Article by Eddie Wong with the poem “Thank you, Alan” by Susan Hayase. Posted December 31, 2023
Longtime activist, educator, and leader in the Los Angeles Japanese American community and progressive movement, Alan Nishio died on December 27, 2023 after a 17-year battle with cancer. And what a battle it was –seven surgeries, four rounds of chemotherapy and three sessions of radiation treatment. Earlier this year, Alan told me that he was going to stop chemotherapy since the side effects were making his life miserable. He had outlived all of the members of his support group who had the same rare cancer. Alan was ready to face the inevitability of death.
When I visited him on April1,2023, he spoke of his family’s visit to the Japanese American National Museum for Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration. He told me that it was the first time that the entire Nishio family gathered specifically to hear the story of how the unjust, racist imprisonment of 125,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese impacted the family. As Alan placed a stamp by the names of his ancestors in the sacred book of names (Ireichō), he spoke about the need to remember this historic injustice and work to never see it repeated again. He also spoke of the hidden trauma many Japanese Americans faced as they returned destitute from camp. Alan recounted how his father became addicted to alcohol and how trauma affected his sister for the rest of her life. By sharing these stories, Alan was setting an example for others to seek treatment their pain and suffering. Silence only drives the illness deeper. A full account of what transpired at this emotional gathering can be found in Sharon Yamato’s article Living, Dying, and Passing It On – Alan Nishio Family at Ireichō .
The hour passed swiftly at Alan and Yvonne’s house as friends Bruce Iwasaki and Evelyn Yoshimura also shared their family stories. As usual, Alan asked us all what we were doing. He wasn’t just being a considerate host. That’s just who he was – a man who was curious about others and supportive of their work.
Alan took the unusual step of convening zoom chats with activist friends from throughout the nation to say good-bye and to thank his friends for being on this journey with him for so many years. It was after one of these sessions that my friend, Susan Hayase, who once chaired the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee in San Jose, CA (which was a founding member of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations) during the 1980s, wrote the poem you will see at the end of this article. She captures the admiration so many of us feel for Alan.
Alan had a significant impact on my life. He provided an alternative model of what a revolutionary activist could be. He was generally soft spoken, extremely personable and kind. Alan had a sly sense of humor, many times directed at himself. There was a twinkle in his eye and a zest for life that was irresistible. He didn’t posture or pontificate but made his arguments logically and without a lot of sloganeering. I saw him in action at the formation of the Asian American Political Alliance, Los Angeles when he and others such as Ron Hirano and Linda Miya Iwataki brought in guest speakers to discuss the need to repeal the Emergency Detention Act: Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950. The gathering drew Nisei activists as well as a few scruffy 19 years-olds from the nearby college campuses. Alan opened the meeting in a calm and deliberate manner, but you could tell he was angry and determined to never see concentration camps erected in the U.S. again, especially since he was born at Manzanar Concentration camp. By the way, I learned a few years ago that the FBI had an informant at that AAPA meeting in Los Angeles. Despite our mild-mannered appearance, we were apparently DAF in the eyes of the state.
I participated in the Asian American Community College, which Alan and other activists organized in the summer of 1960. The college was dedicated to making Asian American history and community issues as well as arts training available for free to anyone. When he became acting director of UCLA Asian American Studies Center, he encouraged me to apply for the Ethnocommunications program at the UCLA Film School despite my lack of an artist’s portfolio. I still cannot draw, paint, or sculpt. But at the time, I could write terrible poetry and scribble political pamphlets. Alan’s faith in my abilities meant the world to me, and after being accepted into film school, I came to accept filmmaking as my true path. I stayed in the documentary film field for nearly 10 years and helped co-found Visual Communications. I would have never thought about becoming a filmmaker if Alan hadn’t nudged me towards the arts. Needless to say, my parents opposed going into this field and I had to overcome severe doubts about my abilities as an artist.
I moved to the SF Bay Area in the late 1970s and followed Alan’s community activities from afar as he co-chaired the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations in the 1980s. Through his work at California State University Long Beach as Associate Dean, he became a well-respected college administrator. He continued to be a strong advocate for students of color and a promoter of ethnic studies.
I have asked other friends to write about his work in building institutions in the Los Angeles Japanese American community. I hope to post those remembrances in January 2024. Alan did the quiet, behind-the-scenes work in building community boards, mentoring executive directors, and raising money so that the Little Tokyo Service Center and the Japanese American Community Culture Center could grow and thrive.
He remained active in progressive politics. As he was honored at the 2017 Manzanar Pilgrimage, Alan characteristically placed the award in the larger social context. His speech, which you can see in the video below, emphasized the need to go beyond remembrance to resistance. He condemned the hatred and hardships being unleashed by the Trump administration. Seven years later, we now face a presidential race where Trump is on the stump vowing revenge for a “stolen” election and invoking rhetoric reminiscent of Adolph Hitler. Alan’s words ring true now more than ever. If we do not resist, our democracy will perish.
Alan Nishio was fiercely committed to social justice. A fire burned deeply in his soul, but he always carried himself with modesty and in a gentle manner. He was a warrior in a profound and deeply moving way. Farewell, my friend. I’ll see you on the other shore.
Author’s Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor and publisher of East Wind ezine. He has been active in the Asian American cultural and political movement since his days at UCLA in the late 1960s.
Addendum: Thank you, Alan.
Not a traditional wake.
As we gather from far corners, hearts in hand, love hot in our eyes
The dying man is comforting us all,
Is reminding us how we are connected,
Is reminding us of what we’ve meant to each other,
Is reminding us of the work we’ve done and still do.
Is teaching us as he always has
How to live
How to fight
How to have fire
The dying man is teaching us how to die.
The legacy that we all are leaving,
Not something possible by a single man or woman.
He says, “It’s not about me.”
He says, “Okay, it’s about me because I’m dying,”
“But I don’t want you to forget all the things that we’ve done, my friends and comrades.”
We laugh and cry as we remember
As we peer through our different windows into our common past
And together we smile softly at the grief
It can’t bury us because it’s lifting us on his wings
–Susan Hayase, April 18, 2023