As a boy in California, Yoshio Manuel Matsunami gave up more than three years of freedom to pay for the sins of his father’s native country, Japan.
Matsunami graduated from high school in 1945 at the Topaz War Relocation Center in central Utah, an internment camp built in 1942 to house people of Japanese descent. The government forced them into the camps because of the fear and suspicion of Japanese people that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Most of the internees, including Manuel and all of his siblings, were American citizens.
The Matsunamis moved to Omaha after the war. If the upheaval of internment hurt him, Manuel Matsunami never said so to his family.
“We all grew up knowing about it,” said his daughter Rhonda Guy of Omaha. “Dad never said anything bad about it. It was just part of his life.”
Matsunami served in the Navy, owned jewelry shops in Council Bluffs and Omaha for 30 years, and raised a family of six children.
He died April 6, of kidney failure, at age 91.
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He was born in 1928, the seventh of 10 children of Kanichi and Yanayo Matsunami. Kanichi had come to the U.S. in 1899 in search of work; he brought his bride over from Japan 17 years later.
The name Manuel was given to him by his father’s employer, who couldn’t pronounce his given name. His family liked it and adopted it. Decades later, he would officially change it.
As a boy, Matsunami loved playing baseball, and he helped his father with his work as a vegetable farmer in California’s Central Valley. His life wasn’t much different from that of other Depression-era farm boys, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Matsunamis were sent to Tule Lake, in California, and then to Topaz. At age 14, Manuel was living in a 300-acre camp with about 9,500 people. There, Manuel’s 13-year-old brother, Masaru, was killed when he was struck in the head by a baseball.
Young Manuel attended school and worked.
“As a teenager, he made new friends,” said Doris Matsunami, 85, Manuel’s widow. “It was his parents that made the big sacrifice.”
Matsunami’s older brother and sister were allowed to leave the camps under the sponsorship of religious organizations to live and work in Omaha. The siblings brought the rest of the family to join them when the war ended. Much of the family remained in Nebraska permanently.
Manuel enlisted in the Navy in January 1946 and was assigned to the USS Boxer as a storekeeper. He served 18 months, and was called up as a reservist for two years during the Korean War. He earned a World War II Victory Medal for his service in the immediate aftermath of that war.
Manuel returned to Omaha and worked at a small Japanese restaurant in Gifford Park owned by his sister and brother-in-law. At the restaurant, he met 18-year-old Doris Weathers of Anthon, Iowa, who had come to Omaha to take business courses. They fell in love and married in 1955.
They had no choice but to hold the wedding in Doris’ hometown. “There was no interracial marriage in Nebraska,” Doris said.
The couple had six children in five years (the two oldest were twins). In the early 1960s, Manuel learned the jewelry and watch repair business from other Japanese-American jewelers in Omaha. He bought a jewelry store in Council Bluffs and later moved to Omaha. He operated the store until his retirement in 1994.
Matsunami enjoyed fishing, hunting, gardening and outdoor activities. Most of all, he enjoyed his kids. In the early 1970s, all six starred in sports — especially gymnastics — at Northwest High. A 1974 World-Herald article called them “the Fabulous Matsunamis.” They also excelled in music and art.
“He was gruff but very loving,” Rhonda recalled. “He would put a “Closed” sign on the jewelry store and come to our athletic events.”
All three of his sons became Omaha firefighters. In 2012, Northwest High honored the entire family with its first Alumni Family Achievement Award.
Manuel Matsunami was active in the Optimists Club and the Masons. He could also be seen at VFW Post 3421, serving as commander in 1996 and ’97.
He was a longtime member of the Japanese American Citizens League, an organization dedicated to civil rights, as well as Japanese cultural preservation and education about Japanese-American and Asian-American history. Manuel served a two-year term as president of the League’s Omaha chapter in the 1950s.
“At different times, half the board was members of the Matsunami clan,” said current chapter President Sharon Ishii-Jordan, a 37-year member, who is Manuel Matsunami’s niece. “Being part of JACL was just what you did.”
In his later years, Manuel had a hip replacement. He was also on dialysis for 8½ years, and for a time drove himself to appointments. Even as his health slipped, he took pride in his family.
“If he was having a bad day, all you would have to do is mention his great-grandkids, and he would smile,” Rhonda said.
Matsunami is survived by his wife, Doris; two sisters, Pat Kawauchi of Minneapolis and Natchi Furukawa of Poway, California; his six children, Randy, Ricky, Renee, Russ, Rhonda, and Risé; 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
A graveside service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Forest Lawn Cemetery.