VOX POPULI: On Masaoka

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By GRANT UJIFUSA

(From remarks given at the Watsonville-Santa Cruz JACL’s celebration of HR 442’s 25th anniversary)

…. I now want to talk about the much-maligned Mike Masaoka.

I think he is the single most gifted leader we have had in our proud history in America. With nothing more than a shoe shine, a smile, and the story of the 442 — a story that he got out to American public while the fighting was going on — Mike pushed through Congress a bill that provided citizenship for Issei, something always denied to them.

This was hard, harder than redress. In 1952, there were no Nikkei members of Congress and no one to help except his indomitable wife, Etsu. In 1952, Congress was completely controlled by Southern segregationist politicians.

Later Mike came under attack by some Sansei who understand history through the prism of the 1960s — when protest was not only easy, but cool.

Anti-war protest was not cool after Dec. 7, 1941. I once asked Mike if he ever lost any sleep over sending young Nisei men to fight and die in Italy and France. He said, “Not a minute. Under the circumstances, blood had to be spilled.”

But that was the way Mike was. He could think, speak, and act with great precision and compelling force.

One of Mike’s brothers was killed in action and another was totally disabled.

Another question I asked Mike. Did he have any regrets about cooperating with the government AFTER 9066 came down? “No,” he said. “They had the guns. We didn’t.”

Grant Ujifusa speaks on redress at a meeting of the Watsonville-Santa Cruz JACL on Aug. 11. (Photo by Tosh Tanaka)

We need to remember that Gordon Hirabayashi, Min Yasui, and Fred Korematsu were all young bachelors. We also need to remember that no Japanese American or Japanese American family in 1942 had to listen to anything Mike said, and could have resisted in any way they wanted. Only three did, and nobody else.

Cudda, wudda, and shudda doesn’t count.

In the twilight of his career and his life, Mike Masaoka was indispensable to the success of HR 442. How?

For one thing, it was his idea to install Grayce Uyehara as the executive director of the Legislative Education Committee and JACL’s lead staffer as HR 442 made its way through Congress, long after John Tateishi’s National Committee for Redress was shut down by the National Board in March of 1985.

Mike was both IQ smart and street smart — a big-time problem-solver, as good as any hakujin lobbyist in Washington, and after 50 years in the trade, connected all over town.

A conversation I would have more than once with Mike after dinner around 9 in the evening:

“Mike, the wheels are coming off this thing in Washington. You can’t believe what Mr. X did today. What are we going to do?”

Mike would say, “Give me the night to think about it.”

“But, Mike, you don’t understand. The wheels are coming off this thing.”

“Give Me The Night To Think About It.”

An example of a problem Mike solved.

In January of 1986, Congressman Barney Frank told me in his office that he was going to push our bill in a big way. This after years of being bottled up by subcommittee chairmen before him.

But Barney wanted Republican cover on his subcommittee, which meant that he was not going to send HR 442 to the full Judiciary Committee and then to the House floor, where a vote could be taken, unless Pat Swindall, the number one Republican on the subcommittee, would agree to support the bill.

I said, “Barney, this guy is a born-again Christian from Georgia. A really tough get.”

“I need to have him,” Barney said, “and you have to get him.”

I called Mike asked him what to do. He said, “I need the night to think about it.”

In the morning, he told me to call Dave Brodie, the chief congressional lobbyist of the Anti-Defamation League, and ask to meet with him. Mike said that Brodie had taken many Southern born-again members of Congress to Israel on “fact-finding trips” –  a.k.a. junkets. Mike knew that this was one way the Jewish Americans allied themselves with the more numerous born-agains. Both had a big stake in Israel being taken care of.

I saw Dave in his office at ADL. On his desk, he had a small award maybe 20 years old from the JACL. Dave said he’d set up a meeting with Swindall.

Dave and I met with Swindall, though Dave had already talked to him. Swindall said he was going to support the bill in Barney’s subcommittee. He added that an aide who was half Japanese was also for the bill, and that helped.

On the day of the vote on the House floor, Swindall made a speech supporting constitutional rights for Japanese Americans, rights he then said should be extended to the unborn.

Mike knew, as perhaps no other Japanese American did, that to get Swindall on board in Barney’s subcommittee, you needed to travel first through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

For me, critics of Mike stand on his shoulders and cuff him about the ears. For me, his critics should re-read the history of Japanese Americans from the time of Pearl Harbor to the passage of the Issei citizenship bill.

Awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his work in redress, Grant Ujifusa is an honorary member of K Company, 442 RCT. He is best known in Washington as the founding editor of “The Almanac of American Politics.” Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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