By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Tetsujiro “Tex” Nakamura, a civil rights advocate who became involved in redevelopment issues in Little Tokyo after World War II and an attorney who worked closely with attorney Wayne Collins on the World War II Japanese American renunciation cases, the Tokyo Rose case and the Japanese Latin American cases, passed away on Sept. 7. He was 98.
Barbara Takei, a Tule Lake Committee member who is working with emeritus history professor Roger Daniels on a book on Tule Lake, had this to say:
“Mr. Nakamura was a civil rights hero, who worked tirelessly with Wayne Collins and the Tule Lake Defense Committee to reverse the injustice of the Department of Justice’s renunciation and deportation program — a program that stripped U.S. citizenship from nearly 6,000 Japanese Americans segregated at Tule Lake for the crime of protesting their incarceration.
“In the decades following the wartime incarceration, he championed the rights of thousands of Japanese Americans in a 20-year battle with the Department of Justice to return what was unfairly taken.”
Nakamura was born in San Francisco Chinatown, the second son of Kichisuke and Koto Yamamoto Nakamura, both of whom were from Hiroshima-ken. When Nakamura was around three, his mother passed away from complications of appendicitis, and his father married Shizuyo Masumoto from Yamaguchi-ken.
During his junior high school years, Nakamura gained his nickname after his teammates started kidding him as the “Texan” because he was one of the shorter players on the basketball team. This was later shortened to “Tex” since it sounded similar to a shortened version of his Japanese name, Tetsujiro, which non-Japanese found difficult to pronounce.
Nakamura graduated from UC Berkeley in 1939 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Since he was bilingual in Japanese and English, he had plans to pursue a law degree to help the Issei, who faced discriminatory laws and language barriers, but he put his legal education on hold and entered the work force to save enough money for law school.
When the U.S. entered World War II and all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast were ordered into U.S.-style concentration camps, Nakamura’s family was first sent to the Walerga Assembly Center in Sacramento and then to the Tule Lake War Relocation Authority camp just south of the California-Oregon border.
The Nakamura family remained in Tule Lake when it was converted into a segregation center. He worked in the camp’s legal aid department and found himself at the center of the renunciation issue in 1944 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Public Law 405, which allowed U.S. citizens, in time of war, to renounce their citizenship upon the approval of the attorney general. The government had passed this law in order to legally deport U.S. citizens of Japanese descent to Japan.
Fear and confusion ran rampant in the camp, which resulted in mass renunciation among the Tuleans. Many renounced their U.S. citizenship out of anger at the U.S. government or fear that their families would be separated, or even hope that they could wait out the war in camp.
When many started voicing a desire to reverse their renunciation, Nakamura contacted Ernest Besig of the San Francisco ACLU office, who, in turn, introduced Nakamura to Wayne Collins, who agreed to take on the renunciation cases. To pay for Collins’ legal fees, Nakamura organized the Tule Lake Legal Defense Committee.
Collins was able to halt the immediate deportation of an estimated 4,700 renunciants in 1945, but it would take another two decades and the filing of more than 10,000 affidavits to restore the U.S. citizenship of the renunciants.
Nakamura also helped Collins halt the deportation of Japanese Latin Americans who had been forcibly brought to the U.S. to be used in hostage exchanges between the U.S. and Japan, and he traveled to Japan to gather affidavits and testimonies for the trial of Iva Toguri D’Aquino, a Nisei who lived in Japan during the war and was accused of broadcasting anti-American propaganda as Tokyo Rose.
In his personal life, he married Lily Yuriko Yoshimi, a renunciant who had worked as his secretary at the Tule Lake legal aid office.
Nakamura passed the bar exam and started his own practice in Little Tokyo. When City Hall threatened to bulldoze Little Tokyo out of existence through eminent domain proceedings, he became active in redevelopment issues.
In addition, he was involved with the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji (Nishi Hongwanji) temple moving to a larger property site and the construction of the Hiroshima Kenjinkai office building.
Tsutomu Maehara, 96, who has known Nakamura since right after the war, described Nakamura in Japanese as a man of few words but very honest. Maehara, who was treasurer on the Nishi Hongwanji board, worked closely with Nakamura, the temple’s pro bono legal advisor, and Masashi Kawaguchi of Fish King fame, who was then Nishi board president. The three were instrumental in raising funds so that Nishi could acquire and move the temple to its current site.
For the past few years, Maehara had been lobbying the Consulate General of Japan to award Nakamura a Kunsho (Medal of Honor). Speaking in Japanese, Maehara said, “People don’t know his story because at that time right after the war, there was no consul general’s office, so they wouldn’t know what his contributions were.”
Bill Nishimura, a former renunciant, called Nakamura his “lifesaver.”
“Mr. Wayne Collins and Mr. Tex Nakamura are my inochi no onjin (lifesaver),” said Nishimura. “The governmenwas harassing us and suppressing information, and here, these two gentlemen came out to help us and got us favorable results. Eien no onjin (my lifesaver forever). Ano hito tachi no okage de (because of them) I’m here at 95, and I’m trying to tell the story so it will never happen again.”
Hiroshi Kashiwagi, another renunciant, voiced similar sentiment. “At first, I was kind of suspicious of him because he was not a renunciant himself, and yet, he was helping us,” said Kashiwagi. “I was wondering what his motive was, but he really did a lot for us, and I appreciate everything he did. He was really interested in our welfare.
“And I learned later that he was in the legal department (at Tule Lake), and he had contacts with people who were thinking of renouncing, so I see how he started helping us. I’m really sad to hear that he’s gone.”
Bruce Hatakeyama, whose father, Isao, was a renunciant, initially did not know that Nakamura had been assisting renunciants such as his father. He had met Nakamura since they both attended Nishi Hongwanji.
“Since our family has been members of Nishi Hongwanji, I grew up in the 1960s seeing Mr. Nakamura as one of the important board members of the temple,” wrote Hatakeyama via email. “It was only in 2005 that I learned how he helped my father and many of the other 5,589 renunciants have their citizenship restored. I will be forever grateful to Mr. Nakamura and his family for their sacrifices to help our family and others in the community.”
Nakamura is survived by four sons and one daughter; many grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
Funeral services will be held on Friday, Sept. 18, from 7 p.m. at Nishi Hongwanji, 815 E. First St., Los Angeles. Burial services will be held the next morning at Evergreen Cemetery, 204 N. Evergreen Ave., Los Angeles, at 10 a.m., followed by otoki or memorial service meal.