SENIOR MOMENTS: Reflections About My Dad, Phil Shigekuni, After His 85th Birthday: Intergenerational Pain and Wisdom

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By LAURIE SHIGEKUNI, Guest Columnist

For the faithful readers of Phil Shigekuni’s column: thank you. My dad has taken joy and pride in writing his articles in this space for the past eight years. As his daughter, I’ve been grateful for the chance to borrow this space from time to time to add my own news and reflections as well.

My dad recently celebrated his 85th birthday. For the occasion, he is lending me his column space as an opportunity to reflect on his remarkable life.

Phil Shigekuni is still working for justice for our community. Recently I received a group email from him inviting everyone on his contact list to join him and my mom at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) to protest the incarceration of kids at the Fort Sill Army base in Oklahoma.

As you may have seen in the news (www.nytimes.com/2019/06/22/us/fort-sill-protests-japanese-internment.html), Dr. Satsuki Ina is a leading voice in the new Tsuru for Solidarity group. This is the group that made a solemn visit bringing thousands of paper cranes to the family detention site in Dilley, Texas, and making a memorial visit to the old Crystal City, Texas incarceration site. They recently brought cranes to protest at Fort Sill on June 22, holding a press conference in a nearby park after being turned away rudely from the site. The following Thursday, the JANM protest followed, coordinating with other protests in San Jose and San Francisco.

My dad and mom were fortunate to be mobile enough to attend the protest. I know that many readers are reading the news about the protests in The Rafu, Nichi Bei Weekly or Pacific Citizen and are following along in spirit. The power of the written word, and now of social media, to raise our consciences, cannot be underestimated. Our renewed role in bearing witness is yet another reason why our own JA press deserves our full support and membership!

Did you see Soji Kashiwagi’s play “Growing Up Sansei”? The father in that play, always reading the paper, reminded me of my dad when I was growing up. Once when I was a kid, one of my dad’s colleagues at Cleveland High School asked me if I knew what my dad did, and I actually said, “Read the newspaper.”

I think the image of the dad reading the newspaper while the mom is busy doing stuff around the home may be a common experience for kids of my generation. Dads were pretty busy working and moms were much more connected with the kids.

As a kid, I had no idea what my dad was reading in the paper or what he was thinking about it. Now I know he was unlike most fathers in the way he engaged actively with the news he was reading. He could have been reading one of his own letters in The Los Angeles Times, or composing his next letter, or gathering topics for another conversation with his friend and fellow activist Paul Tsuneishi, or with other friends. In those wide-ranging conversations about social justice, he and Paul began to focus their advocacy efforts on the campaign for redress and reparations.

My father and Paul each served as president of the San Fernando Valley JACL chapter during the 1970s. He credits Paul with getting him involved in the redress effort. In April 1975, when my father was chapter president, he and Paul organized the first panel discussion on redress that was held in their area, with speakers including Edison Uno. Recently he told me, “Paul was the one who got me activated. Up until redress I was not political at all… He lit a fire under me and boy, I’ll tell you, it’s changed my life.”

He recalls that about half the people at the 1975 discussion opposed the idea of seeking what were initially called “reparations.” In a recent column he told the story of how former White House counsel John Dean suggested the term “redress.” (www.rafu.com/2019/03/senior-moments-michael-cohen-john-dean-and-redress/)

He wrote recently about the importance of that 1975 meeting in starting efforts that led to the redress campaign. It led my dad and Paul Tsuneishi to form “E.O. 9066, Inc.,” the first redress organization formed in Southern California. (www.rafu.com/2018/09/senior-moments-celebration-of-the-life-of-aiko-herzig-yoshinaga/)

Their activism helped create the wave of support that led to passage of a 1978 resolution in favor of redress by the JACL National Convention – an event that as he recalls “galvanized” the whole community to pull in that direction.

John Tateishi, who became the 1978 redress campaign chair, invited my dad to serve on the initial National Redress Committee. Those were sometimes difficult years, involving major organizing challenges and painful tangles with apologists for the incarceration.

My dad served again as San Fernando Valley chapter president in 2016 and 2017. He was honored by the Pacific Southwest District of the JACL at an event marking the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and by the National JACL at the 25th anniversary celebration. The photo above is of the local 30th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles.

When I went to the JACL National Convention in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago, Ken Inouye told me that my father has always led by taking strong positions that others have gradually followed.

I’m proud that he was recently recognized at the February Day of Remembrance JANM event for being the main organizer for the very first Remembrance Day event in Los Angeles. That was on Feb. 19, 1979 in the area outside of the former Nishi Hongwanji Temple, which has now become the courtyard between JANM and the Go for Broke National Education Center. Here is a flyer for that event.

My dad and mom’s life cannot be understood apart from their involvement in the Japanese American community. The common trauma and shared life and memories in “camp” forged a very strong group loyalty and identity.

I got tremendous insight into the inner pain that has shaped my dad and the Nisei generation when I watched Emiko and Chizuko Omori’s film “Rabbit in the Moon” with my dad. When Emiko explained on screen that she never wanted to have children because of her own self-loathing, a tear came from my dad’s eye…

I think that inner angst propelled him to be a champion for people who need a voice.

Those of us in younger generations have had to understand how silence about the incarceration was a cultural norm in our community. Now that we have managed to break that silence, we can bear witness to support others. Japanese American community members of all ages have joined or supported the Tsuru for Solidarity protest at Fort Sill, and an earlier demonstration visiting the current Dilley, Texas detention center and the nearby wartime Justice Department camp at Crystal City. We are finding forms of expression through music, dance, and the spoken and written word. We are learning to be allies with people who are suffering injustice in the present.

My dad wrote one of his recent columns about attending the 50th anniversary event for the Manzanar Pilgrimage. (www.rafu.com/2019/05/senior-moments-our-trip-to-the-50-year-manzanar-pilgrimage-anniversary/) He read The Rafu’s account of Sansei leadership in organizing the Manzanar Pilgrimage and said it inspired and encouraged him to feel that the work he and so many others began is being continued – and, most important, our experience is being used to support Muslims, refugees and others in their quest for justice.

One of my dad’s latest concerns is the effort to persuade the national JACL to issue an apology for the harm done within our community to those who took unpopular stands, or were viewed as having done so, on the infamous loyalty oath. He is also interested in opening up communication with the thousands of Shin Nikkei who came to the U.S. after the war.

Now that we as Japanese Americans are no longer defined by silence, we can invest in our JA and the broader API community, and we can be allies for newer immigrants and people of color who are facing injustice.

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Laurie Shigekuni is the owner of Laurie Shigekuni & Associates (www.calestateplanning.com), a law firm working in estate planning, trust administration, probate and Medi-Cal long-term care planning. Her practice is in San Francisco, with offices in San Mateo and Pasadena. She and attorney Martha Bridegam, who assisted with this article, are graduates of UC Hastings College of the Law. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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