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Former Internee Offers Gift to Bring Two Nations Closer Together
Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Former Internee Offers Gift to Bring Two Nations Closer Together

More than 60 years after he left the camp behind, this emeritus UCLA professor, surgeon and researcher and his wife, Hisako, have donated $5 million to promote better understanding between Japan and America.

I hope that at UCLA we will have one of the top centers in the country for the study of contemporary Japan.


This article was first published in UCLA Today.

The year 1941 was an important one for Paul Terasaki for several reasons. He turned 12, finally old enough to join the Boy Scout troop in his Boyle Heights neighborhood. His family bought a brand-new Dodge. And his father, who left a small Japanese farming village as a teenager to come to America, opened a "hugely successful" cake shop in Little Tokyo, Terasaki recalled.

But on Dec. 7, 1941, "my family was faced with one other major event — the end of our early efforts," Terasaki wrote in his memoir. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, life as they knew it began to unravel.

The Terasakis, victims of the nationwide Japan scare, were ordered to a relocation camp. Paul and his parents, three brothers and a widowed aunt were shipped to Gila River, Ariz., where they spent nearly three years living in a 10-by-10-foot room.

Today, more than 60 years after he left the camp behind, this emeritus UCLA professor, surgeon and researcher and his wife, Hisako, have donated $5 million to promote better understanding between Japan and America. With the couple's gift to UCLA, a new generation of Japan scholars will be educated at the renamed Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at the International Institute, said center director Fred Notehelfer. Since its founding in 1991, the center has produced more than two dozen new scholars, all now teaching at major American universities. UCLA's Asian history program is one of the most highly ranked programs in the country.

"I hope that at UCLA we will have one of the top centers in the country for the study of contemporary Japan," Terasaki said.

It was at UCLA where he found his own true calling. After an admittedly lackluster high school career, Terasaki earned a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in zoology and became a professor of surgery here. He went on to develop a tissue-typing test for organ transplant donors and recipients that later became the international standard. Before retiring in 1999, he established the UCLA Kidney Transplant Registry, the largest in the world. He also formed One Lambda, a corporation which has played a central role in the development of tissue typing and transplantation surgery.

Through his frequent travels to Japan — he has spoken at scientific conferences on nearly 80 occasions — Terasaki realized how dissimilar the American and Japanese cultures were. "I saw a great need for mutual understanding between the U.S. and Japan," he said.

Today, the couple's $5-million gift comes with the hope that U.S.-Japanese tensions, which reemerged as recently as the 1980s, and such horrors as the relocation camps will never recur, Terasaki said.

The gift is part of UCLA's Ensuring Academic Excellence Initiative, a five-year effort aimed at generating $250 million in private commitments, specifically for the recruitment and retention of the very best faculty and graduate students.