“We Are a Part of the Fabric That Is American Society”: Keeping the Japanese American Story Alive in Dayton, Ohio

As the President of the Dayton, Ohio chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, Donald Hayashi is changing how people view Asian American identity in the Midwest and America. In sharing his story to Midstory, Hayashi gives poignant perspective to not only the tragedy of Japanese internment in the United States, but also why telling these histories is so vital. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang and Drishti Bansal for Midstory.

This story is part of “Asian in Ohio,” an interactive gallery exploring the landscape of Ohio and the Asian and Asian American individuals who call it home through narratives, data, mapping and film.

The year Donald Hayashi was born, everything changed. 

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9742, ending Japanese detainment in America — and the incarceration of Hayashi’s own immediate family.

More than 70 years later, through tinted photographs and cultural relics on his bookshelves in his Dayton, Ohio home, Hayashi remembers 1946 every day.

“My parents would tell the stories over and over again. So I knew, as a youngster, what that experience was like,” Hayashi said. “Most of my classmates had no idea. All they were told is, ‘When we were your age, we went to camp.’ When they thought of camp, they thought of scout camp, church camp — kind of a fun thing.”

The reality was starkly different. Over the course of World War II, more than 125,000 Japanese Americans — many of them citizens — were imprisoned in concentration camps instituted by the War Relocation Authority.

Nonetheless, the stories Hayashi remembers so vividly depict a history that only a handful of Americans are aware of. 

Today, Hayashi aims to change that, retelling those very stories in his work: as the President of the Dayton chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the oldest Asian American human rights organization in the United States, he carries on his mission to educate others about Japanese American civil identity.

But this calling came through years of experience and reckoning. Hayashi’s storytelling mission began with his own story — one that brought him across the country from Oregon to Ohio.

Hayashi spent his early years in a congregation at the Japanese Methodist Church, later known as the Epworth United Methodist Church, where his father was a minister. At the time, “Japanese Americans were trying to be 100 percent, if not 150 percent American,” he said. 

“In my growing up after the war, my family was known not just as members of his church, but across the entire Japanese American community, because of the incarceration during the war,” Hayashi said. “It brought the whole community together, and so both my parents were revered as being leaders of the community.”

As part of the nisei-han, the second-and-a-half generation of Japanese Americans, Hayashi was surrounded by pockets of Japanese American culture alongside his family’s faith. From second grade to college, he grew up in a small Japanese American community in San Jose, California.

‘“Study hard, get good grades, work hard,’” he said. “That work ethic was something that was pounded into us in a positive way.” 

For Hayashi, his cultural values and identity became tied to the impact he wanted to create for others after he graduated from Portland State University.

“In the early ‘70s, ethnic awareness became a dominant thing,” he said. “And I went to work for the Japanese American Citizens League.”

Baby photo of Donald Hayashi in Portland, OR, early 1947. Image courtesy of Donald Hayashi.
The Hayashi family — Eugene, Donald, mother and father — standing in front of their home in San Jose, CA around 1955-56. (Brother Leland is not in the photo.) Image courtesy of Donald Hayashi.
Donald Hayashi at his Dayton home in 2023. By Samuel Chang for Midstory.

Hayashi transitioned his career from social work to consulting throughout the next years — but the seed of remembrance was still growing in his mind. When asked to join the national JACL staff, he saw an opportunity to continue growing his role in civil rights and education, bringing him and ultimately his family to Dayton, Ohio. 

Yet in another sense, he was returning: his father once attended seminary in the very city Hayashi now lives in — a part of a region that Hayashi said was a haven to some Japanese Americans throughout history.

“I think for most Japanese Americans, particularly in the midst of World War II, they found the Midwest to be more accepting, more hospitable,” Hayashi said. “There wasn’t that anti-Japanese feeling. If anything, people simply didn’t know who Japanese Americans were.” 

With JACL, the presence of Japanese Americans has grown in the public’s eye. Since 1991, Hayashi has helped the organization host 47 international festivals featuring Japanese culture, performance and education, drawing up to 30,000 people. Hayashi said he’s always asked how to “reach beyond yourself out into a broader community.” 

As the husband to a Euro American woman and the father of a multiracial daughter, Hayashi has also brought his experiences and values to his family. 

“She knew she had a unique ancestry,” Hayashi said, speaking about his daughter. “And so we’ve always tried to educate her on that and to have pride in that.”

Donald Hayashi pointing out books, photographs and relics at his Dayton home in 2023. By Samuel Chang for Midstory.
Donald Hayashi’s bookshelf at his Dayton home in 2023. By Samuel Chang for Midstory.

In talking about the future, Hayashi looks to his bookshelves — a display of the histories and memories of a not-too-distant past. He hopes that recognition and understanding of the nuances of one’s own identity can carry through for all Asian Americans. 

“We have to be seen for who we are: that we are a part of the fabric that is American society,” he said. “We are more diverse, and I think as a consequence, we’re richer because of that.”

You can read a selected transcript from Donald Hayashi’s interview here and explore other stories from this series here. “Asian in Ohio” is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Equity & Access Initiative Fund of the Greater Toledo Community Foundation.


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