OGs & New G’s Talkin’ Redress

A Conversation about NCRR and the Grassroots Struggle for Redress

(Compiled by Kathy Masaoka). Posted September 14, 2018.

On August 10, 2018, an informal gathering of about a dozen Sansei who were part of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) and the grassroots movement for redress and younger folks, organized by Nikkei Progressives (NP), met to talk about the movement for redress and the book, NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations. Fueled by food and wine, the evening was relaxed and words flowed in response to questions posed by Sean Miura of NP. Thank you to Taku Nishimae of NHK who filmed the discussion and shared the video with us.

Who Was in the Room: (NCRR: June, Miya, Kay, Janice, Richard, Jan, Mark, Suzy, Kathy, Mike, Taiji/ NP and guests: Tony, Sean, Kristin, Jen, Joy, Alison, Mia, Mya, Emily, Andie, Amy, Brian, Emily, Kennedy, Abe)

NCRR Book Talk on August 10, 2018 in Little Tokyo. Photo courtesy of NCRR.

Many of the NCRR folks were founding members back in 1980 and had been at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) in 1981. Some had helped prepare people to testify and others testified themselves. Many came out of the activism of the late 60’s and 70’s, Asian American Studies and were part of fighting redevelopment in Little Tokyo (which is covered by Glen Kitayama’s thesis in the book). They talked about feeling isolated and not connected to the Japanese American community until redress and pilgrimages to Manzanar and Tule Lake. Their backgrounds were varied, some growing up in LA, East Coast, San Diego, Northern California or on a farm or ranch.

Some of the NP folks and friends had seen the Table of Contents of the book and wanted to learn more of the history. Most had never heard of NCRR or redress while others were part of Visual Communications, were working at Go For Broke, the Japanese American National Museum, the Chinese American Museum or had gotten involved with NCRR after hearing members speak at a bookstore event post redress in the 90’s. They felt that there were lessons they could learn and be “a voice for those facing struggles that those before us faced.”

NCRR Grassroots Lobbying Delegation in WDC in Summer 1982. Photo by Glen Kitayama.

The Conversation:

Tony Osumi of Nikkei Progressives opened with a toast to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. He thanked those who had participated in the campaign, but reminded us that there is “more to do, so this gathering is just wetting our whistle. There are still people in camps and cages today.” Sean Miura moderated while Kristin Fukushima kept everyone’s glasses filled.

Sean: Not everyone knows what we mean when we talk about redress and the Civil Liberties Act. Kathy is going to talk us through the genesis of the movement and the highlights.

Kathy: It is kind of intimidating since there are so many people here who know the history, so you may think, “no, that’s not right” – please add. Just to give an arc of the movement, NCRR did not just pop out of nowhere. It came out of a movement of people and an activism that was happening in the late 60’s and 70’s. People had come back to Little Tokyo and joined groups, like LTPRO, a key organization, and in different cities, not just in LA, people had been working in their communities fighting redevelopment in San Francisco and here. We had developed certain skills, certain attitudes and certain values and that transferred over to NCRR. So, in LA, we really came out of LTPRO. NCRR was national, with chapters in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and eventually San Diego and even a small group in New York. It was a network of people that was able to carry this off.

Sean: What does NCRR stand for?

Kathy: Originally it stood for the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations and we kept the acronym since that is what everyone knows. And we wanted everyone to know that the grassroots part was key. When we talk about the Commission Hearings, it was the grassroots efforts to bring people to testify. Mike talked about the evening hearings because people who worked could not testify, so we thought about those people. The Japanese speaking people needed translation. They almost did not let them testify actually and we pushed back. If you ever look at the Commission Hearing tapes which NCRR and Visual Communications worked together on to film and preserve, you can actually see and hear the testimonies of people that are not alive today. These were stories we had never heard before and it pushed us forward. We took those tapes and went out to communities doing outreach, talking to people and getting people involved and fighting the defeatism that was part of our community at that time. Didn’t want to talk about. Didn’t think it was going to happen. Thought we should not talk about it. It was not easy. It was a ten-year campaign of getting people to be onboard. People say that we did not necessarily believe we were going to win but we knew we had to fight, we knew we had to do it.

There were times when things were not happening because it was a legislative campaign. There were many fronts: there was the law suit, the legal battles and we thought all of them were great but we decided on the legislative route because we thought it would be the fastest. At times there were lulls and Suzy mentioned the JAPSS campaign earlier (18 months of picketing to get the hair salon to change their name), the anti-Apartheid, struggles that we took up, partly to learn and partly because we understood there was a connection.

The 1987 delegation to DC was really important and again the people – truck drivers, the LADWP meter readers and the draft resisters – all of these people were part of the lobbying and part of NCRR. We attracted the feisty people, the people that did not really join organizations. We took up the principle of fighting for other people and supporting other groups even after we won redress. Kay can speak to the fact that we continued to fight for people who did not get redress initially, so all those cases after 1990 and through the 90’s. We decided to continue as NCRR, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress to support other groups. You know 9/11 happened and that became the area of work that we continued to work in.

Sean: Just for folks who may not be a 100% familiar with all the terminology, can you talk a little about what redress was, what exactly the movement was fighting for and what the CWRIC was.

Kay: CWRIC is the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. That was the federal commission that President Jimmy Carter established – we could do a whole history lesson. EO 9066 started with Roosevelt, then Jimmy Carter actually is the one who signed the legislative for the commission and by the time we got redress in 1988, Reagan is the one who ended up signing the bill. The mandate of the commission was to investigate what had happened to Japanese Americans during WWII and to determine if a wrong had been committed. In 1983, they made a report on the CWRIC hearings, which is my all-time favorite after NCRR’s book. It provided an in-depth history of what happened to our folks and also the remedies. The root causes of that incarceration – war hysteria, racial prejudice and failure of political leadership – that is huge now, race prejudice too. The commission hearings really propelled the redress movement; the testifiers were the real spark. We did not have to have any guilt; it just confirmed what we already felt.

Miya: It is hard to believe today, given all we know, that the concept of redress was controversial in our community. And it was the 80’s, there used to be arguments in families, “ do we agree with redress, with monetary restitution, with a presidential apology.” NCRR felt we needed to broaden it, so we developed a survey with those questions. The Rafu Shimpo, which is a very trusted media source, agreed to print it and tally it. We took it to Pacific Square in Gardena, to churches, temples and meetings. We passed it out everywhere and when the Rafu gathered up the responses, 92% wanted redress and 89% wanted the $25,000 individual payment. For NCRR, that was the will of the people and that gave us our marching orders. We worked with Congressman Mervyn Dymally to introduce a bill calling for all of those things. Six months earlier there was a congressman, Mike Lowry in Washington, who introduced the first bill. Then the JA legislators introduced their bill to establish a Commission to determine whether an injustice had been done. And of course, that bill won. In our org, we were discussing what to do. Some felt that we should boycott. The other half of the people said, “ Oh no, if we boycott, then they’re going to have control it.” And so we decided that if the hearings are going to happen then we want to play a role in how it happens. There was only one hearing planned and that was in Washington DC and that was with the academics and legislators. And NCRR fought to have hearings in every city that had a significant JA population and that is how we got all these 10 hearings. The first hearing was in LA and it was the best hearing. (People laugh)

JAs jammed the CWIRC hearing in Los Angeles, August 1984. Photo by Roy Nakano.

Jan : Can I just add? I agree that it was a very critical turning point when the hearings happened. When I think back on why it was so significant, I felt it was transformative for our community’s image or self- image. It was very empowering because it just blew out of the water any stereotypes of “well, Japanese are quiet, they don’t care, they don’t complain. Or they don’t need to have a voice because they have nothing to say.” Any of those stereotypes were totally crushed with the hearings because there were so many women who came forward, so inspiring, so many women of all ages. There were a lot of Sansei who spoke but also women who were actually in the camps and talking about and relating their family stories. I just wanted to add this – the empowerment that came with the hearings.

Sean: So I have few questions but if the younger people want to formulate questions they may have, we can make this more of a discussion and less of “Sean asking questions.”

When you first got involved, like on an individual level, what did you expect to happen? Did you all walk into it, saying “we are fighting for redress and we are going to get redress?” Or was it you entered it, and thought “we are fighting for redress and realistically we are going to get these things.”

Charles Hamasaki at CWRIC hearings in Los Angeles.

June: We never thought we were going to be able to get individual payments. The thing is there was a lot of talk about the terminology. The term used was redress – we thought that the heart of redress was the individual payments because redress could be anything. It could be educational programs which was primarily what JACL was pushing even though they had voted at their ’78 National Convention to support individual payments – that position sort of fell by the wayside. They did not do anything about it but once NCRR came out with a strong statement and the Rafu came out with the survey, they had to support. Redress without individual payment was not sufficient. But still we did not think we would get it. It was not till much later that we thought maybe there was chance as the movement started to really develop.

Miya:I always thought we were going to get it.

Mike: As someone said, a lot of us were activists and in the movement on the campuses and in the community. We definitely wanted redress but that wasn’t the only goal. It was also about the process of being engaged in the struggle, fighting for justice, working with other people and learning from the community. All those things were valuable things in themselves. So even if we did not achieve redress, we would not have summed it up as a total loss. But as we were involved in the struggle, more and more we started to think that it was possible because there was this galvanizing of all these people we had not worked with before and they were saying they wanted redress. So it seemed it was becoming more possible.

NCRR activist Junen Kizu testified at the CWIRC hearings in Los Angeles.

Kathy: We were already activists so this is what we’re going to do – this is an important struggle.   In 1980 I was pregnant and had my first child in December of 1980; then, my mother passed away in May of 1981 right before the Commission hearings. It became more important to me and I thought that every family’s story was important to say and that every family’s story was different and needed to be shared. For me it was a little more personal and kind of emotional because that period of time was just intense with both birth and death. It was about the process of going out and talking to people and hearing what people had to say and seeing people change but also fighting the negativism. A lot of negativism in our community with people saying “we are never going to win” – we were bucking that all of the time from certain individuals. That was part of it too.

Mike: Someone mentioned the LA hearings which were “how many days?” People chime in with “three days and one night.” So people like myself, Alan Nishio and people who represented community organizations spoke on the first day. We weren’t really sure what the tone should be, how much emotion to express, so we had these prepared statements that we read. They’re not bad but later on, when the people who were in camp started talking about their personal lives, their families, their sufferings and stuff and each day it kept getting more and more personal and more militant. And the people who were in camps are the ones that elevated the whole thing. So in comparison, if you look at Alan’s or my statement, they look kind of lame. Even within that three-day period, there was all this momentum -it moved all of us.

Sean: Can you talk about the process of getting people to testify and what that looked like for NCRR?

Kay: Jim Matsuoka has a great story in the book about it. He worked with Bert (Nakano) initially to try and get testifiers and got no takers. So it was a slow process of getting people. One person, Martha Okamoto, called Jim at Cal State Long Beach. She called or came into his office, I am not sure, but her brother was actually shot at Manzanar, shot and killed. I was like “what??” These were shocking stories. When you heard that, you really felt that people have to hear this. It was Jim taking the time to listen and her being brave enough to open up after all those years. And it just blew us all out of the water. That and she saved the T-shirt that he wore because the government wanted to say that he was shot in the front charging towards the guards. The family swears that the bullet holes are in the back.

Mrs. Martha Okamoto testied at the CWIRC hearings in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Unity Archive Project.

Kathy: And the government still wants to say that he was not shot in the back. Manzanar NPS (National Park Service) does not want to acknowledge that story even though she said it.

Kay: I just want to interject that a lot of people here were activist in college, Asian American Studies. I was not an activist. I was a cheerleader in college and had a real good time. That was a very different experience. When I went to the Commission hearings, everything changed from then on. The first meeting I went to, I knew no one in NCRR except Kathy, I remember going to Tokyo Towers for a community meeting and mostly senior citizens to educate and give them a chance to talk. I grabbed a teapot and poured tea because that is what you do, serve tea and senbei (rice crackers). So that is what I did with Janice Yen here. We were just trying to support the people. I had to listen and learn for a long, long time. And I some really good teachers.

Kathy: But Kay was also a union activist, so you hear that people were active in different ways. You were a union activist or I would not have bothered to put the flyer in your box.

June: just going back, in the Bay Area and I think here too, we spent a long time meeting with people, identifying people who might want to testify but also sitting down with them, talking with them and helping them write their statement. And then having them practice it beforehand several times -it wasn’t just getting people to testify but more of a lengthy process.

Taiji: San Diego – maybe Jan could share too. But big picture, remember, we were the enemy in WWII. When we walked down the street, we were the people that now the immigrants and Muslim people are. We were branded as the enemy. There were media lies, similar to what Trump says every time he talks. Outright lies. There were lies about how we were part of this underground, secret fifth column serving the Japanese Emperor, so we were not to be trusted. It is kind of hard for us to imagine that but that is probably how a lot of the immigrants feel now with the stuff that is going down. But that is how Japanese felt and before that, the Chinese immigrants, too, went through the Chinese Exclusion Act. So this context of being the enemy and being forcibly removed from your homes, being ordered with a street sign to pack up your bags and arrive at this place in 24 hours and go to a bus; then, you don’t even know where you are going or how long you are going. It is hard but you have to try and imagine the psychological pressure that was put on Japanese Americans at that time. So after the war a lot of people did not want to come back to the antagonistic environment on the West Coast where sometimes there was vigilante violence. People moved to the Midwest and East Coast, like my mother’s family who went to Cleveland after the war. They told everybody they were Chinese so they could hopefully get some place to live. That was the context and in addition to something in the Japanese culture where you don’t want to rock the boat, you don’t want to cause trouble. That is kind of this cultural thing, so we were up against those two things. We have to keep the big picture in mind. A lot of it is because of the repression and the desire to survive under very oppressive conditions. So people finally had made it to a place where they had some kind of financial stability. They did not want to go talking before the government about how they got screwed over by the government. There were a lot of different barriers as to where and why people didn’t want to testify.

It was very difficult. I remember the interview with Lillian Nakano who was getting a lot of pushback when she was out there trying to recruit other Nisei and she was a Nisei. It was not always easy to understand where that was coming from. But once we sat down and people started telling their stories the irrefutable facts of their actual experience and what happened to them and their families started to be liberated from that container of suppression, suppressed emotion and that is where that real power came from. That raw experience and the facts of that experience is what was the actual contradiction to the power structure that did what they did to us. That is why the process of going through this with the Nisei was very cathartic.

Miya; Once we were in the hearings, can you imaging every seat was filled and in fact, there was an overflow crowd so we had to fight with the State to get another hearing room and get the sound piped in because there were so many people. Every person that was testifying, you just lived and breathed every word they were saying – you cried or you laughed. You could just feel the solidarity in that room and I feel that the commission hearings and the redress movement, at this point in time, unified our community because they saw people standing up and just sharing things. The other people that were in camp – they were telling each other’s stories and it was very unifying. There was this white racist group called Americans for Historical Accuracy. They followed us everywhere. There was Jim Kawaminami who was about to testify and this white woman (Lillian Baker) came and tried to grab his testimony away from him. And there was big tussle.

Lillian Baker attacked Jim Kawaminami at LA CWIRC hearing.

Taiji: they were trying to say that the camps did not happen. They were deniers.

Sean:   (Kennedy shows the photo of Jim Kawaminami and Lillian Baker at the hearing in the NCRR book) The photo is great and so is the video.   Is that the one with Evelyn yelling?

Others: Everybody was yelling.

Kay: that security woman was wonderful since the tussle was going back and forth, she finally gave Lillian Baker the big elbow. She had to be really tough on her and Lillian had to be escorted out – everybody was cheering.

A second edition of the NCRR book is being printed now. Order your copy at www.ncrr-la.org.

Miya: This is jumping way forward. After we did win redress and Bob Bratt was coming out. He was head of the Office of Redress Administration so he meeting with all these people in different cities to help them through the process of applying. There was a meeting in Gardena and those racists were there. He told us about a big white guy who was trying to bullshit around and this short Nisei guy went up to him and “Pow.” Bob could not believe that the Nisei had just clocked him. That Nisei guy might not have done that in the past, but this whole process gave us strength, unity and he knew that community had his back.

Kennedy: You mentioned that it was not just one group but there were a bunch of groups. It is also important that there were groups, not Asian American or Japanese American, that helped with this fight. Can you talk about that? It is very important to what is happening today.

Gilbert Sanchez, labor and Chicano community leader, testified for JA redress and reparations at the CWIRC hearings in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Unity Archive Project.

Kay: Gilbert Sanchez testified at the hearings that his organization was totally on board. Congressional Black Caucus supported (Mervyn Dymally, Ron Dellums). Really really strong. And in the larger community we had trade unions – they came on to support because we could not have done it ourselves. One of the larger national groups was the Lutheran Synod and it was Reverend Paul Nakamura who got them to support us. Our long time advocates were the Quakers. We always say that they were the only organization that supported the Japanese. I still donate to them.

Taiji: They helped during the war. They brought stuff to us in camp.

Kathy: Herbert Nicholson actually was the person that brought things to the camp. He testified in 1981 and was still alive. Miya mentioned the Native Americans. We supported the Hopi /Navajo whose lands were being contaminated by uranium mining. We had a program called Broken Rainbow and had a film showing at the Japan America Theater and it was amazing that we filled the theatre. They spoke at our Day of Remembrance program the day after and supported our efforts for redress too.

Miya: Even at rallies, Edward James Olmos. This is when he was real popular. Do you know who he is? (they did not seem to know – Stand By Me and Miami Vice and discussion about him – google him). He was really popular. We had a big rally, Day of Protest, because they were dragging their feet in 1989.

The conversation just scratched the surface and ended with the participants wanting to know more. More book talks are planned in the Bay Area, San Diego and in Los Angeles. Visit NCRR-LA.org for details.

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