By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“Service to Democracy” was the theme as the Japanese American National Museum presented its Award of Excellence to two women who have had an impact in the fields of politics and civil rights during its 2018 Gala Dinner on April 21 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites in Los Angeles.
Attended by more than 1,000 people and emceed by Frank Buckley, co-anchor of KTLA Morning News, the evening featured singer/songwriter and musician Judith Hill, who performed with her parents, Pee Wee and Michiko Hill, sang the national anthem, and also sang during the “In Memoriam” segment. Hill appeared in the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” and recently released her debut album, “Back in Time.”
Opening remarks were made by Nikki Kodama, co-chair of the Gala Dinner Committee and member of the JANM Board of Governors, and former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, chair of the JANM Board of Trustees. The other dinner co-chairs were Ernest Doizaki and Leslie Furukawa.
Mineta remarked, “2017 was not a good health year for me, but your support and generosity have been a particular comfort during the past several months and I thank you very, very much for your prayers … gifts and messages.”
JANM’s mission, he said, embodies “our community’s dedication and service to democracy, from the earliest Issei, who exemplified the values of hard work, perseverance and responsibility to the community even though they were denied U.S. citizenship and suffered so many hardships during their lifetimes, to the Nisei, who demonstrated remarkable and extraordinary dedication and loyalty to the principles of democracy, even under the suspicion and shameful treatment of our own government.
“This summer, Aug. 10 will mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a moment that I will always cherish as a proud witness as President Ronald Reagan inscribed his signature … on a document that acknowledged the United States government’s wrongful actions against those of Japanese ancestry during World War II …
“Today, 30 years later, I ask you to reflect on the current situation for communities undergoing challenges similar to the ones that those of Japanese ancestry have faced throughout our long history in this great country. Let’s never forget the great things we can accomplish if we can all respond one to another, respect each other and work together in a true spirit of collaboration.”
Shinsuke Sugiyama, who recently succeeded Kenichiro Sasae as Japanese ambassador to the U.S., said he had arrived in Washington about four weeks earlier and presented his credentials from Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to President Trump. “I’m still a newborn baby ambassador … Please try to grow me up to an experienced ambassador,” he joked.
Many friends, as well as Abe, who attended USC, “told me I must visit California as soon as possible,” Sugiyama said, noting that California is the state with the largest population, has the sixth-largest economy in the world, and is home to a significant Japanese American community. He said he was “astounded” by the large turnout at the dinner and impressed by the community’s “enthusiasm” and “power.”
He pledged “to do whatever I can do as a new envoy” to help the community.
Having just attended Washington’s Cherry Blossom Festival, where he and his wife Yoko were joined by Mineta and his wife Deni, Sugiyama said he was leaving for San Francisco, where the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival was being held.
“These Are Not Normal Times”
The first honoree, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), was introduced by Irene Hirano Inouye, U.S.-Japan Council president and former CEO of JANM, who said, “Mazie … has spent her entire career pursuing social justice and extraordinary public service. She’s not been afraid to take risks, to be the first to forge a pathway for Japanese Americans, for women, and for those who have faced discrimination and inequality …
“When she was Hawaii’s lieutenant governor, she was among the earliest Hawaii elected officials to join the Japanese American National Museum’s Board of Governors. She has always been there when we call her.”
After serving in the House of Representatives, Hirono became the first female senator from Hawaii, first Asian American woman elected to the Senate, and first senator born in Japan.
Remembering the late Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) as “one of our greatest champions,” Hirano Inouye said, “When Sen. Akaka made the decision to retire and not run for re-election in 2012, immediately both Dan Akaka and [Sen.] Dan Inouye endorsed Mazie for the U.S. Senate race. Both Dans worked hard alongside Mazie to ensure that she successfully won that election.
“Dan Inouye was never prouder than when he joined Mazie on election night and celebrated her victory. There is a tradition that when a new senator is sworn in, they are accompanied by another senator. Dan told Mazie that night he would proudly walk her to be sworn in … It was several weeks later in December 2012 when Dan passed away. Earlier that day, when he knew his health was failing … he wanted me to ask his good friend Sen. Patty Murray from the state of Washington to do the honors, to accompany Mazie in the swearing-in …
“Mazie has been an inspirational woman warrior. She works hard each and every day and has stood up to her own personal health challenges so she can continue to make a difference.”
Hirono has been battling kidney cancer since last year and is seeking re-election this year.
“It is particularly meaningful to receive this award from an institution dedicated to commemorating the contributions and preserving the collective memory of Japanese Americans,” she said. “Thank you to the museum for everything that you do …
“I know as a member of the Honorary Board of Governors that JANM is a non-partisan organization, but at the risk of offending some of you, I’d like to take this time to instill the sense of urgency for all of us to get off the sidelines and into the fight because these are not normal times …
“It’s not normal when this president puts the lives of 800,000 young people at risk by canceling the DACA program. I’ve spoken to so many of these inspiring young people and it is clear that the president has created a crisis in their lives, unnecessarily so. Many go to work or school not knowing if their families will be there when they get home …
“It is not normal when a president attacks women’s health care on a continuous basis and tries to throw 30 million people off of their health insurance. It is not normal when we have a secretary of education who doesn’t even believe in public education or an EPA administrator who wants to dismantle the very agency that he is leading. It is not normal when this president uses his executive orders to single out and target religious minorities for discriminatory treatment through his Muslim ban.
“As Japanese Americans, we know first-hand what happens when our government targets a group for discriminatory treatment based on ethnicity and race, and we know how it feels for our country’s institutions and strongest voices to be complicit and even support this injustice …
“Our president talks about making America great again even as he and his administration continue to marginalize and discriminate against every minority group we can think of. What we need to do, what we need to focus upon, is to make America whole again.
“The fight for women’s rights, for immigrants, for racial justice, for voting rights, and religious tolerance … are all part of the same struggle. We are all in this together. Over the past year and a half, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘persistent resistance.’ Here’s what persistent resistance looks like. Millions of people marching in Washington and throughout the country the day after the inauguration. Scientists marching for the first time to defend their work and the future of our planet … The inspirational example of high school students galvanizing a national movement to stop gun violence …
“It will take this kind of collective action to change the misplaced priorities of this administration. But our persistent resistance is not just about groups coming together and taking collective action. It is also about each of us stepping up and raising our voices … 2017 was kind of a challenging year for my health, but I want you to know that I am plugging away, not fading away. My voice remains strong and I will continue to persistently resist …
“I know so many of you give to your communities … But when you go home tonight, I ask you to do at least one more thing that you might not have otherwise done to make our country whole again. It could be a monetary contribution to another organization besides JANM, important as that is.
“For example, Asian Americans Advancing Justice … They are fighting every single day for immigrant rights. So how about giving some money to them, or an organization defending LGBTQ rights or women’s rights or civil rights or those fighting for health care … We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing … We have to reach out to organizations that you may not have worked with before. We need to do more and we need to do it together, because that is what serving our democracy in these not-normal times requires of each and every one of us.”
Bid for Education
JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs said, “Tonight we honor two remarkable and inspiring women … Both have made extraordinary contributions to democracy, and their willingness to stand up has taken courage and determination … All of us in this room take courage from you in this time of great divisiveness and turmoil.”
Recalling the Japanese American wartime experience, she continued, “That’s why JANM and all of us stand up for those who may be similarly targeted … why we honor that promise and do everything we can to inspire … every student who comes through our doors that their future will be different. If we don’t stand up, the footsteps of history will find us and follow us.
“As a museum we know that we can make a positive difference. We have a duty to do that. We have a role to play in reimagining a different direction and a different future for this country, reaffirming our collective commitment to the values that are so central to what makes this nation remarkable.”
Hirano Inouye said that for her late husband, who chaired the JANM Board of Governors, April 21 was a momentous day. “He was wounded in battle on April 21, 1945, while serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team … and it changed his life forever. His dreams of becoming a doctor vanished, but it would lead him to a new dream of becoming an elected public servant. He would remind us that one door may close but many other doors open.
“Whenever Dan would visit the museum, his greatest joy was to see school buses lined up in front of the museum … He knew the future would be safeguarded by sharing the lessons of the past and its relevance for today and tomorrow. When school districts began to lack funding for field trips, he immediately felt something had to be done Thus was born the Bid for Education, He wanted the funds to pay for buses, teacher training, and education materials to ensure that the museum could serve students … Dan contributed personally each year to the bid for education and I have continued to make gifts each year in his honor. So I ask you to generously join us.”
Writer, producer, artist and Buzzfeed strategist Sean Miura led the pitch for donations, which raised $180,000 from the audience by the end of the evening.
“A Quiet, Powerful Presence”
Honoree Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who contributed to the campaign for redress in the 1980s, was introduced by two of her grandchildren.
“Very few would call Aiko a woman of large stature, nor would they describe her as loud or boisterous or flamboyant,” said Joey Furutani. “Yet the moment she walks into a room, people gravitate toward her. She has a quiet, powerful presence … We young folks would call that ‘swag.’”
Describing her as “more of a doer and less of a talker,” Furutani said that his grandmother’s “highly organized” research in those pre-Internet days would put a Google search to shame. “She endlessly scoured through the National Archives to catalog thousands of important documents that contributed to the historic Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and her meticulous approach was ever present in her life.”
One of those documents showed that the incarceration was based on race and that reports of espionage and sabotage committed by Japanese Americans were false.
But there is more to Herzig Yoshinaga than her community contributions, said Sei Furutani, Joey’s brother. “She’s notorious for her epic, epic, 12- to 15-hour sessions on slot machines … Equally impressive is her legendary appetite. Don’t let that five-foot-nothing, sub-90-pound frame fool you. She can put it down …
“Any recognition of Aiko would be incomplete without acknowledging her late husband Jack Herzig … [who] consistently brought the strength and support behind everything that Aiko did. He left us way too early [in 2005], but our family agrees that this would’ve been a tough journey for Aiko without her partner in crime by her side. Who else bring her a meal in the middle of a marathon slot-machine session, then return to bed before checking in on her the following morning? That’s what I call love …
“We sincerely hope this recognition motivates others to stand up and fight any injustice in our society … with as much grace, dignity, and swag that Aiko has shared with us all over the years.”
“It’s such an honor and I’m glad everybody is supporting the museum and the wonderful work it does,” Herzig Yoshinaga said in accepting the award. “I appreciate having been selected as one of the honorees and I look forward to working with all of you.”
She said of her grandsons, “I was very surprised and pleased to know that they would be introducing me … I’m very proud of them.”
Greetings from Toyota
Presiding over the opportunity drawing for a 2018 Lexus NX 300h was Tracey Doi, chief financial officer for Toyota Motor North America.
“Although Toyota has moved our headquarters [from Torrance] to Texas, we continue to be fully committed to support JANM,” she said. “I’m pleased to find that Texas is very welcoming, very philanthropic-minded area and while there aren’t a lot of Japanese Americans in the local community … the area is really rich with ethnic culture, many recent immigrants.
“Through a special Asian women’s giving circle that I have been involved with, I’ve really learned a lot about many diverse communities that have also suffered from a loss of human rights and had to fight very hard for their freedom and for justice … The history of Japanese Americans resonates with many communities, and also inspires the next generation to rise above adversity and really work together to build a more inclusive future.”
The winner of the Lexus was Douglas Koide of Honolulu.
The drawing for 50,000 American Airlines miles was conducted by Nancy Matsui, AA national account manager. The winner was Marsha Kawasaki of La Mirada.
Musical director for the gala was Scott Nagatani. The meal was prepared by Chef Andreas Nieto, director of food and beverage, and Executive Chef Raymond Nicasio of the Westin Bonaventure. The event included a VIP reception sponsored by Toyota Motor North America and a silent auction.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo