Big Rapids sixth-graders speak with veteran

Big Rapids Middle School sixth-grade students filled Cardinal Hall on Tuesday to speak with Ken and Mary Nishiyama over Skype about the trials they have faced throughout their lives, including living in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. World geography teacher Mark Brejcha said the conversation was an opportunity for students to gain empathy toward different people groups and learn more about an important time in history. (Pioneer photos/Taylor Fussman)

BIG RAPIDS — Ken Nishiyama has lived a tumultuous life, from spending much of his young life in a Japanese-American internment camp following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to becoming a decorated veteran with the U.S. Air Force. On Tuesday, a group of local students had the opportunity to learn from his years of wisdom.

Big Rapids Middle School sixth-grade students filled Cardinal Hall to participate in a Skype conversation with Nishiyama and his wife Mary to speak about the trials the couple has faced throughout their lives.

Mark Brejcha, sixth-grade world geography teacher, explained he chose to educate his students on the internment of Japanese-Americans, or the forced relocation and incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, in conjunction with the curriculum regarding the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We observe Pearl Harbor Day, but I added to that remembrance by adding what happened in America right after with the Japanese internment,” he said, noting he wanted to help the students understand empathy toward all people groups.

“This breaks down barriers and it’s very important for them to learn,” he said.

Sabina Walker asks Ken Nishiyama what his early childhood life and family was like on Tuesday.

During the conversation, students were allotted time to ask a variety of questions to learn more about Nishiyama. These questions included what he remembers about having to leave his home to be brought to a camp, what the living conditions were like at these internment camps, his service with the U.S. Air Force and whether he feels bitterness toward his experiences.

Despite sharing stories about only being given 72 hours to pack and dispose of their belongings before being removed from their home, sharing a small hut with several families at a time and being released only to find they had no home to go back to, Ken and Mary said they are not resentful.

“We’ve had a great life. We’ve had an exciting life,” Mary said.

Several students expressed their gratitude toward the Nishiyamas for sharing part of their story, including Sabina Walker, who appreciated the chance to learn about such an important time in history.

“I liked talking to them because it was interesting to learn about people from the past. It’s not something a lot of people get to do,” she said.

Sixth-grade students speak with Ken Nishiyama about his service with the U.S. Air Force over Skype.

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