Story of Struggle

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New book documents NCRR’s campaign for redress.

Editorial team for of “NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations” (from left): Qris Yamashita, Lane Hirabayashi, Richard Katsuda, Kay Ochi, Kathy Masaoka, Suzy Katsuda, Janice Yen. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The long-awaited publication of “NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations” was celebrated on June 16 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo.

The book launch was also a reunion for those who have been affiliated over the years with NCRR, established as the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations and now known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress. During the 1980s, NCRR and other community organizations fought for and ultimately won $20,000 redress payments and a government apology for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated or otherwise deprived of freedom during World War II.

Kay Ochi, NCRR co-chair and a member of the editorial team, pointed out that the music played at the beginning of the program was “Poston Sonata,” featuring two NCRR members, jazz composer Glenn Horiuchi (1955-2000) on piano and Lillian Nakano (1928-2015) on shamisen.

Horiuchi was honored by his wife Edna, who read one of his poems. Suzanne Toji read from an essay contributed by her late husband Bob. Janice Nabara Huey remembered her late father, Takashi Tim Nabara. Marilynn Quon paid tribute to the late Frank Emi, a leader of the draft resistance movement at Heart Mountain.

“You’ll see when you get the book that we have dedicated it to our Issei and Nisei because of what they suffered and endured … at the hands of the U.S. government,” Ochi said. “We dedicated the book to them with very little discussion because we all knew it was so heartfelt and we thought immediately of our parents and our grandparents and all that they went through. So our book, as well as today’s program, is dedicated to the Issei and the Nisei and especially our NCRR members who fought so vigorously … We remember them today and we thank them again.”

Work on the book began in 2012, Ochi said. “We sent out a mass email to NCRR members and friends and family … people that we thought might be interested in writing. It took a while to get the momentum going, but we received so many submissions, articles about people’s experiences, how they participated in the historic redress movement, how they worked with NCRR, how they worked in the larger community.

“Bringing these stories together was quite a task … None of us had ever written a book before and we did not know what we were getting ourselves into … But quickly we got the help and support of Lane Hirabayashi, who was an NCRR active member in the early ’80s and went on to his college teaching career … and ended up back at UCLA and connected with us and volunteered to help us out.”

Designed by Qris Yamashita, the book — which had to be cut down to one volume instead of two — features oral histories of 10 of NCRR’s long-time members and Glen Kitayama’s UCLA thesis documenting the organization’s development. Its release coincides with the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

The book also explores the implementation of the redress bill, when NCRR fought for “those people who were denied redress even though they suffered tremendously,” Ochi said.

The legislation included the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, which enabled NCRR to partner with Visual Communications on a film, “Stand Up for Justice,” which told the true story of Ralph Lazo, a Mexican American who went to Manzanar with his Japanese American friends. Patty Nagano discussed the importance of the film in educating students about the camps.

One chapter addresses 9/11 and resulting hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans as well as South Asians. “That changed all of our lives,” Ochi said. “NCRR’s course veered toward one of our principles of unity, which is to support other communities who are similarly targeted, and so right away NCRR, JACL and other organizations stepped forward because we knew what it felt like to be targeted.”

Ochi acknowledged, “The book is focused on Los Angeles [but]we don’t mean to claim that we did all of NCRR’s work because we had very strong chapters sprinkled throughout the United States … We had some of the staunchest activists in San Jose and San Francisco that we worked very, very closely with … Maybe we did not give them enough time or attention [in the book]because we were so focused on immediate tasks.”

Introducing the other members of the editorial team — Kathy Masaoka, Richard Katsuda, Suzy Katsuda and Janice Yen — Ochi commented, “We’re 35 years older … I met the most wonderful people … I live in San Diego now, but I come up here all the time for meetings and events because when you meet the best people you know … you’ve got to connect as much as you can.”

“Redress taught us a lot,” Masaoka observed. “It wasn’t just a campaign to win an apology and reparations, but it was really an educational lesson that carried on … We realized that we were not going to win redress by ourselves … We were too small. We had to have the support of others. We had to support other people.”

“Full and Accurate Account”

Hirabayashi, who until last year held the George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community Chair at UCLA, said, “This book has been one of the most significant projects I’ve worked on over the course of my 36-year career, largely because I understood, from the first NCRR meetings I attended here in Little Tokyo in 1981, that this was an important organization and this was largely due to NCRR’s efforts to uncover the true history of the mass removal and incarceration …

“I joined the book project about five or six years ago because I thought a full and accurate account of NCRR and its accomplishments had still not been put on the record, so I’m very pleased to say that with the combined efforts of many people … that situation has been rectified, maybe not completely, but certainly to a great extent.”

One of NCRR’s outstanding features, Hirabayashi said, is “the organization’s practice of working in solidarity with other communities of color whose rights have been violated by the federal government … You will read about how NCRR worked with American Indians … African Americans and others … Today, that tradition continues with Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress and its work in solidarity with Middle Eastern and Muslim American communities.”

He added, “NCRR clearly has its roots in the Asian American movement. Its foundational principles … embody the ideals of grassroots community organizing, but it’s also my view that the record of accomplishments exemplifies both the creative and the evolving nature of Japanese American culture and community … Within the NCRR framework, looking back at incarceration and camps is neither a matter of memorial or nostalgia, but rather the basis for us today to collectively refashion viable tools for critique and action in these challenging times.”

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center is the book’s publisher, and Hirabayashi thanked its three most recent directors — the late Don Nakanishi, David Yoo and Karen Umemoto — for enabling him to work on the book project.

“The True Spirit of NCRR”

Umemoto, the current director, recalled being a student at San Francisco State University and a member of NCRR at the time of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians’ (CWRIC) hearings in 1981. “I’m half a generation below all of the editors and founding members of NCRR, and they really mentored us as students and encouraged us to do things like testify as Sansei at the public hearings … So this is really special for me personally to see … that this history is documented and shared with the world.”

Regarding the book’s significance, she said, “The passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 is really one of the most significant accomplishments in the campaign for civil rights in Asian American and U.S. history … It took many hands, many approaches and many organizations; all played a critical role. What had yet to be documented, however, was the history of the grassroots movement led by NCRR, a force that played a key role … mobilizing people to testify at the hearings … and lobbying through the halls of Congress to gather needed support at a critical time.”

The book’s message is more relevant than ever, Umemoto stressed. “The true spirit of NCRR, a spirit of empowerment, the collective pursuit of justice and of boldly speaking truth to power … is something we desperately need today. Perhaps the most important contributions of the book are the lessons they hold for the continued struggle for civil rights, human rights, and the protection of basic democratic rights today.

“I don’t think that any of us could have imagined that we could have moved so quickly backwards in such a short period of time, that we would separate children from their families and cage them in modern barbed wire. That we could even entertain mass exclusionary policies based on one’s religious beliefs or that we would come so close to risking democratic freedoms in the uncoupling of fact from fiction, sowing of racial division, and instilling of fear through violence and exclusion.

“As we gather here to open these pages of history, let us feast on the words as food for thought to fuel that which lies ahead.”

A Traumatized Community

For the benefit of those who weren’t alive at the time, Richard Katsuda, an NCRR co-chair, described the atmosphere in the community before redress: “Our Issei and Nisei generations, and some Sansei as well, were concentration camp survivors … Think about the trauma, being beaten down, having been branded as essentially guilty for nothing that you had done and to be called potentially disloyal. What does that do to you, to your psyche, your spirit? …

“There was a tremendous hush in the community. People didn’t talk about their camp experience … I remember hearing references to ‘before camp,’ ‘during camp,’ ‘after camp,’ but not much about what camp itself was really all about. People didn’t really want to talk about it, felt shame, wanted to protect their children … They told us kids, ‘Study really hard, get good grades’ … They also kind of told us, ‘Don’t make waves’ …

“However … we witnessed the 1960s civil rights movement. We saw African Americans take to the streets, sitting at drugstore counters and risk being jailed or beaten just to push for their civil rights … They persisted and we all saw it … Eventually they won great civil rights during that period.

“At the same time we saw the anti-Vietnam War movement and we saw people of all colors and ages of all walks of life also taking to the streets, demanding that our government put an end to the war in Vietnam. And again, we won … So these were huge lessons for Japanese Americans.”

In the ’70s there were a few “lonely voices” in the community calling for justice, such as civil rights leader Edison Uno and “Years of Infamy” author Michi Weglyn, but the “righteous anger” felt by many Sansei grew to the point where NCRR was founded in 1980, Katsuda said.

That same year, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation establishing the CWRIC. NCRR members initially thought the commission was an unnecessary step, Katsuda said, but upon further discussion, they decided to utilize the hearings to get the government to admit wrongdoing.

For Katsuda, getting people to testify at the San Francisco hearings was challenging. “We were trying to work with Issei and Nisei, who didn’t feel they had a voice or confidence that they could speak before that government that had so violated them during the war, and so it was very difficult at the beginning. However, once we got one or two Issei or some Nisei … we were able to get people to start saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ … I remember thinking to myself, ‘I wish every Japanese American could be here to hear and feel what the people are saying’ … It was so tremendous to hear the Issei, Nisei and Sansei talk about their experiences.”

The commission’s recommendations became the basis for the redress legislation. In 1987, NCRR organized a 120-member delegation to Washington, D.C. to lobby members of Congress — an experience that Katsuda described as “very empowering.”

One of the book’s contributors, Guy Aoki, called the lobbying trip “the single best thing I ever did in my life.”

Miya Iwataki, a founding member of NCRR who helped organize witnesses for the Los Angeles hearings, said the experience “changed my life.” She read her poem about the Issei and Nisei who broke their silence and publicly shared painful memories.

She also recalled that during the lobbying trip, the late Rudy Tokiwa, a disabled Nisei veteran from the Bay Area, was instrumental in persuading Rep. Charles Bennett, the dean of the Florida congressional delegation, to support redress.

Jim Matsuoka, a founding member of NCRR, holds up a copy of the book as he proposes a toast. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

A Variety of Voices

Several contributors to the book read from their essays. Jim Matsuoka encouraged Martha Okamoto, whose brother was shot to death by guards during the Manzanar Riot, to testify at the Los Angeles hearings.

Takeshi Nakayama covered the first redress ceremony, in which Attorney General Dick Thornburgh presented checks and an apology to Issei centenarians.

Alan Nishio said the political became personal for him when he gave a presentation at Little Tokyo Towers and an Issei woman gave him a crumpled $5 bill to support the campaign, saying it was all she could afford.

Yasuko Sakamoto, a postwar Japanese immigrant, got to know the Issei pioneers through her involvement in redress.

Aki Maehara became involved with protesting the forced relocation of Navajo from Big Mountain in Arizona after he was mistaken for a Navajo and discriminated against.

Other contributors who spoke included Reiko Nimura, Gary Fujimoto, Steve Nagano, Roy Nakano, June Hibino, Gerald Sato, Evelyn Yoshimura, Tony Osumi and Reginald Chun.

Speaking on the importance of supporting others who are facing discrimination were Joyce Nakamura of Nikkei Resisters (San Francisco); Kristin Fukushima and Alex Kanegawa of Nikkei Progressives; and traci kato-kiriyama and traci ishigo of Vigilant Love.

Matsuoka led the toast in a poetic manner: “Those meetings went on day after day, with Suzy, Kathy, Lane, Richard, Janice and Kay. With a book full of stories of passionate fights, of our struggle for redress, for justice and rights. We thought the book wouldn’t see the light of day. After six years of squabble, what more was there to say? But we finally got our asses in gear because, everybody listen, the book is finally here! Kampai!”

For more information on the book and on NCRR’s current activities, visit www.ncrr-la.org.

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