WWII Japanese internment camp survivor John Sasaki, who owned Lake View East dry cleaners, dead at 87

John Sasaki.

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John Sasaki, the longtime owner of Barry-Regent Dry Cleaners in Lake View East, was just 6 when he was incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

In 1942, he, his parents and his older brother Fred Sasaki were forced to leave their apartment and dry-cleaning business in Los Angeles and live at a horse-racing track outside the city being used as one of the U.S. government’s temporary detention centers to house people of Japanese descent.

“My dad said that was awful because the racetrack smelled so bad there and that it was just disgusting,” his daughter Emily Sasaki said.

After six months at the temporary camp, the Sasaki family was transferred to Heart Mountain, an internment camp in Wyoming.

“He kind of thought it was like summer camp because there were just so many other kids,” his daughter said. “He didn’t really understand what was happening.”

More than 120,000 were incarcerated at the internment camps in a chapter of American history that the federal government later recognized had been unjust and apologized for in 1988 through an act of Congress.

Mr. Sasaki died Jan. 9. He was 87.

“When they first arrived at Heart Mountain, they would have gotten off a train and been sent up a hill to the main camp and assigned a barrack,” said Cally Steussy, who works at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the internment camp.

Mr. Sasaki’s family would have been assigned a living space that was 20 feet by 20 feet, with a single lightbulb, four military beds and a coal-burning stove, she said.

His time there became traumatic when his parents were transferred to Reno, Nev., on a work-release program, and Mr. Sasaki was left in the care of relatives at another internment camp in Utah.

After their incarceration ended in 1944, Mr. Sasaki’s parents separated, and his mother took her two sons to Chicago, where she opened a dry-cleaning business in Lake View East — a neighborhood with an established Japanese community.

Mr. Sasaki was valedictorian of his class at Lake View High School, attended the University of Chicago on scholarship and later served in the Army before taking over the family business along with his brother.

He crossed paths with Becky Alstott, his future wife, because her family ran a restaurant not far from his family’s dry-cleaning business. She died in 2010. 

“He loved this country,” his daughter said. “People would say: ‘Are you Japanese?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I’m Japanese American.’ He was about as patriotic a person you’d ever seen.

“He was like a lot of people,” she said of those who had been forced to stay at the camps during WWII. “They didn’t talk about the camps. They wanted to make sure people knew they were American and embraced it to the hilt.”

When they came to Chicago, Mr. Sasaki’s family was aided by the Chicago Resettlers Committee, a not-for-profit organization that later was renamed the Japanese American Service Committee. Mr. Sasaki helped raise money for the group and is a former board member.

“He was kind of a quiet guy, but he had a big heart, his presence will be sorely missed,” said Mike Takada, the organization’s chief executive officer. 

Mr. Sasaki was born in Los Angeles on April 16, 1936.

He retired in 2015, loved fishing at Diversey Harbor, all Chicago sports teams and getting drinks with his monthly “pub group.”

“He loved this city so much,” Emily Sasaki said. “He just really adored Chicago and loved showing visitors around. He was just very proud of it.”

Mr. Sasaki is also survived by two other daughters, Ellen Sasaki McGarry and Meggie Sasaki-Resendiz, and four grandchildren.

A memorial is planned from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at Lakeview Funeral Home, 1458 W. Belmont Ave.

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