Rafu Staff Report

Nate Shinagawa

Asian American organizations, including Los Angeles-based MANAA (Media Action Network for Asian Americans), have gotten involved in a controversy over remarks by two New York radio personalities about congressional candidate Nate Shinagawa.

Critics say that WYSL talk show hosts Bill Nojay and Bob Savage made race an issue in a July 6 discussion of the upcoming election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, where Democrat Shinagawa is running against the Republican incumbent, Tom Reed. Shinaga-wa is of Japanese, Chinese and Korean descent.

Savage, who is also the Avon, N.Y.-based station’s president and CEO, denied allegations of racism and refused to apologize in a statement posted on WYSL’s website and in a letter to MANAA.

Bill Nojay

According to the Huffington Post, Nojay told listeners they should be “impressed” that he could pronounce Shinagawa’s last name, and local GOP activist Paul Gello, a guest on the show, predicted that Shinagawa will lose to Reed “just because of his name.” Nojay said Gello’s quip was “not a nice thing to say” and Savage added, “Xenophobic, xenophobic” in a mock foreign accent.

Later, Nojay — who is also a Republican candidate for the State Assembly — explained why he thought Shinagawa can’t win while the 1963 hit “Sukiyaki” was played in the background. Kyu Sakamoto’s song, titled “Ue o Muite Arukou” in Japan, is the first and only song in Japanese to top the charts in the U.S.

Larry Shinagawa, a professor at University of Maryland, a member of the Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, and the candidate’s father, condemned the “unconscionable, racist remarks” by the “right-wing shock jocks.”

Bob Savage

Gautam Dutta, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Asian American Action Fund, commented, “It is truly stunning that WYSL and Bob Savage do not understand how racially offensive their remarks were towards Nate Shinagawa. By saying we should be ‘impressed’ they know how to pronounce Shinagawa and then playing the popular Japanese-language song ‘Sukiyaki,’ WYSL has shown their blatant disrespect towards Nate Shinagawa and the Asian American community.

“We call on Rep. Reed to reject WYSL’s insinuation that Asian Americans running for office are ‘foreign’ and not worthy of representing the 23rd District based solely on their last name and ethnic background.”

Dutta added, “As a third-generation American whose grandfather served in the Marines and Air Force and fought in Korea and Vietnam, Nate Shinagawa is as real American as it gets. He has served honorably for six years in the Tompkins County legislature and as the administrator for a non-profit hospital system known for the quality of its care.”

Guy Aoki

AAA-Fund has endorsed Shinagawa for the congressional seat.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), chair emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, called the incident “just another example of far-right conservative race-baiting. Their comments are simply offensive to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. For the record, Mr. Shinagawa … was born in the United States and, as a member of the AAPI community, is part of the fastest-growing segment of the American family.

“There’s simply no place — anytime, anywhere — for this kind of ignorance in the ongoing public debate about how best to move each and every American community forward. Candidates from all across the political spectrum should decry this kind of racism.”

In a statement to the Huffington Post, Reed did not specifically discuss the broadcast but said there is “no room in our society or our campaign for any form of racism.”

Exchange with MANAA

In a July 8 letter to Savage, MANAA Founding President Guy Aoki wrote, “We understand that when Nojay twice said Shinagawa came ‘from the People’s Republic,’ you may have meant Ithaca, inferring the city’s too liberal for your tastes. However, that and the combination of making fun of his name and playing ‘Sukiyaki’ by Japanese national Kyu Sakamoto created the impression that the candidate was more foreign than American.”

Aoki noted that members of Shinagawa’s family was interned during World War II because the government couldn’t distinguish between Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals. “Nate’s great-grandfather was sent to Tanforan Assembly Center (near) San Francisco, where he died in a horse stall from tuberculosis and pneumonia because of the unsanitary and harsh conditions … Nate’s grandfather, Roy … was interned in Gila River and Tule Lake yet later served in the Marines and U.S. Air Force in the Korean and Vietnam wars, fighting on the front lines and receiving many medals of valor.”

Aoki also cited the case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was killed 30 years ago by two autoworkers in Detroit during a period when Japan was blamed for the slump in the U.S. auto industry.

Asking for an on-air apology, Aoki called on Savage to have Shinagawa on the show “so he can speak for himself and demonstrate he’s not the foreign stereotype you insinuated him to be. We don’t expect you to agree with his political beliefs; we do expect you to respect the man, his family, and the Asian American community.”

After a phone conversation with Aoki, Savage said in a follow-up letter on July 10, “On Aug. 6, 1965, the 20th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, top-rated WABC New York DJ Bob Dayton noted the occasion by dedicating ‘16 Candles’ by The Crests to the Japanese. The song begins with the lyric ‘happy birthday … happy birthday, baby.’ He was fired for this outrageous on-air comment, and I completely agree he should have been …

“The internment camps occurred 70 years in the past, during a time when the U.S. was in a desperate-stakes war with Japan. The Bob Dayton on-air crack and attacks on Americans of Asian descent are also historical incidents. None have anything to do with Bill Nojay or WYSL.

“I note your warning that disparaging Asian Americans in the media might desensitize certain persons or foment further attacks, but you will forgive my skepticism that criticism of the political credentials of a liberal Democrat of Japanese descent will provoke attacks on him or other Asians, even if these comments are followed by 40 seconds of a hit record by a Japanese artist. Indeed, you have failed even to draw a causal link between alleged insensitive comments in the media when past attacks actually HAVE occurred.”

Savage argued that it is the people of WYSL, not Shinagawa, who have been targeted by hate speech as a result of the incident. “We have been the recipients of threats, racist taunts based upon our skin color and obscenity-laced emails, faxes and voice messages, examples of which have been posted on our website. We were forced to call local law enforcement for enhanced patrols to protect our property.

“I will further state for the record that not a single complaint about ‘The Nojay Show’ has originated from WYSL’s local coverage area, which includes 1.4 million people and the entire Rochester, N.Y. SMSA (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area). On the contrary: the threats and hateful emails have entirely originated in Ithaca, N.Y., and national extreme-left blogs. Ithaca is Nate Shinagawa’s hometown and the base for his congressional run.”

Savage added, “The non-issue of ‘The Nojay Show’ has also been parlayed into national blog discussions where participants are being egged on to further abuse with outrageous distortions of the facts in this case … If any action is appropriate in this case, it is for Nate Shinagawa to speak out against the apparent actions of his supporters. If he’s interested in reaching out beyond his radical-left base, it would also be wise for him to defend 1st Amendment free speech, even that which he personally finds distasteful.”

No apology is forthcoming, he said. “An apology connotes that we feel we did something wrong — something to atone for. As I told you, the intent was innocent. Intent is a necessary element of any crime, and none was committed here. Even if we were willing to offer one, apologies at this point would only encourage further abuse of WYSL and our people. We are not going to proffer apologies in the hope it will silence hysterical critics.”

In a July 9 note to Aoki, Nojay also emphatically denied any racial bias on his part. “Mr. Shinagawa is, in fact, from the People’s Republic. Of Ithaca. That is how we refer to Ithaca on the show. We’ve been doing it for many years, and will continue to do so. And yes, he is a far-left liberal activist ….

“For the record … we do not — ever — engage in racial stereotyping. We do not make racial slurs. Never have. Never will. We focus on issues and candidates’ stands on them. We do trace the origins of issues and candidates stands, including the sources of their funding and support. That has been and will continue to be fair game in politics. We have nothing to apologize for since our comments regarding Mr. Shinagawa have been accurate.

“We have invited him on the show to make his pitch — if he joins us he will be treated with the same respect we accord to all bona fide candidates.”

Larry Shinagawa told The Rafu Shimpo that his son is “unlikely” to appear on the show.

In his letter to Nojay, Aoki stressed that MANAA’s objections are not tied to the election itself. “We are not a Democrat vs. Republican group, if you’re concerned about that.  We’ve gone after Bill Handel at KFI and we’ve gone after liberals like Rosie O’Donnell and Sarah Silverman.

“We’re not here to debate liberal vs. conservative values. They have nothing to do with our concerns over what happened on Friday.

“I really don’t see how you can say you don’t racially stereotype anyone when you played ‘Sukiyaki’ — a song sung entirely in Japanese by a Japanese national — while talking about a Japanese American. I think I explained quite clearly the dangers of doing that, how it’s impacted our community in the past, and the fallout from not recognizing the ‘Americanness’ of someone simply because they’re of Asian descent.”

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