Dr. Joseph Ozawa is a remarkable man. His journey started in J-Flats/Los Angeles after being born in a U.S. concentration camp during WWII and continued to Harvard College when, during his sophomore year, he joined the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham,AL. His career as a teacher, psychologist, and therapist have led him all over the U.S. and Asia. We conducted this interview via email in March 2020.
Eddie Wong: Tell us about your family background, i.e. where you grew up, what your parents did for a living, and your schooling through high school.
Joe Ozawa: My family was from J-Flats. Generally, called, “Hollywood.” I lived with my extended family on Virgil St. and Clinton Ave. My grandfather Ozawa came to America in the late 1890’s from Shizuoka, Japan. As the #2 son of a rice farmer, he was deprived of all property (in Japanese culture, the #1 son gets everything). Consequently, he left for California where he was a farmer growing strawberries in the Central Valley and later in Glendale.
My Ozawa grandmother was highly educated and was a Japanese picture bride. She came to America after her first husband died in a battle during the Russo-Japanese War. Eventually, they opened a fruit stand on Heliotrope Ave., near Melrose Ave. and Vermont St. They also ran a boarding house for immigrants from Japan. They did extremely well financially.
My father was born on Virgil St., went to Hollywood High School, then graduated from Woodbury College in business. My mother was born in Honaunau, Kona, Hawaii, the daughter of a Kona coffee farmer. Her mother died in the influenza epidemic following WWI. My mother then studied to be a nurse at the University of Hawaii but never completed it and instead due to a squabble with her family, moved to Pasadena, California. She met my father, they married, and then WWII broke out.
When the war broke out, my entire extended family was sent away to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. They lost everything they had, including the fruit stand on Heliotrope Ave. and the boarding house on Virgil St. and Clinton Ave. I was born in Heart Mountain, Wyoming in 1945. My mother was six months pregnant, and I weighed about two pounds. There were no medical facilities for premature babies. Consequently, they put me in a shoebox with a light bulb and I was fed by an eye dropper. They expected me to die; I was named after my father, “Joe Naoshi Ozawa.” However, apparently, the registrar was a Christian and SHE named me “Joseph” because “Joe” was a nickname. I lived, obviously. My doctor, Dr. Paul Nakaji called me his “miracle baby.” He said no child that small had ever lived in the Heart Mt. internment camp. So, he insisted I be given his name, “Paul.” So, I became “Joseph Paul Naoshi Ozawa.” I got an Old Testament and New Testament name. To my knowledge, none of my family were Christians at the time so it stunned everyone. My parents were not pleased but said nothing. My father’s family were Buddhist and practiced “ancestor worship.” Apparently, when my mother was a young girl, she attended a Christian church in Kona, but my father was definitely not a Christian.
Upon release, we all returned to J-Flats. My father became a gardener despite his education because Japanese Americans could get no other jobs. I went to Dayton Heights Elementary, Virgil Jr High and Belmont High. I was a very lazy student in elementary school but my 6th grade teacher “forced me” to study.
My best friend was a Chinese American from Chinatown. I studied hard with my Chinese American friend and eventually, I became a straight A student and Student Body President of Belmont.
Joe Ozawa as the President of the Student Council at Belmont High in Los Angeles.
Eddie Wong: Tell us about your admission to Harvard? Were there any other minorities in your freshman class? What did you study?
Joe Ozawa: I was accepted to Harvard, Princeton and Stanford and attended Harvard. My father told me, “You have no choice. You go to Harvard or you will not receive any financial help from me!” I was the first graduate of Belmont to attend Harvard. My best friend, whose parents ran a gift shop in Chinatown, went to UC Berkeley and later to Cal Tech. He became a physicist for the government on top secret projects. We are still friends today. Belmont was academically very inadequate so very few classmates went to the Ivy League.
There were only a few Asians in my class at Harvard. One, a half-Chinese half-German, became my roommate because there weren’t any other Asians in our class (I believe there was another Japanese American from Chicago and another Japanese immigrant). We stuck together. We were obviously different.
I studied Government (pre-law) because at that time, I wanted to become a lawyer. I admired President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated during my Freshman year. Incidentally, I later got a Masters in education from Harvard and a PhD in counseling /educational psychology at the University of Southern California. I used this training later in life. Eventually, years later, in the late 1990’s, I became a forensic psychologist in the government of Singapore — interestingly, Singapore is about 70% Chinese. It all came together. Law, psychology, and my affinity for Chinese. There were very few minorities at Harvard College during my time there. It was generally mostly “WASP” and I took courses in the Asian Studies department to learn more about my Asian roots.
Eddie Wong: When did you first become aware of the Civil Rights Movement? Did you experience any racism growing up in LA?
Joe Ozawa: In general, I grew up with Asians (many Chinese Americans from Chinatown) and Latinos. Also, a mixture of whites and African Americans as well. As I said, my best friend was Chinese American. I guess we Asians bonded together. The Mexican Americans stayed together. We were the dominant groups. J-Flats was Japanese American and many of my friends came from Chinatown; mostly, they had Cantonese roots. So, I didn’t experience much prejudice at this point in life. Of course, I was born in an internment camp, so I unconsciously experienced prejudice since I was conceived! However, my parents never talked about the “camps” (part of the Japanese culture of “gaman” or “tolerate”) but their anger (mainly shame) was simmering below the surface.
They always wanted me to have Asian friends (and by that, they meant Japanese or Chinese Americans). They also were friendly towards Jews as they said the Jews had experienced terrible persecution during the Holocaust. They were, however, prejudiced against Mexican Americans and African Americans. I recall that as a teenager, I attended a camp run by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (I was neither) where I met a beautiful African American girl. I brought her home once. My parents were hostile and told me never to do that again. I had no knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 when I first went to Harvard. However, in 1963-4, majoring in government, I became aware of the movement in America towards racial equality. This resonated within me.
Eddie Wong: Tell us about what life was like at Harvard in 1963. You mentioned that you became involved with the Phillips Brooks House. What are the origins of that social action program?
Joe Ozawa: Initially, I became part of the semi-elite social group at Eliot House. Harvard was and probably still is, divided into “Houses.” Eliot was the “preppie” house made up of elite, mostly East Coast, graduates of places like Exeter, Andover, Choate, etc. My roommate, assigned by the College, was the son of a wealthy Midwestern executive. He went to the finest schools, and we got into Eliot House. We wore three-piece suits, drank sherry, spoke with pseudo-English accents, and ate with our forks in our left hand. Still, I felt very uneasy there and befriended the above-mentioned Chinese American classmate as well as a Mexican American classmate who had gone to Lincoln High School in Los Angeles.
Eventually, I discovered Phillips Brooks House Association (“PBHA”). At first, I volunteered in the “Mental Health committee” and went out each week to the state mental hospital as a volunteer. Later, I helped to run a community action and tutoring volunteer group working with lower socio-economic students in the Cambridge area. PBHA was founded around 1900 by the Reverend Phillips Brooks of Trinity church in Boston and eventually PBHA became less religious and more focused on service. Sometimes, it also had members who were social activists. Coming from J-Flats and Belmont High, being with like-minded Harvard and Radcliffe students who had a heart for social service to the deprived and poor, I felt more comfortable than being with elite WASP Harvard College students.
Eddie Wong: You mentioned that Dean John Monro had formed a partnership with Miles College after meeting its president Lucius Pitts at a conference in 1962. What motivated Dean Monro to set up the tutorial program with Harvard students and Miles College students in the Black community near Birmingham, AL. What training did you undergo to become a tutor? How long was the program going to last in the summer of 1963?
Book cover for John U. Monro Uncommon Educator.
Joe Ozawa: I don’t know much about Dean Monro’s background, only that although he was the Dean of prestigious Harvard College, he had a heart of service and a somewhat radical history of helping scholarship students and the poor. Apparently, in 1962, he met Lucius Pitts of Miles College and Dean Monro went there periodically to teach without compensation. That he eventually gave up elite Harvard for a small black college in Alabama where he never assumed a high role (only becoming a teacher), was not surprising to me, but inspiring. Dean Monro’s humility and service touched many of us at PBHA. He was such a counterbalance to the prevalent prideful attitude of Harvard College in general.
When I saw the notice in the Harvard Crimson for the Harvard-Miles College summer project, I volunteered. As I had worked with inner city youth at PBHA, and tutored poor children, I thought it only natural that I could help at Miles. However, in discussions, we quickly learned that the “project” was more than teaching, but really part of a thrust towards integration and furthering the ideals of Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Afterall, a team of all white, Northern college students coming to work in an African American community was novel and radical. It was more than “teaching.” Of course, the “invasion” of Northern white youth during the Civil Rights movement was incendiary. We were clearly aware of the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, the Mississippi civil rights workers who were killed working with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in their attempt to register African Americans to vote. We knew we were part of that same effort as we attempted to both integrate facilities (like restaurants and bowling alleys) and to register voters.
Dr. Lucius Pitts, President of Miles College.
We also knew that violence was stalking the area (e.g. the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 in which four children were killed). We visited the site and yet continued to work with young African American children in the Birmingham area. We knew that the KKK and other militant groups were still in operation in Mississippi and Alabama and that the risks were very high. This was not simply a “tutoring” project but rather a radical attempt to integrate and to break down historical strongholds of hatred, prejudice and discrimination. I don’t recall exactly, but the program was slated to last through the summer.
Eddie Wong: How were you and the rest of the Harvard students received by the African American community and the kids?
Joe Ozawa: By and large, we were greeted graciously, though with some skepticism, by the Miles College community and children. They had rarely, if ever, been so close to white people so they were curious. As an Asian, I was subjected to the usual childish taunts of “Ching chong Chinaman!” or people tugging on their eyes to imitate slanted eyed Asians; and there were other racial slurs – all from the African Americans (mainly the children).
When we went to segregated facilities, I recall that there were only two lines: “white” and “black/ Negroes.” Where did I fit in? I remember once in a state-run liquor store, waiting in the “black” line and having a security guard come over and shove me into the white line. “Boy, you don’t belong with them niggers!” he barked. Eventually, over the summer, we developed friendships and even romantic cross-racial attachments. I had an African American girlfriend and spent memorable moments, some sexual. It felt really wonderful to us as young people. Other white classmates (esp. the girls) kept their distance from Black male students, knowing that a white girl and black boy together could cause irreparable damage to the “movement” and would only inflame white segregationists.
Eddie Wong: You told me about how your carload of Harvard students was followed by white folks who you thought might have been Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and that they pulled out a shotgun but didn’t fire. Where did this happen? Did they say anything to you? How did you feel at the moment?
Joe Ozawa: Throughout our time, we were very aware of the KKK, State Police, States Rights Party, and segregationists who had proven to be violent, especially towards “Northern agitators.” I don’t think we were paranoid. We were foolish in that our automobile license plates were from Massachusetts or Connecticut and we often drove in cars with blacks and whites together. We were clearly “followed” by cars up to the gates of Miles College where they had black guards on bicycles armed with shotguns patrolling the grounds 24/7. We were cautioned to stay on campus at all times unless we were going out on assignments like voter registration, integrating facilities, etc.
One time as my good friend (white Harvard student from Connecticut) and I were driving to look for a place regarding voter registration, a car pulled up alongside and a white man pulled out a shotgun and pointed it directly at us. My friend placed himself in front of the gun (blocking their view of me) and told me, “duck down, Joe, let them kill me.” We became fast friends. Another time, we went to “sit in” a bowling alley. Within about 10 minutes, a gang of white men entered the alley with clubs, tire irons, while others picked up bowling pins; they tried to surround us. We quietly and quickly walked out as we already knew the non-violent resistant methods advocated by Dr. King.
Miles College students led a boycott of downtown Birmingham stores.
We also attended church services where Dr. King’s lieutenants spoke, and that was my first experience in African American Southern Baptist churches which were of a completely different culture. Women fanning themselves, people swaying back and forth while gospel singing, preachers singing their sermons (which made no sense to me at all), and calls to God to aid us all in our efforts at raising up the conditions of “Negroes in the South.” I was a bit baffled but inspired nevertheless.
Eddie Wong: Tell us more about the tutoring program? How many students did you have and how long was the session?
Joe Ozawa: I don’t recall details, but generally, we drove around Birmingham picking up elementary age children and driving them to Miles College where we taught them basic literacy skills. They were shockingly behind their Northern white counterparts. We spent a good part of each day with them, though as I mentioned, we did other things as well like voter registration and integrating public facilities.
Eddie Wong: You also told me that the Harvard students engaged in voter registration work. Did you get followed or harassed by the whites? How did the Black community react to your door-to-door outreach? Was the voter registration drive successful?
Joe Ozawa: I don’t recall whether we were successful. However, it felt like taking a census. Many seemed eager to vote, though uncertain that they could legally do so as a lifetime of segregation had left most people helpless and even hopeless. I am still astounded that somehow, Obama became a two term President when in 1964, these disenfranchised “Negroes” could hardly believe that they could influence the government.
Joe Ozawa (center) with Birmingham school children. 1964.Photo courtesy of Joe Ozawa.
Eddie Wong: How did your family react to your announcement that you were going to Alabama for civil rights work? I recall you telling me that they dispatched an uncle to your dorm room to say “I forbid you to go.” What made you stick to your guns and go? Did your parents ever soften their stance after you completed the summer’s work?
Joe Ozawa: I mentioned that my parents were totally against my PBHA project and sent my Uncle (in Japanese culture, to be respected) who was an MIT graduate and worked for the US government. He lived in Massachusetts and appeared at my doorstep. He said something like, “Your parents and family forbid you to go to Alabama or Mississippi! It is too dangerous and we cannot allow you to do this!” I thanked him, closed the door, and was determined to go regardless.
My parents and I never talked about this incident. We are good Asians, after all (hahaha).
Eddie Wong: Did you ever go back to Birmingham, AL in later years for organizing work?
Joe Ozawa: No, never went back. I think that by the time Dr King was assassinated in 1968, I was already in the Navy, I was preoccupied with the Vietnam War and whether I would be sent over.
Eddie Wong: What did you do when you returned to Harvard?
Joe Ozawa: Upon return to Harvard, I could not stand being in my elitist, almost all white, (WASP) Harvard College community. I moved into the inner city of Roxbury (encouraged by and given permission to do so by Dean Monro) where I lived in a room of a Black family. I played in a West Indian steel band, wrote and directed a play about the ghetto (“Coffee and Sour Cream”); it was performed at the Harvard Loeb theater and reviewed by the Boston Globe. I was also a bodyguard for a group of Boston’s Cardinal Cushing nuns who were doing inner city work. After what I had experienced in Birmingham, it was “cognitive dissonance” for me to identity with Harvard College and its seemingly pretentious environment. Sure, we were supposedly the cream of the crop, the brightest in America, the most privileged and superior young men, but that thought caused great conflict within my soul. I just happened onto the West Indian steel band (actually run by a drug dealer) but as I had some musical training (played classical piano), I found playing oil drums very easy.
However, in time, I returned to Cambridge, and finished off my Harvard College education and my major in government /pre-law. I admit that I was a heavy drinker and into some drugs as well. I dated African American young women and partied a lot and was mostly interested in hedonistic living (drugs, sex, and rock and roll!). I also had white girlfriends, one of whom was a Radcliffe student I met at PBHA and whom I married while in the Navy (and subsequently divorced). To say I was confused and lost would be an understatement!
Joe Ozawa with the West Indian Steel Band, Roxbury, MA, 1964-1965. Photo courtesy of Joe Ozawa.
Eddie Wong: You mentioned to me that you ended up serving in the U.S. Navy after college. What led you to that decision?
Joe Ozawa: In 1966-67, the Vietnam War was still raging. My draft board was “Hollywood,” and they were very conservative. I received a letter that I would be drafted and sent over to Vietnam upon my graduation. However, if I took a national exam and passed in the one percentile, I would be deferred. I did so and was in the one percentile of the nation. Then they wrote and said they had changed their policy. If I went to graduate school, I would be deferred. So, I applied to Columbia University as a grad student and was accepted. Then the draft board wrote and said they would draft me when I finished my Masters degree at Columbia. So, I applied to the Peace Corps and was accepted to go to Peru. Then the draft board wrote and said they would draft me after I finished my two years in the Peace Corps! I was not religious and could not be a Conscientious Objector. I had no desire to flee to Canada. So, I applied to become a Navy officer and was accepted. I then went through Officer Candidates School (OCS) in Newport Rhode Island. It was a horrendous shock as it was really brainwashing / indoctrination along with physical and psychological harassment.
Eddie Wong: What was it like to be an Asian American in the military during the Vietnam War? Did you experience any “you look like the enemy” moments?
Joe Ozawa: To my knowledge, I was the only Asian at OCS at that time, but that didn’t seem to matter much. I felt little discrimination there but hated the brainwashing (really being trained to go to Vietnam and kill), and all along, I was anti-war anyway, feeling the War in Vietnam was unjust. I had, what today, I would call “moral trauma,” the trauma of doing something which was morally repugnant to me.
The overwhelming majority of officers and Navy enlisted were white and mainly Southerners. So they were very racist but as I was an officer, people had to be respectful. No one bothered me about “looking like the enemy,” but I used to have nightmares about going to Vietnam and killing Vietnamese who were Asians. How could I kill my own?
Upon graduation, I was assigned to the USS POCONO (AGC 16), the “flagship” of COMPHIBLANT (Commander Amphibious Forces Atlantic). This was once again, an elite group of Navy – Marine Corps landing forces being trained for assault in Vietnam. But it was a highly visible position and what we called, “spit and polish” and I never knew if I was assigned to the Pocono because I was the only Asian officer. No one mentioned that. Due to my legal background (pre-law), I was also assigned to assist in the JAG (Judge Advocate General’s) Corps. Things went well as a prosecutor but when our Commanding Officer (a Navy Captain) insisted on prosecuting a poor white Southern boy “to make him an example,” I fought back and incurred the CO’s wrath. Once again, standing up for the rights of the oppressed was important to me and my moral outrage led to my bad fitness report. Maybe it led to my next duty assignment as “Swift Boat Commander, Mekong Delta.” That was like a death sentence.
Joe Ozawa (center) with “Deck” Division on the USS Pocono. The division was in charge of artillery and landing craft.Photo courtesy of Joe Ozawa.
Many young officers assigned to swift boat duty in the Mekong Delta “came back in a body bag.” But further, I couldn’t stomach the idea of killing Asians when the war was so unjust. During this time, rumors of the My Lai massacre (1969) circulated and it was known that the US military was dropping napalm / agent Orange on civilians as well. I was desperate and called Dean Monro who had been a decorated Navy hero in WWII. He called his friends in Washington DC and I went to DC to interview. My “detailer” told me that Dean John Monro had said that I had experience in working with African Americans. “Yes,” I said. He then told me that the Navy and Marine Corps were conducting a special unit to train African Americans for duty as Navy and Marine Corps officers. The number of African American Navy / Marine Corps officers was very low and it had become a political issue. The training was at Prairie View A&M College outside Houston. I agreed to go and was assigned there for an additional two years. I then became a Naval ROTC instructor, teaching a variety of courses such as engineering, navigation, amphibious assault, etc. I was discharged from that duty and went to graduate school.
Eddie Wong: What did you study in graduate school?
Joe Ozawa: I applied to graduate law schools but didn’t get into the ones I desired. However, I was accepted to Hastings School of Law, UC Berkeley upon condition that I would devote my time there to helping the Asian community, esp. in Chinatown, San Francisco. I said that I was interested in criminal law and wanted to work with ANY criminal, regardless of race. The admissions officer was angry (he was Latino) that I was not interested in helping minorities, and I was subsequently rejected. I finally attended Harvard (again!) at the Graduate School of Education, where I received a degree in Education and one in English (double masters). I was subsequently recruited by Archie Epps, Dean of Harvard (successor to John Monro), an African American, to be his assistant. However, he told me that my role was to be a mediator between the Administration and the radical students who had been “sitting in” in protests. I refused to play that role as I felt I would be the Administration’s lackey.
Eventually, I taught high school in Brookline, Massachusetts. Then, my father fell ill in Los Angeles and my parents asked me to return to LA. They still lived in J Flats. I took a job as Dean of Students of Harvard School in North Hollywood, an elite school for boys. During the next decade, I got divorced, got a PhD in counseling / education psychology, eventually left my job at Harvard School and began a private practice in Westwood Village.
Eddie Wong: What impact did your summer in Birmingham, AL have on your life and outlook about race relations?
Joe Ozawa: I need to fill in the big gaps. I remarried (both wives were white), and then became a Christian. Eventually, I became a psychologist and a pastor (this time in La Jolla, CA). I had lost all contact with my Asian roots, with my 1964 summer, or with my radical life. I was living comfortably in the white world and like many Asians, began to see myself as white Christian (in fact as a WASP).
One day, a Japanese American Navy Chaplain came to church. He took me out to lunch, and said, “Joe, look in the mirror tomorrow.” I did. Then the next day he returned and asked, “So what did you see?” “I saw me!” “No, you are an Asian. You’ve lost your identity. God created you to be an Asian.”
I was dramatically touched by God during this time, and eventually gave up my private practice and even my pastoral role in a white church. I began reaching out to gays with HIV/AIDs, to inner city street children, and to African Americans in Golden Hill (inner city of San Diego). Doors opened for me with World Vision, International and other NGOs to do work with emotional healing, reconciliation, mediation, trauma / disaster recovery, in many nations, including Asia (e.g. Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore) and Africa (Ghana, South Africa, Ethiopia, Rwanda). One day, I was asked to move to Singapore (which is 70% Chinese and 30% Malay, Indian and others).
Essentially, from 1996-2012, I began working / volunteering in Asia (mainly Singapore, but also Japan and for 2 years, Hawaii). I became a court official in Singapore for most of that time, primarily working with the Chinese. Most of my friends and colleagues were Singaporean Chinese. I also pastored in a Chinese church.
I had become truly Asian, no longer Asian American. In fact, my daily life was primarily with Chinese and later with Japanese.
When my mother-in-law fell ill, we returned to California to care for her. I worked primarily with the Asian American Christian Counseling Service in Alhambra where 90% of my clients were Chinese (with a few Koreans and Japanese). However, I also became a Chaplain in two hospitals (Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center and Olive View UCLA Los Angeles County Hospital in Sylmar) where I worked with people of many backgrounds, and at Olive View, mainly with Latinos.
So, for 17 years, I lived and worked outside America. I still go annually to Japan to work as a consultant to Asian Rural Institute (ARI), a training center for Third World farmers from Africa and Asia. People are from 15-25 different nations each year, mainly from Africa and Asia.
Joe Ozawa with students at the Asian Rural Institute, Tochigi, Japan. 2019. Photo courtesy of Joe Ozawa.
Does this tie in with the summer of 1964?
Yes, indeed. As a youth I began to feel at a deep level that all people are equal. Maybe through Dr. King, maybe through Dean Monro, and perhaps through the Spirit of God working within me whether I was a Christian or not, I became aware in the injustice of racism, xenophobia, and prejudice. As a Christian, I have generalized that to “we are all God’s children and creation.” Young and old, rich and poor, male and female (and other), black and white and yellow. No one is superior to another on the basis of wealth, race, ethnicity, nation of origin, gender or education. We are all loved and to be loved equally.