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Paul Igasaki.
Paul Igasaki. (Kent Harris / S&S)

VICENZA, Italy — Paul Igasaki wasn’t one of the Japanese-Americans who had to spend time at a U.S. internment camp during World War II. He wasn’t alive at the time.

But those camps — viewed today by many as a shameful part of American history — did have a big impact on his life.

“That’s where my parents met,” he told those gathered at Caserma Ederle’s base theater Wednesday. “So at least something good came out of that experience.”

His family’s attitude — essentially, that the system would eventually make things right — steered him in a direction with his life as well. He became a lawyer and a champion of equal opportunity.

Igasaki served as vice chairman and acting chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1994 to 2002.

As the spokesman for the commission, he took Mitsubishi Motors to task in a sexual harassment lawsuit that got media attention around the world.

But he said that while his face was familiar to a lot of people at the time, they couldn’t quite place who he was. In fact, some thought he might be Judge Lance Ito, who presided over O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.

“I still get that sometimes,” he said with a half smile and shake of his head.

Igasaki used that story and others about his family to illustrate that the United States — a land of immigrants and their descendants — has a wealth of history because of its diversity.

The guest speaker at the base’s celebration of Asian-Pacific American History Month, he was speaking just a block or so from the base’s hall of heroes, where many Japanese-Americans are honored.

Some of them fought, and died, for their country a few hours to the west of Vicenza in World War II. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up largely of Asian-Americans, was one of the most decorated units in the war. Many of the 31 Asian-Americans who have received the Medal of Honor served in that unit.

Igasaki’s father was one of the thousands of Japanese-Americans who volunteered to serve their country during the war, signing up from an internment camp. He didn’t speak Japanese, so the Army had to teach him the language at the same time it was instructing others.

Igasaki, who will speak Friday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, says he’s not fluent in Japanese himself. A visit to Japan in 1984 as a tourist left him feeling “more Japanese than I ever had.”

But a dozen years later, while visiting as part of the Mitsubishi suit, he left “feeling more American than I ever had.”

Currently working as a consultant, Igasaki praised the Army for its diversity and said much of the private sector could benefit by following the military example.

“Seeing things from a different point of view is an advantage,” he said. “America is about diversity.”

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