disorder has grown with the progression of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  However, when Vietnam Veterans were returning home from war, they were not given the necessary outlets to emotionally debrief.  Many soldiers who return from the war are not always given the proper channels to express their emotions and opportunities to find and nurture their emotional stability.  Art Ishii believed that many soldiers return from the war and unbeknownst to their feelings of normalcy have serious problems that need to be addressed.  It may take many years to resurface, but the baggage from the war will always stay with the veterans.

When you’re personally engaged in something like that, something’s are going to be universally true.  Even the toughest macho guy is affected by that shit. The thing is, often times, I’ve learned this from the VA, it won’t manifest itself immediately, and you could be totally unaffected, and 30 years later, something happened.  All the little things come back to you and it becomes an issue and you might realize that its been 30 years since you got out of the service man, and you can’t stand a relationship, or you have trouble trusting people, or you have like an uncommon sense of urgency about everything or an uncommon sense of mortality and anger. (Art Ishii)

After all these years, Art still continues to volunteer his time and energy to give back to the community.  On weeknights, he is a Karate instructor at Centenary United Methodist Church located in the heart of Little Tokyo.  By volunteering to teach Karate to the youth, Art is able to provide a positive influence in the lives of many children in the community.  A main focus of his class is teaching the youth the importance of appreciating and being proud of their Asian American history.  He believes that by possessing a positive image of yourself, it will allow you to become more considerate and compassionate to others.  He teaches his students that the most important thing is to help one another.  By helping one another, his student’s will not only bring out the best in others, but in themselves as well.  Art not only teaches his students the art of kicking and punching but more importantly, he teaches them valuable life lessons.

Art is also currently involved in an organization called Asian American Vietnam Veterans Organization (AAVVO).  AAVVO is not your typical flag waving organization that only promotes popular issues.  Whereas most veteran organizations have a blind sense of patriotism and do not question the government, AAVVO stands up for social issues that they believe in, even if it goes against popular opinion.  In 2005, AAVVO came together to support Lieutenant Watada.  Lieutenant Watada was the first officer to refuse deployment to Iraq and faced a number of serious charges such as slandering the President of the United States and refusing orders from superiors.  Before he was supposed to deploy to Iraq, his superiors told him that he needed to learn everything that there was to know about the Iraq War.  After thoroughly studying the war, Lieutenant Watada concluded that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the Iraq War was unjust and illegal.  Lieutenant Watada therefore refused to deploy to Iraq, but agreed to deploy to anywhere else, including Afghanistan.  Other groups and organizations claimed that Lieutenant Watada was not loyal to the United States and was a coward.  AAVVO stood up for what they believed was right, and full heartedly supported Lieutenant Watada.  Art and other members of AAVVO participated in fundraisers, rallies, and demonstrations to fight for the justice of Lieutenant Watada.  If other soldiers stand up for what they believe in like Lieutenant Watada, it can eliminate the atrocities that are occurring because of the war.

It was also very interesting to learn that AAVVO supports issues that are not related to military issues as well.  Art gave an example where AAVVO supported this Asian American from Orange County who was arrested at a rally.  Being the only Asian at the rally, the police singled him out and arrested him.  They claimed that he was throwing rocks at the police; therefore, they were going to make an example out of him.  AAVVO found about this case, and came together to support him.  With AAVVO’s support, he was able to successfully beat the charges.  It is very noble and comforting that there are still organizations like AAVVO that are not afraid to go against the status quo in order promote social justice and equality in the community.

Toward the end of our interview, our group asked Art what he was most proud of doing for the community.  For someone who has been so influential in the Asian American community, you would think this question would be easy to answer.  However, he took a moment to think about it, and simply said, “That would be un-Asian like for me to answer.”  That response sums up Art’s humble and modest character.  Later on, Art confided to us that if he had to choose, starting the Yellow Brotherhood was what he was most proud of.

After Art got back from the Vietnam War, there was a drug epidemic in the Asian American community. Young Asian American’s were dying of drug overdoses and there were also high rates of suicide due to depression.  As a way to combat these issues, Art co-founded the Yellow Brotherhood as way to help the youth deal with their problems.  Being an original member of the Ministers, the younger generations looked up to Art and his fellow crew.  Art used this influence to become a mentor to them and as a way to create positive change within their lives.  Yellow Brotherhood was a way to keep the youth away from drugs and gang life by creating extra-curricular activities such as boxing classes, weight lifting classes, tutoring sessions, and basketball and volleyball leagues.  By creating these extra-curricular activities, the Yellow Brotherhood was able to create a close-knit bond of people who supported and cared for one another.  Today, Yellow Brotherhood is still active but not in sense of a typical organization.  They do not have an office or membership cards, however, just like AAVVO, when they see inequalities that exist within the community, they come together and rally to support the cause.

At the end of our interview, Art concluded by telling us that it is extremely important to be proud of our Asian American heritage.  All too often, Asian Americans develop a false sense of comfort, and ignore the racial inequalities that existed in the past.  Since the Asian American community lacks vigilance, racial inequalities will continue to persist.  It was not long ago that our ancestors were imprisoned in internment camps, and the term “Gook” was accepted as common language.  As Asian Americans, it is important for us to realize that there is something uniquely different about us, and instead of being ashamed of it; it is something that we should embrace and take pride in.  By being proud of who we are, it will allow us to become more compassionate and considerate to others.