“Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story” will be broadcast on PBS in May in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

From San Jose to the White House, tributes continue to stream in for the late Norman Y. Mineta, the former U.S. secretary of transportation and secretary of commerce who passed away on May 3 at the age of 90.

Among those sharing their memories of Mineta are filmmakers Debra Nakatomi and Dianne Fukami, who 10 years ago embarked on a journey to create a documentary, “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story.”

Nakatomi first met Mineta in 1978 when she was working for the Japanese American Citizens League around the same time the concept of redress was introduced to Congress. Mineta was serving as a congressman from San Jose. He believed that redress could be achieved for the 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry denied their civil rights and approached the task of convincing his fellow members of Congress that it was the right thing to do.

Nakatomi feels it was his steely determination that made it possible. “Plus,” she adds, “he always remained true to his word.”

She partnered with Fukami, and the two decided to approach Mineta about making a documentary of his life — from his early years in a concentration camp in Wyoming to serving in the Cabinets of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. 

Nakatomi would soon learn that, while Mineta was a savvy, seasoned politician, he was also quite humble. It took more than three years of coaxing, but in 2012 during a session of the U.S.-Japan Council, he surprised Nakatomi by saying, “What about that documentary?”

Suddenly, the task of producing the film became real. Nakatomi, who runs her own public relations firm, and Fukami, an Emmy-winning documentary producer, decided to level with Mineta. “There are some teams that have more experience, more talent (than we do),” admitted Nakatomi. She explained the ethics that would be followed. The project would have to be balanced. They would be interviewing friends, family, and colleagues, but they would also interview detractors.

Pictured at a screening of the Mineta documentary in 2019 at the Japanese American National Museum (from left): Amy Watanabe, Tamlyn Tomita, Dianne Fukami, Debra Nakatomi, Wendy Yip. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

“He couldn’t have been more cooperative,” she remembers. Mineta let his family know that he had agreed to the documentary. “They opened their photo albums. They treated us like family. We interviewed other people in his constellation, (including) relationships he had with the community, such as the Japanese American National Museum. 

“People were anxious to be part of the project. We saw this when we were in Japan.” 

Fukami, who directed the film, described Mineta as “a wonderful combination of honoring his Japanese ancestry and committed to his American birthright.” 

Still, he couldn’t understand why some people didn’t see him as American. On one occasion, he was meeting with a group of automotive executives when a woman came up to him and complimented him on his command of the English language. In a rare display of anger, he said, he had two words for her. 

Although he was widely known as the driving force behind the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, few knew that he was also an early advocate for LGBTQ marriage rights and pushed representation for Latinx populations and women.

“In so many ways, he was that living example to multiple generations to say our voices really matter,” Fukami added. “He set a high bar for civic engagement and made a point of speaking to young people who were seeking office.” Examples include Rep. Mark Takano, former Rep. Mike Honda, Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, Alhambra Mayor Jeff Maloney, and Mountain View Councilmember and former Mayor Ellen Kamei.  

“We got a close look at his involvement, his relationships, his humanity as a leader,” said Nakatomi. For seven years, she and Fukami shadowed Mineta when he was with heads of state, with his family, and just out and about. “He was always the same person. He was a master at compromise. He really believed in common ground and was a champion for the underrepresented and underserved.” 

The film is scheduled to be broadcast throughout the month of May in honor of Asian American and Pacific Heritage Month. Check local listings for PBS stations carrying the documentary.

“I was smart enough to be born into the right family with great parents, great siblings,” he would say, not wanting to take credit for his accomplishments.

He wanted to be remembered as a hard worker and a guy who got the job done. Then, during the interview, the realization started to set in. “We were fighting tears. He’s gone — just when our country needs more leaders like him,” said Nakatomi. “We’re still processing all of it.”  

To see the film online, go to: https://bit.ly/minetalegacy

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