By Susan Hayase. Posted June 14, 2022
Introduction: Norman Y. Mineta, former Transportation Secretary and former representative to the U.S. Congress from San Jose, passed away on May 3, 2022 at the age of 90. Mineta was born and raised in San Jose, aside from the years that he spent as a child in the U.S. concentration camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. He was the first Asian American city council person of the city of San Jose and also served as its mayor – the first Japanese American mayor of a major U.S. city on the mainland. Mineta played a key role in the legislative campaign for redress/reparations for Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII. He was deeply connected to the people in the Santa Clara Valley, was broadly admired, and will be missed by many.
There will be memorial services to honor the life of Norman Mineta in San Jose, CA on June 16 and in Los Angeles, CA on June 25. To RSVP and get more information, visit Mineta Legacy Project
I am deeply honored to serve in this body as it takes the brave step of admitting and redressing a monumental injustice. I am proud to serve with people like my colleague from CA, Mr. Matsui and Mr. Lowery who was the original author of the redress bill. And again we say yes to justice and I urge my colleagues to ratify this conference report and send this on to the president for his signature.
— Norman Mineta, serving as president pro tempore of the House of Representatives, Aug. 3, 1988
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Most of the obituaries written for Norman Mineta in national publications highlight what could be considered the pinnacles of his career as a politician – his service in Washington, D.C. as Transportation Secretary in the Clinton and Bush administrations – and his role in bringing U.S. air traffic to a halt during the cataclysmic attacks of 9/11/2001. Many of the memories of him from the Asian American community understandably and rightfully praise him for the iconic role he played as first Japanese American (JA) mayor of a major American city on the mainland and as a trailblazer for Asian Americans in politics such as co-founding the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Mineta is praised as someone the nation and Asian Americans can be proud of.
National publications and Asian American publications may identify Norm as a Japanese American in passing, but they don’t talk about what that really means; they can’t focus on something that the San Jose Japantown community feels in our bones – we see him as a Nisei, a Japanese American like us, who was as deeply connected to our history as we are, and who answered the call of the historical moment like we did, even though it was a heavy personal and emotional lift for all of us. San Jose Japantown wasn’t even in his congressional district but he and his staff were there for the redress/reparations movement.
As we contemplate the impact of his life on many levels, I want to write about Norman Mineta from a different angle, not that what has already been raised about him hasn’t constituted a collection of important sightlines into his historical significance, but because I want to do a favor to him and to his home community by relating just a bit of how he was deeply connected to the historical and community “place” that San Jose Japantown is and the nature of that connection. I want to tell some small stories of how he was connected to the past, present, and future of Japantown through his maintaining of relationships, not just to age-peers or those in personal, business, or political circles, but to ordinary people like me in the grassroots movement for redress/reparations in the 1980s.
San Jose Japantown and Norman Mineta
I vaguely remember hearing about Norman Mineta’s election as mayor of San Jose when I was a high school student in Fountain Valley, California. I might have read the Pacific Citizen (publication of the Japanese American Citizens League) but it also made national news. He was notably, the first Japanese American mayor of a major American city outside of Hawaii. I didn’t know then that Jim Kanno of Fountain Valley had beat him to the record of first Japanese American mayor of any city outside of Hawaii and he’d done it in 1957. This also made national news, but I wasn’t reading newspapers at the time.
So, how did I eventually meet Norman Mineta? I had to get to San Jose first.
In 1979 I was working as a new engineer in Silicon Valley, struggling with sexism and racism in the workplace, and I was lonely and feeling alienated. Then, forces in the cosmos conspired mysteriously to give me a nudge, and I received a postcard from a friend from Stanford telling me to come down to San Jose Japantown for a meeting. I’d never been to Japantown before, and I met and joined the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC) which was a community organization formed by people who were concerned about protecting the community against possible redevelopment and which was increasingly turning to the issue of redress/reparations.
NOC’s work was interesting to me, but for many of us Sansei, having been raised outside of a Japanese American community, there was a lot that was puzzling. I remember how we noticed the seemingly inexplicable hostilities between some people in the community, and how trying to navigate the social hierarchy required a general understanding of the bitter conflicts in the concentration camps as well as an understanding of class and the two major religious institutions. I remember discussing with other Sansei in NOC how the community seemed so “feudal,” jokingly deciding it was even “pre-capitalist,” conjuring up images of rigid caste roles in Kurosawa films set in Japanese farming villages. Local lore also played a role in unwinding the local DNA. For example, Congressman Mineta belonged to the Japantown social structure, outlined in the stories of Issei and older Nisei helping to push him and his peer group of professional Nisei forward in city politics, taking up a collection to send him and others to political fundraisers and how local liberal lion Rep. Don Edwards had converted Mineta from a Republican to a reliable Democrat.
Trying to integrate into the community as an outsider sometimes seemed like a formidable task – someone told me that “if your grandfather didn’t help build the Buddhist temple, then you’ll never fit in.” But there I also could discern the feeling that if you pitched in, you could belong. A lot of people in the community exuded a friendliness and a sense of humor that nurtured the seed of my connectedness to the place and feelings of responsibility for its fate.
I remember some community event when I had patiently muscled my way to the front of a crowd of people jostling to greet Congressman Mineta. When it was finally my turn, I only made it halfway into my first sentence when at least two or three other people burst in with “Norm! How are ya?” and Mineta greeted them by name and asked about their wives and siblings – by name. I remember mentioning that to him that his memory was impressive and pretty useful for a politician. His response was a kind of Nisei dad joke. “See this?” he stage whispered while pretending to write names on his arm under his shirtsleeve.
Mineta’s occasional corniness and Nisei dad vibe was like water compared to the relative oiliness of other politicians’ ambition and slickness. While Mineta could be remote as well as testy at times, he was never slick or smarmy. When he asked about how someone’s gardening business was going or made a comment about whether the San Jose JACL was going to sell fried ika again at Nikkei Matsuri, it was social behavior based on his personal, place-based connections rather than just a bravura performance of a skilled politician.
Working with Mineta in the Redress Movement
NOC sent three of us, Richard Konda, Julie Yumi Hatta, and I, to his local Congressional office in San Jose to talk to him about some of the early redress bills, possibly the Mike Lowery bill, but most likely the bill introduced by Mervyn Dymally of Gardena. I think this may have been before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) had released findings or recommendations. We were pretty young, probably all in our 20s. I’d never had a meeting with a congressional representative before. Richard was one of the founders of the Asian Law Alliance. He knew how to organize press conferences and talk to politicians, and Julie, one of NOC’s founders, was very politically savvy and knew how to handle “situations.” I can’t remember, but she might have been an administrator with ALA at the time. I was just an engineer who was very driven about redress/reparations. We were ushered by a staff person into a conference room with a large heavy table and an American flag.
Rep. Mineta was friendly but seemed a little tightly wound. He shook our hands with welcoming words. With his suit, glasses, and 70s hairstyle, and his practiced amiable demeanor and even his tone of voice he reminded me of many Nisei professional men, like my father.
My companions asked him about various aspects of possible redress legislation, and his responses were friendly, measured, but were not too revealing. This wasn’t terribly surprising at the time; in 1979, Mineta had said that he opposed direct payments to individuals, and Rep. Robert Matsui had also expressed around this same time period highly ambivalent feelings about the camps and his family’s experience and negative ones about redress. There was an enormous and mostly unchallenged anvil weighing down the aspirations of Japanese Americans for equality and that was the constantly enforced Model Minority role of professing to have “no bitterness” about the camps and then just being quiet about it.
My turn was last, and my assignment was to ask him about redress for the Aleutian Islanders, Native Alaskans who had been removed from their villages in what had been a war zone and incarcerated under such terrible conditions that 10% did not survive. It may be that raising this topic was the last straw for him after the stress of being politely interrogated by Sansei – because this question seemed to annoy him and he became agitated and raised his voice. He said something that I don’t quite remember but it included “don’t you appreciate the legislative process??!” I was very flustered and I think I said, “Yes, I do! I appreciate it!” Later, on the way back to our cars, I remember crying in the elevator down to the ground floor, thinking that I’d ruined everything.
When the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) held hearings in 1981, I remember hearing that Commissioner Bill Marutani (Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia County, PA) had declared that he would recuse himself from receiving any reparations after he joined with the majority of the CWRIC commissioners in recommending an apology and $20,000 in monetary compensation. At the time, there was some criticism of Mineta for not doing the same thing, but I remember that the Japanese American community supported Mineta’s position, and felt that he was entitled to it, if we could win it. I think that many of us understood and appreciated Judge Marutani’s very serious personal sacrifice and service to the people in his role on that commission, and at the same time felt that the Mineta family deserved reparations the same as all of our families did.
Norman Mineta at the San Jose Day of Remembrance
As the movement got underway, NOC started inviting Mineta to speak at the San Jose Day of Remembrance commemorations. These programs, replicated in many Japanese American communities across the country, were invented as a grassroots organizing and public education project for supporting former incarcerees in their growing willingness to remember their experiences and for making sure that the newfound knowledge was shared to younger people who may have been kept in the dark by their own parents. They were held in the multipurpose room of the Wesley United Methodist Church and in the gym of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, packed with Issei, Nisei, and Sansei.
Day of Remembrance (DOR) programs were not informational panel discussions. They were community rituals with housewives, nurses, union butchers, and gardeners lighting the candles, and hundreds of people holding them dramatically in the dark while the names of the concentration camps were read. Japanese Americans from all walks of life, just as it had been in camp, but this time joined by others from the Santa Clara Valley, stood in silence, opened their hearts to memories and the haunting sounds of Kanow Matsueda’s beautiful shakuhachi. There was a soundtrack to our DOR – San Jose Taiko setting a meditative rhythm for the candlelight procession through Japantown and later, an invigorating, joyful, liberatory performance. The first part of the commemorations usually embodied remembrance, longing and respect; and the second part reflected the political agenda, the things we had to accomplish as a community in order to win justice. As a whole, the Day of Remembrance was filled with the emotions of a people breaking out of prison at last.
DOR was a way for us to convey the sentiments of the community and its emotional temperature to Rep. Mineta, and a way for him to tell us what was going on in Washington. We developed a practice of having the NOC spokesperson speak first, both to inform him of what we were thinking and to influence him. I think that he appreciated this and he often seemed to readjust his message to the community after hearing what we had to say. We could see him scribbling on his notes during the NOC speech and then hear him address our concerns in his. The Mercury News always covered the event during the 1980s as redress legislation moved slowly (or stagnated) in Congress. His message was not bland political pap – not happy talk or an opportunity to patronize the electorate. The San Jose Day of Remembrance was his hometown crowd, filled with people he was connected with in multiple ways, whose eyes were on him – friendly as well as critical. It seemed that he took the opportunity seriously, to update us as to what we were up against as he saw it from Washington, and to echo our shared sentiments for doing the right thing, for amassing our political strength to stand up for justice.
During this whole period, over many years, Rep. Mineta made his staff available to us, and Helen Hayashi and Heidi Terada in his local office and legislative directors Carol Strobel and Christopher Strobel in DC were very helpful to us in the grassroots movement. They let us know what they thought the arguments against the legislation were, and who to target. The National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR) of which NOC was a founding member, used this information to animate the on-going, targeted letter-writing campaigns that involved people from all walks of life in the JA community.
It’s meaningful that Norman Mineta was so willing to be a part of the NOC/NCRR organizing events. He had close personal and organizational ties with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) both the national staff as well as the local chapter, and that organization was used to thinking of themselves as the sole representative of the Japanese American community. With the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR) and the National Council on Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) both newly formed in 1980 and heading up different political approaches to winning redress layered on top of unresolved and sometimes very bitter conflicts stemming from WWII as well as generational conflicts, the community was in fact very divided. In the NCRR, we focused on building a principled unity – veterans, resisters, Issei, Nisei, Sansei, and all of the redress/reparations organizations – even if we didn’t agree on everything. Norman Mineta was a part of that united front, and that was demonstrated by his deep ties to so many people in San Jose — grassroots organizers, farming families, small business owners, and professionals, as well as by his openness to all of the Japanese American redress/reparations organizations
Having an Independent View of Norman Mineta
It’s likewise meaningful that the grassroots organizing by the NCRR had a political view that went beyond a narrow focus on the legislative struggle for a redress bill and which rejected the model minority strategy of emphasizing JA exceptionalism. We supported the struggles outside of the Japanese American community, assertively building solidarity with the Black civil rights community and the immigrants’ rights struggles of the day. Many of us had an independent view of Mineta’s politics that stemmed from our experience in the struggle against the Vietnam war, for Ethnic Studies, and in defense of Japantowns, and yet we still respected him for his generational experience, for sticking his neck out, and we could relate to him in a community way, that JA way that is almost familial. Like all the Nisei, he was not a typical one, and despite or because of our generational differences, we saw that we had complementary and collaborating roles in our historical drama.
What did it mean to have an independent view of Norman Mineta? Those of us in the grassroots movement who saw the potential of the redress/reparations movement to strengthen Japanese American identity and to politically empower the JA community more broadly as part a movement to unite the multi-racial working class and oppressed peoples in the United States were not among his close, inner circle. The Venn diagram that describes our political relationship with Mineta is this: we could see the power and the rights of the grassroots – working class former incarcerees and regular people from all walks of life – and Norman Mineta, through his deep connections to the JA community, could also see and respect the value of the masses of the people. I think that the grassroots organizing – rather than a campaign run on behalf of the people by a single, professional organization – empowered Mineta to play a better role than he might have otherwise done.
Having an independent view of Norman Mineta was not without pushback in the community. There were definitely people whose primary concern seemed to be to protect him from criticism or from pressure to do something that might endanger his political career. Early in the redress movement, it seemed like redress itself was perceived by some of these Mineta protectors as a possible career-ending move. Japanese Americans were not among Mineta’s largest numbers of constituents, and the idea of reparations was not popular among the American people.
Norman Mineta was a Nisei with connections and obligations to us all
On the day the House voted on HR442, the fact that he wasn’t generally considered to be charismatic and that his usual emotional range was within the Nisei norm rendered his speech and his tears moving and authentic as he read the words of his father leaving San Jose on the train in 1942. Like the testimonies of over 700 former incarcerees at the 1981 hearings of the CWRIC across the country, his speech and that of his colleague, Rep. Robert Matsui, were eloquent rebukes to those who praised Japanese Americans as quiet. And the content of Mineta’s father’s letter mentioning his last view of Santa Clara Street in San Jose connected all of us to that fight in the House.
Although he was a public figure, Norman Mineta’s life was intertwined with the web of ordinary and private connections that bind many Japanese Americans together – the connections that make some of us run through our family trees when we meet each other to see if we’re related or bound by some other, non-familial relationship – possibly school, possibly camp history, possibly friends of friends.
I remember that, although I arrived in San Jose Japantown as an outsider, even I was connected to Mineta through this tenuous web of connections. Even though he was born and raised in San Jose, California, where his father ran the family insurance agency, and I was born and raised elsewhere and moved to San Jose after Mineta had already moved to Washington, D.C., I discovered over the years that he and I were in somewhat adjacent spots in the JA cosmic web or in other words, within only a couple degrees of separation:
My mother, having been paroled from Gila River Concentration Camp in Arizona, moved to Washington, D.C. to join her sister and find work, where she met other Nisei in the JACL, including Norm Mineta’s elder sister and his brother-in-law.
My friend, Tamiko Thiel, who is the artistic advisor to the augmented reality art project called the Hidden Histories of San Jose Japantown, discovered with our help that her grandparents were friends with the Mineta family and their wedding photo is in front of the Mineta house on N 5th Street in Japantown.
I was very lucky to interview Mineta for Eastwind Magazine in 1989, after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 had been enacted but before it had been funded, which was a political education in itself. I asked him to tell us about how the vote had come down. He said, ” The night before the debate I remember calling Carol Stroebel (his legislative aide) and recounting the afternoon meeting with the Speaker (Jim Wright). She said, the call is yours, do we go tomorrow or not? And I thought, well, we don’t have the votes to really pass it. I think on the Demo side we had something like 183 votes for sure, and we didn’t know how many Republican votes we’d be picking up. I thought if we let this thing go ’til next week, it gives the opposition more time. So I said. No, we’re going to go. That night about 1 am I called Carol and said, I don’t know if I made the right decision. She had to pump me up a little at that point. And so we did it the next day. It was an emotional experience and it was very difficult giving my statement recalling my dad’s experience on the train as we were leaving San Jose (in 1942). But after the vote was taken it was just exhilarating.”
Years after the redress victory my husband Tom and I asked him about what he had thought when he was first confronted with the proposals for redress/reparations. He said, “when the JACL started pushing that idea, I just got a bad feeling in my stomach.” We felt honored that he would share that feeling with us. We knew that many people looked at him as either an icon to be protected or as someone to be criticized as a public figure, but to us his comment demonstrated how Mineta was, at heart, truly a former incarceree who had to struggle like everybody else to come to grips with his past and with the role that history had brought to his doorstep. We had sympathy for him. We could relate to that part of him.
To the Future
It’s become a cliché to claim that we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. I’ve always hated that saying because it conjures up an image of acrobats that is as awkward and incorrect as the graphic that’s used to portray evolution – a linear procession that starts with a fish crawling out of the water followed by a couple of primates and ending with a white male executive carrying a briefcase. I hate it because I’ve always felt that “standing on the shoulders” implies that we’ve learned only from afar, from the written words of our dead ancestors. It’s an image that leaves out place, community, and where our collective memory actually comes from. It also sets us up for hero worshipping, an inspirational but ultimately disempowering exercise.
The collective memory of a community comes from working shoulder to shoulder with those who are older and younger than us, who connect us in living, breathing ways to the past and the future. As a Sansei, I’ve been fortunate (and smart to have pursued the opportunity) to have learned some things about some Issei through the eyes of Nisei friends, and I’ve seen many Nisei other than my parents with my own eyes and worked alongside some incredible people who have taught me more than I am even conscious of yet. I hope to pass this knowledge and impressions (imbued with my experiences and personality) to the Yonsei I know as they also inform me of their own observations of the world they live in. Working and living together through good times and bad, we are always creating our collective memory.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity along with many others to have worked shoulder to shoulder with Norman Mineta.
I have memories of walking along 5th and Jackson, when ALA office was on Jackson: passing daily by the Mineta insurance office, and his family home nearby Wesley Methodist Church where his sister still lived, and thinking how amazing that this hometown guy was now in Washington, DC. And we could call his office, he knew who we were, and came to our annual DOR program and more. Such a small town success story, like a movie.
-Julie Yumi Hatta; founding NOC member/past Asian Law Alliance staff
Mineta was very personable and appreciative of Jon’s (Jang) and my work in support of redress. He had a tremendous memory so I was always impressed he remembered who I was when I met him.
-Francis Wong; musician and composer, co-founder of Asian Improv Arts
It took a lot of courage and risk for him to stand up as the first former incarceree in Congress to call for redress, especially as a relative newcomer to Congress. He made a big splash at a time when the general public was certainly not ready to talk about it, let alone support it. So he had to withstand all the flak coming from his congressional constituents as well as the SJ community as a whole. But he did it—as the representative and “protector” of his SJ JA community.
-Richard Katsuda, retired teacher, former executive director of Yu Ai Kai senior center
It was a privilege to work for Norm Mineta. He was always welcoming, open and willing to help those in need. He appreciated those he worked with and those he served. He loved San Jose, his home.
– Helen Hayashi, former aide to Congressman Mineta
Mineta embodied what I admire most in of my parents’ generation, the Nisei. While filled with contradictions, they held a solidness at their core and carried with them a tenacious sense of duty to care for the community and its people. Now, when I think of Mineta and the redress movement, I finally think I understand why he liked to quote Yogi Berra’s famous advice (“when you come to a fork in the road, take it”). I think it meant to him, no matter where you might end up in the end, be brave, and always take a stand for the good of all!
-Tom Izu, former NOC chairperson, former executive director of the California History Center at DeAnza College
Susan Hayase is a third generation Japanese American and long-time activist in the San Jose Japanese American community. Part of the grassroots movement for Japanese American redress, working in the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC) which was a founding member of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR), she performed with San Jose Taiko from 1980 through 1990 and served as vice chair of the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board (created by the redress bill for public education.) Her work with the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, included the #DontExcludeUs series exploring parallels between Japanese American incarceration and other historic oppression including the Mexican Repatriation, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Muslim Ban. She is one of the founders of San Jose Nikkei Resisters, a multi-generational grassroots organization which organizes support for HR40 reparations for slavery, re-imagining public safety, and is concerned about gentrification of San Jose Japantown. She also co-directs the Hidden Histories of San Jose Japantown Augmented Reality community art project that reveals the Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese American roots of San Jose Japantown.