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From a Japanese internment camp to national weightlifting champ: the story of Walter Imahara

Walter Imahara, six time national weightlifting U.S. champion, seen here in his Masters World Record 90-kg snatch (55-59 age group, 64-kg class) at the 1994 World Masters Championships in Perth, Australia
Courtesy of Walter Imahara
Walter Imahara, six time national weightlifting U.S. champion, seen here in his Masters World Record 90-kg snatch (55-59 age group, 64-kg class) at the 1994 World Masters Championships in Perth, Australia

 It's no secret that 2023 has been a big year for sports in the Bayou State, as Louisiana State University took home two championship titles in women's basketball and baseball. But LSU's accomplishments aren't the only ones worth celebrating, as the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame gears up to induct this year's class honoring some of the best athletes, coaches, and journalists the state has ever seen.

Walter Imahara is a six-time USA National Weightlifting Champion and longtime Baton Rouge resident, where he runs a gardening and landscaping business. He joins us for more on his athletic career and life’s journey.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Alana Schreiber: Walter, you were born as the sixth child in a family of 10 kids. Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and what you remember about the early days?

Walter Imahara: All I remember is December 7th, 1941. We were living in California and I was about five years old, and that was the beginning of the tragedy for the Japanese Americans. And my family – my parents – had worked the property for many years, and they lost it overnight because we had to go to an internment camp.

So my parents were really the ones that took the burden, because we were children. We just didn't know too much of what's going on. But on December 7, 1941, that was a long time ago, but that was the beginning.

AS: Can you tell me a little bit about you and your family's experience in the internment camp? How long were you there and how did you make your way to Louisiana?

WI: We were in Sacramento, and we had to go to Fresno, California, where they have an assembly center — well, it was a concentration camp with barbed wires and guards. And from there, we spent about three and a half months there. We put in a horse stable so it was really bad.

But, you know, as a child, you got your parents. And so everything is not so bad when you’re a child.

From there we went to Arkansas and that was close to three years. It was at that time that my father was really bitter about what he lost. He lost his farm, dignity, his home and he lost the country all at one time.

And he explained to many people that he's an American. He was born in America, just like my mother. So that puts us at the third generation.

When the war was over we went to New Orleans. My parents wanted to take their family of eight at the time, and their only ambition was to send everybody to college.

Eight out of nine got college education. That's how we did it. And the most important thing was you learn to live by the rules.

Walter Imahara was a member of the first championship weightlifting squad in 1957.
Courtesy of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Walter Imahara was a member of the first championship weightlifting squad in 1957.

AS: Well, how exactly did you start weightlifting? How did you get into that sport and what did you like about it? 

I was in high school in 1955 and there was the state champion in football. They had weights in the room where they work out, and we just tried it. And we didn’t know what weightlifting was, so we did a few bench presses and squats. I went to Southwestern, which was in Lafayette at the time (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette), and on the campus I met this fellow named coach Mike Stansbury. He asked if I ever lifted weights, and I was astonished.

He said, “Have you heard of an Olympic champion, Tommy Kono? He was released from the internment camp 1945 like you, but within seven years he's an Olympic champion.”

So I'm astonished. He says, “You have the right leg strength and a back posture to catch a heavyweight in a squat position. Come up and just try a few.”

I didn’t know anything about it, but that was the beginning. What really interested me was when he said we’d go to meets. We’d go to Shreveport, go to New Orleans, go to Houston. I said I’d sure like to be on that team.

AS: Well, let's talk about some of your accomplishments. You joined the Army, continued weightlifting, but eventually you left the sport to start gardening and landscaping business. But then you returned to the sport. So once you came back, what happened?

WI: You’ve got to remember that when I started Southwestern, the first national championships I won was 1957. A lot of people and faculty approached me and said, “You know, you're the first national champion this school ever had.”

I said, “Well, okay, thanks.”

I went on my way and I won three national collegiates. Then I went into the Army. I went to OCS (Officer Candidate School). And there it was a class of about 60 guys, all were Caucasian. I said, this is going to be tough, but my feeling was, they're going to have to run me out. Well, somehow or another, I got through OCS. Because I found out what the records were, and I started breaking all the physical training records a little bit at a time. Then my name was up there, so they laid off.

And there's a good story here. In the class of 61, the whole graduate class was sent to Germany because there's a Berlin crisis? We didn't know where we were going, and when I got there, I looked at my orders at Dachau and I said gee whiz, you know?

AS: Right, because at that time, the U.S. was using Dachau as a military base. What was that like as someone who had been in an internment camp to then be stationed at a former concentration camp? Do you remember how it felt? 

WI: So, I don't want to talk about this portion too much because it's kind of emotional, but you know what happened in Dachau.

And here I am, coming out of a concentration camp in America and going into another one. But this was really terrible, all the atrocities that happened, the piles of bones and stuff. And I've seen all that. So many years later, after I came back, I related to a lot of people. I said, what we went through was nothing, huh?

Three and a half years incarcerated in America, and we couldn't go anywhere, but look what happened after as compared to the others.

Imahara, bottom row, left, with the New Orleans Athletic Club. David Berger, top left, would later compete for the Israeli Olympic team. He was murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Courtesy of Walter Imahara
Imahara, bottom row, left, with the New Orleans Athletic Club. David Berger, top left, would later compete for the Israeli Olympic team. He was murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

AS: Can't even imagine. I do want to talk a little bit more about some of the records that you broke as a weightlifter, some of the competitions you were in and the places that you traveled. Can you just tell me a little bit more about your journey with the sport? 

WI: I've been on a platform 191 times I won 151, because I don't count second place or other things. So I had a good career and that took me all over the world. I’ve been the senior national champion six times after I got into the master's program about 1980.

For 25 years I've been on the platform and I got to see most of the world because I was elected to be president of the (International Weightlifting Federation) which is comprised of about 50 nations.

So I got to see everything and it was really rewarding. A lot of records were broken and I got a lot of trophies and medals. But those are personal achievements and it is not something that I brag too much about.

AS: You also wrote the book, I am an American, Japanese American, Asian Cajun. What's that all about? How do you reconcile your identities in your writing? 

WI: I want everyone to know that we have a background of being incarcerated, but during this period – and in my achievements of being on the platform – it has been great to be an American. And if anybody wants to argue that point, they've got a really difficult time with me.

Because I always tell everybody, I'm American, Japanese American. And that came up when I graduated (college) in 1960. I was the first Japanese American to graduate. And the president of the university said, “You're the first Asian Cajun to graduate.” So now, after all those years, I'm an Asian Cajun. Incredible.

AS: Well, before we go, can you just tell me about your reaction upon finding out that you would be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame? What did this honor mean to you as someone who, by this point, has spent years away from your sport? 

WI: It's been many years since I left the sport, and I think they recognized not only my achievements as a small Japanese American weightlifter, but also saw how I seemed to be so proud to be an American on the platform.

It's going to be great because there's so many great athletes that come out of Louisiana. But here I am, in an amateur sport against all these professional athletes. And it feels good that they recognize me as an Asian too.

So it feels good to be recognized. It took a long time, but yeah.

Walter Imahara retelling his story for an oral history project with the National World War II museum
Courtesy of Walter Imahara
Walter Imahara retelling his story for an oral history project with the National World War II museum

Alana Schreiber is the managing producer for the live daily news program, Louisiana Considered. She comes to WWNO from KUNC in Northern Colorado, where she worked as a radio producer for the daily news magazine, Colorado Edition. She has previously interned for Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and The Documentary Group in New York City.

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