Richard Aoki, the Japanese American Black Panther: A Fascinating, Inspiring Life Story

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By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

“Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life” by Diane C. Fujino is no conventional biography.

Aoki was the most prominent non-African American member of the Black Panther Party, and his biography is fascinating, educational, inspiring — in short, hard to put down.

One of the best things Fujino chose to do was scrap the traditional biography format where the story is written in third person. Instead, Fujino uses narratives from Aoki’s oral history interviews, allowing him to tell his story in his own colorful language.

The academic portion is at the end of chapter, where Fujino corroborates, analyzes and interprets Aoki’s life.

Aoki’s biography debunks any misconception that the World War II U.S. concentration camps didn’t affect young children negatively. Fujino cites studies done by Dr. Satsuki Ina and Donna Nagano to show the larger picture — that Aoki’s childhood camp experience was not an isolated incident.

Aoki was born in San Leandro in 1938 and grew up in Berkeley. When World War II broke out, he and his family were sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center and then to the Topaz (Central Utah) War Relocation Authority camp.

The uprooting destroyed Aoki’s grandfather’s successful noodle factory, which was manufacturing and distributing noodles across the nation before the war.

In camp, Aoki’s parents did the unthinkable in the tight-knit Nikkei community: they separated. Not only did Aoki feel abandonment by his parents but he also felt the sting of ostracism from his extended family and larger camp community.

It was also in camp that Aoki got into his first fistfight when an older bully picked on his younger brother, and he also witnessed his first act of violence when a man split open the head of another man with a two-by-four.

Camp, to Aoki, was a place of conflict.

Aoki also started to understand the injustice of the camps when his father, Shozo, quit his job teaching history at the camp junior high school. His father had shared with him that he couldn’t teach about democracy and equality to the students while they were cooped up in camp for no reason other than being of Japanese ancestry.

Thus, Fujino captures the kernels of Aoki’s early life that would propel him to get involved in fighting for justice and equality.

For Aoki, life after camp didn’t get any easier. He grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood in West Oakland, in poverty, in a single-parent home. He and his brother lived with their father, who started to drink heavily, got into illegal narcotics dealings, and then one day, just disappeared.

At the same time, Aoki had to learn the laws of street, and it helped that his uncle taught him jujitsu.

Despites these hurdles, Aoki became a voracious reader when he discovered the public library. By then, he’d earned enough “street cred” that no one hassled him about his library visits.

What eventually emerges is a thoughtful, well-read man, shattering any stereotype that Aoki was just a fanatic gun nut when he became involved with the Black Panther Party.

Aoki’s thirst for knowledge would lead him to read what was then (and probably now) considered radical political theories such as Marxism, Maoism, Trotskyism, etc.

Aoki’s life then becomes a lesson on the rise of the civil rights movement, that, unlike most books that deal with the 1960s and 1970s, does not focus on the Deep South or widely known anti-Vietnam protests such as at Kent State.

Diane Fujino

The reader follows Aoki’s membership with the Socialist Workers Party/Young Socialist Alliance, the Vietnam Day Committee and the Tricontinental Movement; his key involvement at the beginnings of the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Asian American Political Alliance and the Third World Liberation Front; his connection with Alex Hing and the Red Guard; and his participation in creating the first Asian American studies class at UC Berkeley.

Since the 1960s and 1970s were turbulent and violent times, Fujino offers helpful analyses on such subjects as violence, showing that the BPP did not advocate violence for the sake of violence. Rather the BPP challenged the monopoly that the U.S. government had on perpetuating violence through its police and military, which is why the BPP became such a threat.

But Aoki’s activism came at a price. When his fiancée demanded that Aoki choose between her or the movement, Aoki couldn’t ignore the greater cause of the community.

Aoki passed away on March 15, 2009. He killed himself after he fulfilled family obligations and was suffering from deteriorating health problems.

Fujino provides analyses on the contrast of the Western Judeo-Christian view of suicide, where it is frowned upon, to that of the Japanese bushido, where suicide is considered a dignified way to die.

So Aoki, as he did in life, chose to die on his own terms. Along the way, he participated in some of the most significant organizations that had an enormous impact on the nation. Anyone interested or studying this period and/or inter-ethnic solidarity would be remiss to ignore this book.

(Diane Fujino will have a book-signing on Saturday, Aug. 4, at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, First and Central in Little Tokyo.)

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2 Comments

  1. I didn’t know this author, this reviewer, or the subject of this book, but I decided to read this review anyway. And I’m glad I did! Mr. Aoki was certainly an interesting man, apparently Diane Fugimo tells his story in a fascinating manner, and Martha Nakagawa makes buying the book a very tempting proposition.

  2. Now did Ms. Fujino ever find out that Aoki was a FBI informant? That changes everything. Fascinating, yes still is. But inspiring? Someone hold me while I puke.

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