1926 - October 26, 2017
Bruce Teruo Kaji, U.S. Army veteran of World War II, passed away at his home in Torrance, California on October 26, 2017 following a short illness. He was 91.
A native of Los Angeles, Bruce was born in the Bunker Hill district of Downtown Los Angeles and raised in Boyle Heights. Bruce was a student at Theodore Roosevelt High School when the war broke out. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced Bruce, his family and more than 120,000 Japanese Americans into America's concentration camps.
Bruce and his family were sent to Manzanar Relocation Center in the Eastern Sierra where he graduated from Manzanar High School in 1944. He was drafted into the U.S. Army from Manzanar and trained as a Japanese language interpreter at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Following his language training, Bruce was sent to Tokyo, Japan and Manila, Philippines, where he served as an interpreter for the War Crimes Tribunal.
Following his military discharge, Bruce returned to Los Angeles and earned his Bachelors degree in accounting from the University of Southern California, graduating in 1953. After forming his accounting practice, his firm landed a new client, Toyota Motor Sales, USA. Bruce also pursued public service and was elected Gardena City Treasurer in 1960. Bruce was appointed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn to serve on the newly-built Los Angeles County Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital Board of Trustees.
After the City of Los Angeles used eminent domain to take possession of an eight-acre block of Little Tokyo to build its police department headquarters, Bruce and the Rev. Howard Toriumi of Union Church led the fight to establish the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Association to help protect their community. Bruce worked closely with Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, Mayor Tom Bradley, Assemblyman Art Torres, Supervisor Ed Edelman and Congressman Ed Roybal to ensure Little Tokyo's survival.
In 1962 Kaji and a group of Nisei investors organized Merit Savings & Loan. For more than 30 years, Merit served as one of the few Japanese American-owned and managed banks. During this period, Bruce organized the purchase of a 4.5 acre site at the southeast corner of First Street and Alameda Streets and first proposed the creation of a Japanese American National Museum (JANM), to preserve the history of Japanese Americans and to ensure that the violation of their civil rights during World War II would never be forgotten.
Bruce served as the Founding President of the Museum, and used his upbeat, outgoing personality to pull together a wide-range of bipartisan and multi-ethnic support. Today, JANM is a national museum located in the Little Tokyo District of Los Angeles, having recently exhibited the original Executive Order 9066 signed by President Roosevelt.
Following the sale of Merit Savings, Bruce joined his son, Jonathan, at Kaji & Associates, a real estate brokerage and development firm, founded in 1984.
Bruce married Frances Tashiro in 1954. Frances was the daughter of prominent physician Dr. Kikuwo Tashiro, who founded the Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles in 1927; she preceded him in death in November 2016.
Bruce, along with his fellow Nisei World War II veterans of the Military Intelligence Service, 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011. Bruce received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, from the Government of Japan in 1997.
Bruce is survived by his son, Jonathan (Lisa); daughter Miki Hamill (Brad); and son Dr. Troy (Marguerita) along with eight grandchildren.
Services for Bruce will be held at 10 a.m. on November 11, 2017, beginning at 10:00 AM at Gardena Valley Baptist Church, 1630 W. 158th Street, Gardena, CA. The family requests that donations be made to the Japanese American National Museum.