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New stamps honor Japanese American vets, Chinese American physicist

The stamps recognize Japanese Americans who fought for a country that imprisoned them, and a woman physicist who excelled in a male-dominated field.
Three of the Postal Service's 2021 stamps will honor Lunar New Year, the Chinese American nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu and Japanese Americans who fought in World War II.
Three of the Postal Service's 2021 stamps will honor Lunar New Year, the Chinese American nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu and Japanese Americans who fought in World War II.U.S. Postal Service

Three of the stamps the U.S. Postal Service will release next year will celebrate Asian American history and culture.

Of over a dozen new stamps that will be issued next year, one will celebrate the Chinese American nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, and another will honor Japanese Americans who fought in World War II. The Postal Service will also continue its Lunar New Year series with a Year of the Ox stamp, it said last month.

Wu, who was born in China in 1912, was one of the top physicists of the 20th century, at a time when the field was dominated by men. She immigrated to the U.S., received her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and spent much of her career teaching at Columbia University.

A granddaughter, Jada Yuan, a reporter for The Washington Post, said Wu would have been happy to be remembered this way, especially amid a surge in anti-Asian racism this year.

"She would've been upset with the terminology 'China virus' and the rising violence against Asian Americans due to xenophobia," Yuan said. "So it's great that an agency like the post office has decided to celebrate her and Asian American culture in a positive way."

Yuan, who was 19 when Wu died in 1997 at age 84, said she knew her grandmother only post-retirement and not as a renowned scientist.

"Over the years, I've noticed her getting recognized more and more as there is a movement to recognize women whose accomplishments were not recognized in their lifetime, especially with the growing enthusiasm for women in science," she said.

Wu's contributions to nuclear physics include her noteworthy Wu Experiment, which helped disprove a fundamental law of parity.

"I think my grandma would be happy to be seen in this manner and for young girls to see this stamp and see something of themselves in it, whether it's women interested in STEM, Asian American women and also Chinese immigrants," Yuan said.

Designed by Ethel Kessler, the stamp of Wu features original art by the Asian artist Kam Mak, who Yuan said captured her grandmother's likeness extremely well.

Antonio Alcalá, art director for the Postal Service, designed the Lunar New Year stamp with original art by Camille Chew. Alcalá also designed the stamp dedicated to the estimated 33,000 Japanese Americans who served in World War II, many of whom enlisted from inside the U.S. prison camps that held 120,000 people of Japanese descent.

Although the stamp highlights soldiers specifically, the concept is inclusive of all branches of the military, a USPS spokesperson said. "The intent of the stamp is to honor all who served."

The stamp has been 15 years in the making. A grassroots campaign called Stamp Our Story was started in 2005 by three women — Fusa Takahashi, Aiko O. King and the late Chiz Ohira — who had been held in the concentration camps and also had friends and family members who served in World War II. Decades later, they were searching for a way to honor them, said Wayne Osako, who helped lead the campaign.

He said the group started by writing letters to President George W. Bush and the postmaster general.

Stamp Our Story co-founder Takahashi, 93, said they also wrote to members of congress, including the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who she said was receptive to the campaign.

"Although it took 15 years, we slowly received great support and response to our endeavor," she said.

Takahashi added that they thought a stamp would be the best way to bring attention to the Japanese American soldiers who fought in World War II in spite of many of their freedoms being taken away.

"They fought with uncommon valor and bravery to show their patriotism," she said. "I felt the public needed to know all their accomplishments and felt that something tangible like a stamp, since it is universal, would be a good way to raise public awareness."

Osako said that the deeper they got involved in understanding the selection process, the more they learned about the difficult scope of getting a stamp issued on certain topics. He said they hunkered down for the long haul.

The Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee selects the subjects of future stamp issues in a process that usually takes several years.

Osako, who had worked as a teacher at the Go For Broke Education Center in Los Angeles, a nonprofit that advocates for the legacy of Japanese American veterans, was approached by Ohira, another founding campaign member, to help out. As a stamp collector whose relatives also served in the war, he was inspired to join the campaign.

He said it's bittersweet to finally see the stamp after so many years. While the campaign achieved its goal, Ohira died before it came to fruition.

Yuan said her grandmother would have appreciated all three new stamps, particularly the Lunar New Year design.

"My grandma always threw a New Year party in New York City. She loved a good banquet," she said. "That's why I am also proud to work in alliance with the post office, an agency that was maligned and had to pull off some heroic work of their own this year."