An elderly Japanese man wearing a navy blue sweater smiles softly and looks down and away from the camera. He is Kenji Onishi

The Penn Charter community was honored to host a virtual presentation on May 18 by Kenji Onishi, a Japanese American who shared his story of living in a Japanese internment camp and spoke of the ways in which the experience informed his adult life.

Onishi, born in 1927, recalled a carefree and happy boyhood in Portland, Oregon. With his father working on the railroad, he had access to travel the railways at will or spend afternoons and evenings with friends after school.

By the time Pearl Harbor was bombed, a young Kenji Onishi would have been getting ready for high school, but was instead deciding which items he and his many siblings would place inside their suitcase before leaving, for an indefinite period of time, for Portland Assembly Center and eventually the Minidoka Relocation Camp in Idaho. His family was among many tens of thousands of Japanese Americans denied basic rights as US citizens and incarcerated in desolate camps. The story stirred many audience members as evidenced by heartfelt questions that poured into the Zoom chat box. 

Kenji Onishi pointed out that, to him, the most troubling aspect of the times was the extent to which lies about Japanese Americans were pushed. To the surprise of many, when asked about life after internment camps, he said, “Given the chance, I was determined to show them whose side I was on,” and he enlisted in the US Army shortly after leaving Minidoka. After serving in the military, he returned to Portland to become a school teacher.

Head of School Darryl J. Ford, as well as others, praised the clarity of his storytelling and the positive outlook he maintained over the course of a lifetime. Without a doubt, the evening brought a sense of community, gratefulness, and a fresh perspective. 

Holly Price, a Penn Charter parent, along with the hard work and arrangements made by PC Assistant Director of Upper School Lee Payton, made the evening possible. The event was hosted by Penn Charter’s Asian Student Alliance. PC was pleased to share the virtual event with friends from Germantown Friends School.