Museum to Present Highest Honor to Former Secretary Mineta

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Norman Mineta (front, in white shirt) was incarcerated with his mother and father (right) at the Heart Mountain, Wyo. concentration camp by the government during World War II. Years later, he was elected to Congress and served in two presidents' Cabinets. (Photo courtesy of NHK)

The Japanese American National Museum will present former Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta with the institution’s Distinguished Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement and Public Service at its 2012 Annual Gala Dinner and Silent Auction set for Saturday, May 5, at the J.W. Marriott Hotel at LA LIVE.

The dinner’s theme is “Transforming a Forgotten Story,” highlighting the evolution of the Japanese American World War II story from almost forgotten to being shared internationally today.

When Mineta was only 10 years old, the U.S. was brought into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The youngest son of Japanese immigrants, he and his family, like thousands of Japanese Americans, were forced by the U.S. government to leave their home in San Jose and were imprisoned in a concentration camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

When the war ended, the Mineta family returned to San Jose. Mineta went to college, did a stint in the Army and then joined the family insurance business.

Encouraged by others to get involved in civic affairs, he became a San Jose city councilman and then the first Japanese American mayor of a major mainland city. In 1974, he won election to Congress, where he served for 20 years.

During his tenure, he was one of the leaders in the fight to win redress for Japanese Americans for their World War II forced removal by the government. He left Congress in 1995, but was brought back into public service by President Bill Clinton, who nominated Mineta as secretary of commerce in 2000, the first Asian American to serve in the Cabinet.

Set to retire to the private sector, Mineta was asked by incoming President George W. Bush to become the new secretary of transportation. Mineta played a crucial role on Sept. 11, 2001, ordering every plane in U.S. air space grounded after the terrorist attacks. He also was a key figure in resisting calls for racial profiling against Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, reminiscent of the government’s attitude toward Japanese Americans during World War II.

JANM’s presentation of its Distinguished Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement and Public Service to Mineta marks only the fourth time this award has been given. The other three recipients are the late Sen. Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, and the late Akio Morita, co-founder of the Sony Corp.

The dinner’s theme reflects on the Japanese American World War II experience and how it was not discussed, even by those who lived through it. This story was revived decades later when the children and grandchildren of those directly impacted by the government’s actions wanted to know what had happened to their families.

Individuals like Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who was a young girl during the war, changed how people learned about the story by writing her autobiographical book, “Farewell to Manzanar,” with her husband James in 1973. Remarkably, the Houstons convinced filmmaker John Korty to adapt this book into a made-for-TV film in 1976. Both Houston and Korty will be part of the dinner program.

Interest in the Japanese American World War II experience has expanded into widel viewed films like Steven Okazaki’s Oscar-winning short documentary “Days of Waiting” and Ken Burns’ epic PBS series “The War.” Most recently, the story has reached Japan in documentaries by NHK, Fujisankei and UTB. The Tokyo Broadcasting System aired a lengthy serial based on the story of Japanese Americans entitled “99 Years of Love.”

Actor George Takei is producing a new musical, “Allegiance,” which is set in one of the camps. One of the songs from this show will be performed at the gala. Frank Buckley, co-anchor for the popular KTLA Morning News, will be the master of ceremonies.

The annual dinner is the museum’s largest single fundraiser. Supporters include:

Signature Sponsors —for Aratani Foundation, Terasaki Family Foundation, Union Bank/The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Ltd.

Presenting Sponsors — Nitto Tire U.S.A. Inc., William & Carol Ouchi/AECOM, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.

Diamond Sponsors — American Airlines, The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Guy and Audrey Watanabe.

Emerald Sponsors — American Fish & Seafood Company, The Capital Group Companies, Inc./Frank Sanchez, Sempra Energy, George and Ruri Sugimoto.

The Dinner Committee co-chairs are Gene Kanamori, JANM governor, and Wendy Shiba, JANM Board of Trustees vice chair.

The dinner also includes a Silent Auction, an opportunity drawing for the 2013 Lexus GS 450h, donated by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc., and a live Bid for Education, which supports the museum’s educational programs. This is the second year the Museum has held its annual dinner at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

Tickets for the dinner are still available. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.

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