Norman Mineta receives a kiss from his wife, Deni, at the JANM gala last Saturday. At left is Yosh Uchida, one of Mineta’s mentors. At right is Gordon Yamate, chairman of the JANM Board of Trustees. (Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Writer

Norman Y. Mineta received the Distinguished Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement and Public Service during the Japanese American National Museum’s annual gala on Saturday at the JW Marriott Hotel at L.A. Live.

With “Transforming a Forgotten Story” as the evening’s theme, Mineta was recognized as an example of how Japanese Americans have overcome hardships and made their history an integral part of U.S. history.

Interned at Heart Mountain as a child, he rose through the political ranks, serving as a councilmember and mayor in San Jose, a congressman representing Silicon Valley for 20 years, and the first Asian American in the Cabinet — secretary of commerce for President Bill Clinton and secretary of transportation for President George W. Bush.

More than 1,100 people attended the gala, which opened with former Nisei Week Queen Erika Mariko Olsen singing the national anthem and a moment of silence for civil rights hero Gordon Hirabayashi, who died earlier this year and will be receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.

Frank Buckley, co-anchor of KTLA Morning News, served as emcee. Gordon Yamate, chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees, introduced the museum’s new president and CEO, Dr. Greg Kimura, former president and CEO of the Alaska Humanities Forum. Yamate said Kimura was found through an executive search “to find not the best available but the best possible person.”

Kimura joked, “Having just arrived in Los Angeles from Alaska, I had a steep learning curve. I learned that 60 degrees is chilly in Los Angeles.” He thanked everyone who makes JANM’s gala “the signature celebration of the Japanese American community.”

Signature Sponsors of the event included Union Bank and its parent, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. Masashi Oka, president and CEO of Union Bank, noted that when Bank of Tokyo of California opened an office in Los Angeles in 1953, federal regulations required that more than half of the shares be issued locally. Prominent Nikkei, including “Rice King” Keisaburo Koda of Kokuho Rose fame, came to the rescue. Mineta later became one of the first members of the bank’s advisory board.

“Without your support, we wouldn’t be here today … We were always helped by Japanese American executives, employees and customers who helped us become one of the top banking institutions in California,” Oka said. “… No matter how big we may grow in the future, we will never forget how much we owe this community.”

Buckley introduced a series of video excerpts about Mineta’s life story, the internment and redress. Executive Order 9066 “did more than separate thousands of Japanese Americans from their homes and businesses; it separated them from their rightful place as Americans,” he said. “Yet the Issei and Nisei who suffered through the war swallowed their humiliation for the sake of their children. Uncomfortable with sharing this broken legacy, the story almost vanished.

“But the third generation of Japanese Americans grew up and fought to restore their parents’ and grandparents’ pride as an integral part of American history. This story is best embodied by the life of … Norman Mineta.”

The videos included two documentaries produced in Japan: NHK’s “Ken Watanabe’s America,” directed by Yasushi Koyama, and Fujisankei Communications International’s “In Defense of America: The Norman Mineta Story,” directed by Takuro Arai.

From “Manzanar” to “Allegiance”

One early effort to educate the public about the camps was the 1973 book “Farewell to Manzanar,” written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her late husband, James. It was made into a movie that aired on NBC in 1976.

Speaking at the gala, Houston recalled that when she and her husband saw the 1974 made-for-TV film “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” — the story of an African American centenarian who is born into slavery and lives to see the civil rights movement — they sent a copy of their book to the director, John Korty.

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of “Farewell to Manzanar,” and director John Korty.

“We later found out that … John had received two other copies of the book from individuals knowing of his long-standing interest in the subject,” she said. “… Thus began a two-year period of collaboration with John that was for me an illuminating … and ultimately healing experience. ‘Farewell to Manzanar’ is a story based on events that my own family for many years thought they wanted to forget … Remembering is the first step in ensuring that such an injustice as the internment never happens again.”

Korty recounted a meeting that he and the Houstons had with a network executive when the script was being drafted. The man was “concerned about whether the audience has anyone they can identify with” and suggested “redoing the script and writing it about the Caucasian schoolteacher.” Though he found the suggestion outrageous, Korty replied, “Why don’t you write it up and send it to us in a memo? Then we could respond.”

“That turned out to be the most brilliant thing I ever said, because he didn’t want to put it in writing, he didn’t want to have his name at the bottom of a letter like that,” Korty said, adding that his contact at Universal, Frank Price, “supported us making the film the way we wanted to make it.”

Buckley announced that “Manzanar” is available on DVD through a licensing agreement between JANM and NBC Universal. Korty — who is  working on a documentary about Central Valley author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto — and Houston signed copies of the DVD after the dinner.

Actor and activist George Takei discussed “Allegiance,” a musical about the internment that he is starring in and producing. “We’re proud to share with you a preview of this production that’s going to be opening in September, running through October.”

One of the songs from the show, “Gaman” — dedicated to “the spirit and fortitude of the Japanese Americans who endured that experience,” Takei said — was performed by Olsen and cast member Paul Nakauchi. They were accompanied by musicians Scott Nagatani (keyboards), Taiji Miyagawa (bass) and Danny Yamamoto (drums).

Bill Watanabe, outgoing director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, talked about the efforts over the past three decades by JANM, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center and his agency to preserve the community’s history and culture. He also introduced Nikiko Masumoto, David Masumoto’s daughter, who performed an excerpt from her solo show “What We Could Carry,” based on testimony at the 1981 Los Angeles hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which gave many Japanese Americans an opportunity to speak publicly about their experiences for the first time.

“I was not physically in camp,” said Masumoto, a Yonsei. “I cannot know the way that many of you in this room know, the way that my jii-chan and baa-chan know … But I can remember. We can remember, and when we remember, we give a new life to our history … I believe that we can heal this community as a nation and as a world through the retelling of our stories.”

Political Power

Congratulatory messages were delivered via video by actor Ken Watanabe, who interviewed Mineta for the NHK documentary, and former President Bush, who worked with Mineta for five years.

The medal was presented by Kimura and Yosh Uchida, chairman emeritus of JANM and a noted judo coach and businessman in San Jose.

Erika Mariko Olsen and Paul Nakauchi sing "Gaman" from the upcoming musical "Allegiance."

Uchida remembered meeting Mineta for the first time at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1941. Years later, Mineta’s name came up when Uchida and the late I.K. Ishimatsu, a farmer and community leader, talked about the need for political representation. “A lot of these things (like the camps) happened because the politicians write the rules and there is nobody to challenge it. We have to get more involved,” Uchida quoted Ishimatsu as saying.

Community leaders in Santa Clara County formed a pact to pool their money and support Japanese American candidates. The group’s affiliation with California Attorney General Pat Brown, who later became governor, resulted in Wayne Kanemoto being appointed as a Municipal Court judge.

The group backed Mineta’s run for the City Council and later Congress. “He was very instrumental in getting everybody together in getting redress … all the things that Japanese Americans had hoped for,” Uchida said.

Mineta prohibited racial profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11, Uchida added. “He took a lot of heat for all of this. He did what everybody thought was wrong, but it was the right thing to do … I know his parents, mother Kane and father Kunisaku, would be very happy to have known what Norm has done for America.”

“I am indebted eternally to my dad and Mr. Ishimatsu for … advising me and nurturing me … Yosh has been the mentor to not only those in the judo world but also to many of us who were community activists,” Mineta said.

He accepted the award “on behalf of all those who have preceded us, because I’ve been very fortunate to be in places that I could never have imagined as a little kid … I stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Mineta also thanked his wife, Deni, saying, “I’ve been very fortunate to have her as my companion as we’ve gone through a lot of different experiences in the last 21 years.”

He recalled an award ceremony in which he and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor were asked by a member of the audience how they had planned out their careers. “Justice O’Connor and I … couldn’t help but shake our heads and start laughing, because we were thinking exactly the same thing: ‘You don’t seriously think we planned this out?’ The answer to that young man is, of course, not to try too hard to plan what happens … to handle whatever opportunities or setbacks that would come his way. It’s less predictable, but it is more rewarding than anything that could be planned.”

Mineta concluded, “One of the most important parts of who I am always has been and always will be this community … which is why this tribute tonight means more to me than I could ever adequately say.”

The traditional “Bid for Education” started with a video message from Sen. Daniel Inouye and Irene Hirano Inouye, who were unable to attend. On stage, Mitchell Maki of the JANM Board of Governors and his daughter Lane asked for funds for teacher training and for buses to bring students to the museum. About $120,000 was raised.

Among those who have benefited from the bus trips are three students from Acaciawood School in Anaheim whose project, “I Am an American Too,” won regional and state awards and will compete for a national title. Two of the students, Rachel Kuai and Emma Chen, attended the dinner with their teacher, Noemi Quinones. The third student is Emily Rangel.

The 2012 Lexus opportunity drawing was conducted by Tracey Doi, Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. group vice president and CFO. The winners were Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Horwath of La Canada.

A drawing for air tickets was conducted by Nancy Matsui, national account executive for American Airlines. The winner was John Nakaki.

The Lexus drawing produced over $110,000. The silent auction before the dinner raised about $120,000.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *