By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
A final farewell to Norman Mineta, who passed away on May 3 at the age of 90, was held June 25 at the Japanese American National Museum.
The event followed memorial programs on June 11 in Washington, D.C., where Mineta served in Congress for two decades and was a Cabinet secretary in two administrations, and June 16 in his hometown, San Jose, where he served as mayor half a century ago. Former President Bill Clinton, who appointed Mineta as secretary of commerce, spoke at the latter celebration. Mineta was also secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush.
The choice of JANM for the Los Angeles memorial was fitting because Mineta chaired the museum’s Board of Trustees and was a frequent visitor.
“This place was so important to him,” said ABC 7 news anchor David Ono, who served as emcee. Although Mineta “carried the burden of being the voice of this community” for many years, Ono added, he happily shouldered that responsibility for most of his life.
Like the Japanese American community as a whole, Ono said, Mineta, “our greatest representative,” got things done not by being loud and intimidating but through quiet determination.
The program opened with a performance by Kinnara Taiko and presentation of colors by Koyasan’s Boy Scout Troop 379 and Nisei Boy Scouts of Heart Mountain’s Troop 313: Assistant Scoutmaster Takashi Hoshizaki, Albert Keimi, Richard Kushino, George Iseri, Hal Keimi, Bacon Sakatani and Nori Uyematsu. Mineta was a Cub Scout when he arrived at the Wyoming camp.
Ono noted that it was through the Boy Scouts that Mineta befriended Alan Simpson, who lived in a nearby town. The two remained friends when Mineta was a Democratic congressman and Simpson was a Republican senator, and they often worked across the aisle despite political differences. A Mineta-Simpson Institute is being added to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center to foster empathy and cooperation among the next generation of leaders.
Invocations were given by Rev. Mark Nakagawa of the United Methodist Church and Bishop Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. Nakagawa noted that Mineta was active at Wesley United Methodist Church in San Jose Japantown, and his community involvement led to his appointment to the San Jose City Council. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
Ito noted that Mineta’s Japanese name, Yoshio, is usually written with the characters for “good person.” “We can all agree that he wonderfully fulfilled the wishes of his parents and perhaps his grandparents as well when they gave him that name,” Ito said.
Consul General of Japan Akira Muto and local elected officials shared personal remembrances of Mineta. “A legend in the Japanese American community, also highly respected in Japan, he was steadfastly dedicated to enhancing U.S.-Japan relations during his long and distinguished life,” Muto said. “Secretary Mineta had such a strong impact on U.S.-Japan relations as he made a personal commitment as an elected leader of high caliber. Rising to the highest levels of the U.S. government … he greatly advanced the stature of Japanese Americans in the United States and, by extension, helped strengthen the trust of Americans in Japan.”
On a personal note, Muto expressed regret that he was unable to fulfill a promise he made to Mineta during their last conversation — to serve him **unagi** (eel) from the secretary’s ancestral prefecture of Shizuoka during his next visit to Los Angeles.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said, “I had the honor of meeting Secretary Mineta when I was in the Air Force in the 1990s and we were at a federal Asian Pacific American Leadership Council awards dinner. To me, Secretary Mineta was larger than life, but when I met him, he was so kind and warm and gracious. We had the opportunity to see each other at various political and governmental events. I had the honor of getting to know his son David … It was just an honor for me to have known Secretary Mineta.”
Despite his wartime experience, Lieu said, Mineta served in the Army and ran for elected office, ultimately serving in the Cabinet, because “he believed in the promise of America.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, described Mineta as “a dear friend” who did so much “to transform Asian American Pacific Islanders in Washington, D.C. and therefore the nation from invisibility to positions of power and influence.” Mineta co-founded CAPAC during his two decades in Congress and was its first chairman.
“CAPAC has grown … Today we have 21 AAPI members of Congress, our highest number in history,” Chu said. “And with our associate members (who represent districts with large AAPI populations), we have a total of 76 members of Congress belonging to CAPAC. Because of this, we have been able to pass historic legislation recently with our COVID hate crime bill and the AAPI Smithsonian museum study bill. But that wouldn’t have happened without Norm’s vision.”
Chu also delivered a message from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), who was planning to attend but had to cancel after contracting COVID. Takano recalled that Mineta came to his defense when he was outed as gay during a congressional campaign.
Lieu and Chu presented a congressional certificate to Mineta’s wife, Deni, and sons, Stuart and David.
Recognition from Metro
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, the first Latina to serve in the Cabinet, said she got to know Mineta while serving in the State Senate in the 1990s and in Congress in the 2000s. “He was such a voice of reason, but always friendship and kindness. And he fought for what he believed in … He was a champion for people to advocate for transparency in government and accountability. I think those are the principles that many of us desire to have. We need to continue to impart that upon our other elected officials.”
As outgoing chair of the Metro Board, Solis announced that the Little Tokyo/Arts District Station will be named in Mineta’s honor because of his role as a trailblazer who worked to ensure that “our government is more diverse at all levels, local and nationally, so that our government reflects all the people everywhere, regardless of where you are, where you live, what zip code, what religion and who you love” — and particularly for his service to the Nikkei community.
Solis presented a county proclamation to Mineta’s family.
Other elected officials present included Rep. Jimmy Gomez, Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi and Mike Fong, and Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Personal remembrances followed a video tribute from JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center and a performance of one of Mineta’s favorite songs, “The Impossible Dream,” by singer Helen Ota and musician Michael Murata.
Ties to Heart Mountain
Shirley Ann Higuchi, chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, said that Mineta was a strong supporter of the museum at Heart Mountain because he believed in “building something of significance at the place where over 10,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated.”
Although Mineta spent part of his childhood there, “Norm never allowed his incarceration experience to define him,” Higuchi said. “But he also didn’t shy away from saying, ‘I had my rights taken away from me and I’ll make sure it never happen again to anyone.’”
When the museum opened in 2011, Higuchi recalled, “There was so much joy in Norm’s eyes. And before he passed away, I gave him the great news … We’re halfway there (in fundraising) with the Mineta-Simpson Institute.”
She also remembered that Mineta was so humble that he kept insisting that Simpson’s name come before his.
Hideki Hamamoto, president and CEO of HH Trans Pac Inc., shared stories of his friendship with Mineta. Having known the secretary since the 1970s, Hamamoto reminisced about many get-togethers between the two families, including skiing trips. He noted that Mineta always gave his all, whether walking the halls of Congress or tackling the bunny slopes, though he was better at the former.
“Norm’s sons and my daughters have became like brothers and sisters over the years,” Hamamoto said. “They trust each other, rely on each other, and lately have leaned on each other.”
He also described Mineta as a “sensei” who guided future leaders of the community through various youth-oriented programs.
Guiding Foree for JANM
Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of JANM, said, “I feel Norm’s presence here in the museum, this museum that he loved, this museum that he helped to build more than 30 years ago, which he transformed through his leadership as the beloved chair of our Board of Trustees. I feel him in this community, which he helped stitch together with his devotion, and in the fabric of this country, which changed for the better with service and clear-eyed patriotism.
“Few understood better than Norm just how imperfect America is. Few had greater conviction that this union could be more perfect. And few worked harder to make it so.
“Norm’s improbable journey to Washington by way of San Jose and a tarpaper barrack at Heart Mountain is testament to the strength of his character. That 11-year-old Cub Scout, robbed of his Little League bat (by a guard), forcibly removed from his boyhood home and labeled an enemy child by his own country, could have taken a very different path. He could have turned away from the call to service instead of turning toward it. But that just wasn’t who Norm was. He understood with such clarity the power of choices, the ones we don’t make and the ones we do make.
“In 2017, when I first came to JANM, I worked with Norm to bring Executive Order 9066 to the museum on the 75th anniversary of its signing. And I will never forget that moment, that humbling experience of witnessing Norm confront that original document for the first time. It was incredibly emotional and poignant for him to see President Roosevelt’s signature there on that page, the unassuming and banal pen strokes that upended his and family’s lives and those of 120,000 others. A culmination of the choice by people in power to put their prejudices ahead of his civil rights.
“Norm didn’t get to choose the path of his childhood, but it informed every single choice he made after that. The choice to pursue positions of great responsibility, and importantly the choices he made once he got there. At every opportunity, he chose the path of service, first in the military, then representing his community on San Jose’s City Council, as mayor, and later in Congress, and then as a Cabinet secretary to two presidents.
“As Norm rose in politics, he chose the path his father advised, reminding him to always bring everything you are to everything you do. And he always did just that.”
As secretary of transportation, after 9/11, Mineta spoke out against racial profiling of Arab and Muslim communities, Burroughs said. “Norm served as a living testament, as a living reminder of that history that America must never repeat. To this day, I am so stuck by the enormity of that moment when President Bush looked around the room and told his Cabinet, ‘We don’t want to have happen today what happened to Norm in 1942.’”
Burroughs, who was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa (at considerable risk to her own safety) , said that Mineta is part of the “pantheon” of great leaders she has known, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Gratitude from Family
Stuart Mineta thanked everyone on behalf of the family. He said that all of the messages that they have received since his father’s passing “reminded me of what Dad was about. He was about those connections with everybody being able to connect your personal story with his, to able to draw the similarities … And that’s what this wonderful museum is all about, collecting those stories, possibly reliving them but also learning from them, and not holding them in …
“At the service in San Jose, President Clinton basically gave us a call to arms, to say what are we going to learn from Dad’s life? And basically that was it. We have all these stories that we could tell, that we could share, but most importantly that we can learn from. And let other communities know that we have this story, you probably have a story like this too. To help us foster relationships and maybe just get along a little bit more.”
Mineta said that he and his brother were “lucky” not only to have such a remarkable father but also to have an extended foster family of his father’s friends and associates who have remained close to this day.
The program closed with an original composition by Kinnara Taiko, the retiring of the colors by Boy Scout Troop 379, and the presentation of the flag by the Nisei Boy Scouts to the Mineta family.
Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo