from East Wind Magazine Vol. 1 No. 1 (1982)
Subheadings were added to the original publication to make this more readable on the web.
| was born in an American-style concentration camp called Manzanar on August 9, 1945–the day the U.S. government decided to drop an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. The concentration camps and the A-Bomb – two acts of genocide against people of color rationalized under the guise of "national security." The circumstances and timing of my birth have since caused me to do a great deal of reflecting on what it means to be a Japanese American.
Like other Nikkei (persons of Japanese ancestry), the concentration camp experience had a significant impact upon my life and identity. Prior to the imprisonment of my family, my parents owned a small grocery store. The store was purchased after years of saving enough money to make a down payment. The store was doing well until Executive Order 9066 was issued on February 19,1942.
When E.O. 9066 was issued, all was lost. With the expulsion from our home, our family was forced to sell the store and other goods at a tremendous loss. Other valued personal possessions that were not sold were stored at a neighbor's house. This property was later all stolen while we were in camp. What money that was available was spent to help other relatives or was spent while in camp in order to provide for the daily needs of the family.
The camp experience made my father a bitter man. We left Manzanar after three and one-half years of imprisonment with little with which to start a new life. With the pressures of supporting a family, my father was forced to take up gardening. My father hated gardening, but his pride would not allow him to consider a job where he had to work for the people who had imprisoned him. Besides, he considered gardening only a temporary occupation until he was able to save up enough money to buy another store.
My father died twenty-three years after the close of the camps. He died as a gardener–never realizing the aspirations that he had once held. His death was attributed to alcohol which he had consumed in large quantities as a means of dealing with the anger and frustrations he felt.
It was not until I was in college that I learned about the camp experience. Prior to this time I was told that Manzanar was a small town in California where Japanese people lived. When I learned more about the camps, many aspects of my life and identity as a Nikkei person began to fit into place–the family pressure to "blend" into the society and not rock the boat; the pressure to act the right way and the stress upon education as a means to overcome racial hostility.
It was while I was in college that I became politically involved in the movement for social change. During my first year in college, I was involved in the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at UC Berkeley. The FSM challenged the right of the college administration to determine what could be said on campuses. Today, much of this freedom of expression is taken for granted. This was largely a result of students organizing a campus-wide strike to shut down the campus until concessions were granted. This was my first experience in understanding the power and potential of people acting together in a common effort.
While my identity as a student was affected by the Free Speech Movement, it was the movement of Blacks and other Third World people for equality and justice that affected my identity as an Asian
American. What began as a movement for civil rights in the South quickly spread throughout the nation with demands of political power and self-determination for oppressed nationalities. The urban revolts of the'60s and the fight for justice brought home the fact of institutional racism and that the U.S. was a society where the benefits and privileges were divided by color.
The issue that most affected my political development during the 1960's was the struggle against the war in Viet Nam. It was the war that brought out the most blatant forms of the contradictions within the society. It was racism that sent a disproportionate number of Third World people to fight and get killed in a war kilIing other people of color to defend profits for the few. There was the contradiction of seeing billions of dollars being spent each month to maintain a military machine while at home there were claims of not having enough money to feed, clothe, and house the poor.
The student movement, Third World movement, and anti-war movement all helped to crystallize for me the need for a fundamental and basic change within the society. There is a need to change a society that valued profits over people, material goods over human life, and elitism over equality.
From the lessons learned from the work with AAPA and the JACS Asian Involvement office, came a recognition of the need for an organization that would combine politics with integration within the community – a mass-oriented politically progressive organization that would take principled and consistent stands on behalf of Japanese Americans and other oppressed nationaIities.
In 1976, the Little Tokyo People's Rights Organization (LTPRO) was formed to fight against the forced destruction and dispersal of the Little Tokyo community of Los Angeles. We witnessed Japanese corporate businesses in collusion with the federal government and
local politicians taking over property held by long-time residents and small businesses. LTPRO was formed in order to facilitate the participation of as many people as possible in defending Little Tokyo. We won some concessions that helped preserve our community, but more importantly, LTPRO provided a long-range strategy for such protracted struggles. Eight years later now, we are still working for more housing, and we continue to uphold the rights of small businesses and community/cultural groups in Little Tokyo. At the same time, LTPRO has expanded its political scope to demand Redress and Reparations, unconditional residency and full rights for Japanese immigrant workers, and no human service cuts in our community.
The issue of Redress/Reparations has come to symbolize the growing strength and maturity of LTPRO. A few years ago, the fight for reparations was but a dream in the minds of a few people. Through the work and efforts of LTPRO and other individuals and organizations, we helped found the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations and we have seen how the dreams of a few have been transformed into a vital movement that has brought together Nikkei people from throughout the country. We have also seen the power and sense of pride that has arisen from this movement.
The development of LTPRO has come to reflect the continuing effort to build a progressive movement for change. The principles and ideals held by many of us during the '60s and'70s continue to hold true today: full equality for Japanese Americans and other Third World and working people, full rights for workers and immigrants, and reliance upon democratic principles and mass participation.
The effort to build a better future will be a long and arduous one. It will require a long-range view of achieving social change and a commitment to political principles and perspectives. As I look back at the '60s and '70s, I remember many idealists who thought social change would come about quickly. These people soon became discouraged or "burned out" and left the movement. I also remember many individualists who tried to go it alone in creating social change. These people soon found that they could not change the system as individuals and became cynical and defeated.
There are many others, however, who have persevered in the struggle, who have integrated their political ideals and principles into their lives, who have continued to work in a collective manner in the fight for equality and democratic rights. We, in LTPRO, recognize that Nikkei people all across the country share a common history, a common bond, and a common destiny. We are working to unite and organize for the long-term fight against national oppression. As a Japanese in America, I stand proud because by participating in a broad, progressive organization like LTPRO, I'm taking a stand for justice and equality, pride and dignity for our people.