Heart Mountain Interpretive Center: In 1942, when 10-year-old Norman Yoshio Mineta was forced from his home in San Jose and incarcerated at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, his own government refused to acknowledge that he was a U.S. citizen. He was called a “non-alien.” That is why, until he passed away on May 3, 2022 at age 90, he cherished the word “citizen.”
“Norman Mineta was our guiding light at the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. He endured his unjust incarceration along with his family, but he never harbored bitterness toward the country that he would later serve with such distinction. I treasure every moment that I spent in his presence.” — Shirley Ann Higuchi, chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation
Norman Mineta’s passing leaves a gaping hole in our hearts along with the entire Japanese American community. We know life will not be the same without him, but we also recognize that we must use our grief to help us carry on Norm’s legacy and continue to fight for the ideals and values he held so dear.
Ron Wakabayashi, former JACL national director: About a week ago, I had a plumbing emergency at home that required me to get into some storage boxes that I had not touched for decades. Ironically, the 3×5 card in the attached photo was rediscovered.
At the signing of the redress bill, 3×5 cards like this were placed on the stage where the ceremony was held. A few with “Reserved” were on seats in the front of the room. When the ceremony concluded, I grabbed as many of these cards as I could.
Later in the day at a reception, (Rep.) Barney Frank pulled out his card. He explained that as a liberal Democrat, he hadn’t been invited to the White House before and took a souvenir. He showed that he had the one that said “President,” and quipped that Reagan should not have needed a card to know where to stand.
(Rep.) Bob Matsui was standing just in front of me. I overheard him say that he regretted not grabbing his card. I tapped him on the shoulder and flashed the stack of cards that I had retrieved. His look was demanding. His face showed that I better give him his card. I did.
I also found a printed copy of the Congressional Record from the day that HR 442 was voted on. Mineta chaired the House that day, given the honor by Speaker Jim Wright. Ironically, Norm abstained from voting that day because it was a conflict since he would be a beneficiary.
I had the fortune and pleasure to know Norm. I knew his first wife, May, very well also.
He lived well and left a huge legacy.
Guy Aoki, founding president, Media Action Network for Asian Americans: The first time I met Norm Mineta was in the mid-’80s at UC Berkeley. He was the keynote speaker for the annual Asian Pacific Student Union (APSU) conference, which I was a part of for five years. There were hundreds of us there, all eager to meet him. A couple of years later, Norm attended NCRR’s celebration of the passage of the redress bill at the JACCC in Little Tokyo.
As I walked past him and NCRR National Spokesman Bert Nakano, Norm smiled, “Hey, Guy! Thanks for all of your work!” “MY work?” I stuttered, “Thank you for YOUR work!” And how the heck could he possibly have remembered my name?! I later asked Bert if Norm had asked who I was. “Huh? No…” Kay Ochi later told me Norm was known for being great at recalling names. I still couldn’t believe it. He could’ve had a side career in Vegas as a memorist.
In 1999 when the NAACP, Latino, Native American and Asian American groups began working together, meeting with the top four television networks and pressuring them to include us in their programming, most got former congressmen to be their chairs, hoping the networks would take their coalition more seriously.
Norm served as the chair of our Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC). It only lasted a year as President Clinton asked him to become the first Asian American Cabinet member as secretary of commerce (I think it was announced during the annual meeting with Fox).
The last time I saw Norm was on Oct. 25, 2014 at the first annual Asian & Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California awards dinner, where he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. He was walking with a cane but still looking good. I reminded him of how hostile the networks had been to us, with ABC executives looking at their watches with folded arms, staring at the ceiling as we tried to push the merits of diversity.
Recently, ABC had given the APAMC the pilot script for “Fresh Off the Boat,” which was about to become the first Asian American family sitcom in 20 years. They wanted our opinion on if the title was all right or offensive, if the use of a racial slur was warranted. Every bit I said didn’t work, they took out. “Now they know we’re not just there to make trouble,” I told Norm, “but that we can actually help them!”
We had a good laugh over how much times had changed. Norm was very encouraged at how the networks’ attitudes had improved and that things were looking up for our community. I thanked him for helping us kick off the movement.
He told me a funny story of how he became secretary of transportation. His wife told him “the Vice President” was on the phone. “So I picked up the phone and I said, ‘Al [Gore]?!’ he remembered, laughing. Instead, it was Dick Cheney, asking if he’d consider joining George Bush’s Cabinet. Norm, a Democrat, was skeptical. He told Cheney he didn’t want to join the Cabinet if Bush was just trying to appear to be bipartisan. Cheney assured him he wasn’t, that he wanted Norm to speak his mind on issues. With that, he accepted.
When the planes went into the World Trade Center, it was Norm who made the call to ground all airplanes. And later on, for TSA to not racially profile Arabs during check-ins at the airport.
A few years later, Norm was supposed to be the featured speaker for a Japanese American event but at the last minute suffered a physical setback that prevented him from coming. The signs weren’t good.
Sadly, we lost him today at the age of 90. It was an honor to know and work with him.
Rahm Emanuel, U.S. ambassador to Japan: I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Norm Mineta, one of the finest public servants of this or any generation.
Norm became the first Asian American mayor of a major American city when he was elected mayor of San Jose, Calif. in 1971. He then worked for the people of California for 10 terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives before serving as secretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton and secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush, where I had the honor of working with him.
Norm’s profound moral authority grew out of his experiences being interned with his family and other Japanese Americans during World War II, and as America’s first Japanese American Cabinet official, he was a tireless advocate for equality and dignity and a fierce opponent of bigotry and prejudice. He will be deeply missed.
I send my most sincere condolences to all of his family and friends.