GRACE OBATA AMEMIYA kept alive, for many Iowans, the story of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II for more than 70 years.
Countless times Amemiya had shared her firsthand experience of the impact of this controversial chapter of American wartime history — always told without a trace of bitterness, but instead with a spirit of advocacy for peace and justice. In 2016, she was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2015, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs honored her with the Foreign Minister’s Commendation in Honor of the 70th Anniversary of the End of the War, for her contributions to promote mutual understanding and friendship.
Amemiya’s parents came to the United States from Japan in the early 1900s. The youngest of five children, she was born in Vacaville, California. In 1942, she was a 21-year-old nursing student in San Francisco when President Roosevelt authorized the detainment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps where they endured extremely hard living conditions. Amemiya spent a year in an Arizona camp, using her nursing skills to care for the elderly and ailing.
After her release, Amemiya finished nursing school in Minnesota and trained in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps at an Army hospital in Clinton, Iowa.
She married Minoru (Min) Amemiya, a long-lost friend who also spent time in an internment camp. Min received his Master’s and PhD at The Ohio State University, where she nursed. After his graduation, they moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, and in 1960, they moved to Ames where they raised two sons, one with special needs. Min worked as a USDA research soil scientist and Iowa State University agronomy professor and extension agronomist. He contributed greatly to soil management practices that protect Iowa soils and was a leader in soil conservation and conservation education.
For years, Grace and Min Amemiya told their stories together, educating many school children and adults about the internment camps. After Min died in 2000, Grace continued to speak about her experiences.
“I am thankful to have been recognized by many organizations over the years and try to live by the philosophy to treat others as you would like to be treated,” she said.
Amemiya was very involved in Faculty Women’s Club, PEO, Lion’s Club, Special Olympics, Collegiate Presbyterian Church, and the Japan-American Society.
“I met many friends and have presented many programs to schools and civic organizations about the Internment,” she said. “I hope my message is that we never want something similar to happen again in the United States.”
Grace Amemiya passed away on July 22, 2017 at the age of 96.
Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Wendy Wintersteen (2016): Grace Amemiya is a personal hero. For many years, she told the story of her firsthand experiences in the World War II Japanese internment camps, keeping this chapter of our national history alive and educating thousands. She did so with her husband, the late Min Amemiya, an Iowa State agronomy professor, extension agronomist and USDA soil scientist, who endured the same experiences during the war.