Rafu Staff Report
PALO ALTO — There will be no middle school in the Palo Alto Unified School District named after Fred Yamamoto.
After hearing testimony from more than 60 speakers before a standing-room-only audience, including both Yamamoto supporters and opponents, the Palo Alto Board of Education voted 5-0 to name Jordan Middle School after Frank S. Greene Jr. (1938-2009) and Terman Middle School after Ellen Fletcher (1928-2012).
Greene was the first African American founder of a publicly traded firm, holder of a patent for advanced memory processing chips, and founder of a venture capital fund for female- and minority-run start-ups. Fletcher, a Holocaust survivor, was a Palo Alto vice mayor and councilmember and an environmental and peace advocate.
Yamamoto (1918-1944), a 1936 graduate of Palo Alto High School, was a member of Page Mill Methodist Church, precursor to Aldersgate United Methodist Church. While incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, he wrote for the camp newspaper and volunteered for the Army. As a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he was killed during the rescue of the Texas “Lost Battalion” in France.
Out of hundreds of names submitted, the finalists were narrowed down to six individuals, including Yamamoto, and two place names. However, in recent weeks several local Chinese Americans spoke out against Yamamoto because his name reminds them of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the World War II Japanese military leader. One said that it would be comparable to naming a school after Hitler.
An online petition launched on Change.org by “Concerned PAUSD Members” stated, in part: “There exist certain hurt feeling when the last name ‘Yamamoto’ is mentioned, especially for Asian immigrants whose families were tragically affected in China, Korea, and Southeast Asian countries during World War II. Likewise, to many Americans who were in the U.S. during World War II, this name could remind many of the chapter in our history when Pearl Harbor was bombed … This Japanese admiral is whom many first think of upon hearing the name ‘Yamamoto,’ and our middle schools should never be affiliated with such a person …
“One may argue ‘Yamamoto’ is a common and popular Japanese last name and, in this context, represents Fred Yamamoto rather than the Isoroku Yamamoto. Mr. Fred Yamamoto is, without a doubt, an inspirational figure, but sadly enough, his last name undeniably also symbolizes a notorious figure from World War II – Isoroku Yamamoto. It is inevitable that explanations about the origin of the name will often be necessary. People may be confused about which Yamamoto a school’s name is referring to: in conversation, the full name of a school is almost never used. Therefore, please do not consider ‘Yamamoto’ or any other person’s name for renaming our schools.”
The petition was signed by more than 1,300 people.
The renaming committee was also criticized for having no Asian or Latino members.
The Japanese American Citizens League and other community organizations have defended Fred Yamamoto. JACL Regional Director Patty Wada wrote, “During World War II, over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were American citizens, were forcibly removed from their homes without charges or trial and incarcerated in the deserts of America, simply because they ‘looked like the enemy.’ Mr. Yamamoto, whose own family was among those wrongfully incarcerated, gave his life for our country and for freedom at the age of 26.
“Naming a school after Fred Yamamoto, who was awarded the Purple Heart for his bravery, would be a most fitting tribute, but would also provide a valuable lesson for our youth about our Constitution, about democracy, about justice and sacrifice …
“The beauty of America’s diversity is an invaluable and critical lesson for students today and generations yet to come. It is disturbing that those who have not yet heeded this very American ideal are fostering intentional misunderstanding and ethnic tensions around this naming. To hear of such attempts is truly disheartening.”
Yamamoto’s supporters argued, to no avail, that Yamamoto is one of the most common Japanese names and that more than 60 other Yamamotos have gained fame in their respective fields.
Three school board members — Melissa Baten Caswell, Jennifer DiBrienza and Terry Godfrey — supported naming the two schools after individuals, while Todd Collins favored naming the schools after places. Before the final vote, the board voted 4-1, with Collins dissenting, to name the schools after people. An initial motion by President Ken Dauber in favor of Yamamoto failed.
“No matter what gets decided here tonight, we need to talk to each other more,” DiBrienza said. “I think that because we are progressive Palo Alto, we either think we don’t [have issues] or we don’t talk about them but this has illuminated the issues that are in our community. Whether we pick Yamamoto or Adobe Creek or whatever else tonight, those issues are still going to be there.”
Mike Kaku, co-president of the Sequoia JACL, said, “Asian Americans have fought long and hard to be perceived as Americans, not automatically anything else because of our name and face.”
In a statement, eight of Yamamoto’s nieces and nephews said that their uncle “would have regretted how much time and attention has been squandered regarding the Yamamoto surname, hijacking the focus away from the real issue at hand of promoting and honoring future role models for students. But he would just respond that there is more work to be done.”
Palo Alto resident Rika Yamamoto said that she feared for her children, given the hostility toward her last name.
Other pro-Yamamoto speakers included Lawson Sakai, a 442nd veteran and a leader of Friends and Families of Nisei Veterans; Judy Mine of Nihonmachi Outreach Committee in San Jose; Robbin Kawabata of Eden JACL; local residents Eimi Okano, who held a sign reading, “Fred Yamamoto is an American name,” and Jeanette Arakawa); and Dr. Allan and Mary Seid of San Jose-based Asian Americans for Community Involvement.
“Please try to understand and respect other people’s culture, views and feelings rather than accusing them, labeling them or teaching them how they should think and feel,” said parent and Yamamoto opponent Lynn Liu.
After the vote, Jenny Zhang, a Gunn High School parent, said she was happy with the outcome and hopeful that the issue will help bring disparate communities together. “I’m glad everybody [spoke] out. This is a good step. We actually try to understand each other.”
Lars Johnsson, a Palo Alto parent who started the renaming project almost three years ago, said he was “very happy and proud of the community” and felt good about the names that were chosen.
Johnsson’s son Kobi, then a seventh-grader, had written a report about David Starr Jordan’s (1851-1931) advocacy of eugenics. Johnsson’s petition to rename Jordan led to an effort to rename Terman, as Lewis Terman (1877-1956) was also a leader of the eugenics movement.
Jordan was the founding president of Stanford University and Terman was a pioneer in educational psychology at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Eugenics, the concept of improving human genetics through removal from the breeding pool of those deemed unworthy to reproduce, led to forced deportations and sterilizations.
Brad Shirakawa, one of the leading advocates for Yamamoto, told The Rafu Shimpo that there were only two speakers in favor of Yamamoto at the March 13 meeting but there were many more on March 27 because “we better prepared.” However, “you could tell there was still tension in that room.”
Summing up the meeting, he said, “While our goal was to get Fred Yamamoto’s name on a school, I have always felt that all of the finalists were worthy and I would be happy if they won out, which they did, versus using a ‘place’ for a school name. We were disappointed that the discussion devolved into the recent Chinese immigrants versus everyone else.
“On the positive side, more people are aware of Fred’s story. They see him as a role model and a great human being. The negatives might be lingering feelings of anger over the issue. I don’t know that that there will be any further discussion about it. Most of us will go back to our lives.”
A member of the renaming committee, Sara Armstrong, wants to see a park or scholarship named after Yamamoto. Shirakawa supports the idea but will not be at the forefront of such an effort.
“The Chinese contingent said many times that there are other ways to honor Fred and all the remaining candidates,” he said. “So I would hope that there would not be any opposition.”
Source of some quotes: The Palo Alto Weekly
Photos by BRAD SHIRAKAWA