Shigeharu (“Shig”) Itami 1914-2015

Shig Itami in 2014

Shigeharu (“Shig”) Itami was a Kibei, spending much of his childhood in Japan. Born in Portland, Oregon, he was raised on a farm in Japan until age 16 with his maternal grandparents in Kyushu, Japan. Returning to the United States he lived in a hotel. His mother owned a barbershop and his father owned a garage and pool hall (where he developed his skills as a mechanic and pool shark). He was known as “gitcho” (lefty) because he generally played pool with his left hand but used his right hand to accept his winnings. He played regularly into his 90s, though he noted there were always 2 balls where there is only one. But a good Buddhist, he noted, “you just have to know which one to hit.” Another skill were the traditional Japanese farming techniques learned in Japan which he used to produce annual bumper crops of vegetables and fruit in his gardens.

He was involved with the Buddhist Church in Seattle and maybe Portland where he lived. His mother and the minister from the Buddhist Church worked together to get him together with his future wife, Haru Ishioka by sending him to work at the Furuya Store in Seattle (he had worked at the Furuya in Portland) where Haru was helping out. 

They were married June 16, 1940 and lived in Tacoma. Like all the founding generation of the BTC, Shig and Haru were imprisioned in the internment camps in 1941, along with their first child, Jane.

Apparently Mr Itami was a camp “arranger,”  He always helped to get things done in a creative way and pushing the envelope as far as possible to help improve the conditions for the people in the camp. Like so many of the Japanese Americans, the Itami’s moved to Midwest after their release, settling into Detroit, Michigan, where worked as a mechanic and taught judo.  Shig and Haru would have two other children, Roy and Carol, 2 grandchildren Marc and Nicole, and 2 great grandchildren Emily and Allison.

While there was a Japanese American community in Detroit, there was no no Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple. Ministers from elsewhere were invited to conduct services at the International Institute, a non profit organization inspired by Chicago’s Jane Addams’ Hull House. When the Detroit Sangha joined BTC in the 1990s, there were about 20 members. Rev. Ashikaga would travel to Detroit 2 to 3 times per year, often on the OHigan and OBon celebrations, leaving Chicago at 8 in the morning and returning at 8 at night.  Mr. Itami was one of the last of the Sangha members from those “itinerant” services. Rev. Ashikaga did the memorial services for Shig’s wife, Haru, in February of 1997 and continued to do so every February for Haru.