Jim Matsuoka

By KATHY MASAOKA, KAY OCHI and RICHARD KATSUDA, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress Co-chairs

Members of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) are grieving the loss of its North Star, Jim Matsuoka, who passed away on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Jim was a founding member of NCRR, then known as the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, who helped build the movement for reparations and an organization that would stay true to its belief in the power of the grassroots and solidarity with others. He continued to actively participate in the programs and faithfully attended the monthly general meetings, including Oct. 1.

Jim grew up around Fourth and Towne, then a residential area of Little Tokyo (LT) and where LT now intersects with Skid Row. In 1942, he, along with his sisters and parents, was forcibly removed from LT and shipped to Manzanar “prison camp” as he called it. His love for Little Tokyo and his anger at injustice would be driving forces in Jim’s life.

Not by choice, Jim became a shop steward, voted into office by his mostly white fellow workers, and spent the next ten years instilling fear in the company bosses. Seeing other Asian Americans at a demonstration against Sen. S.I. Hayakawa in Orange County, Jim was intrigued, searched for and happily found the nascent Asian American movement in the late ’60s. 

He started the first Asian American studies class at Cal State Long Beach and spoke at the first Manzanar Pilgrimage in 1969. He helped to build a place for the Issei, the first Pioneer Center office in the Sun Building on Weller Street, and was a key member of the Little Tokyo Peoples Rights Organization (LTPRO) fighting for housing for seniors and against the development of the New Otani by Kajima Corporation (part of East West Development).

But it was through NCRR that both Jim’s love for LT and his anger at the injustice of the camps was able to find full expression. NCRR met in Little Tokyo and was actively engaged in projects to preserve and maintain it as an important center for Japanese Americans in Southern California.

Jim, like others in NCRR, had been a member of LTPRO and learned the importance of supporting working people in the fight against redevelopment. Jim’s instincts as a former union representative kicked into gear when pickets were organized to support the New Otani workers’ demands for union. 

Whenever there was a call for support of workers, whether it be at The Rafu Shimpo when the long-time printing department workers were laid off abruptly or at the JACCC where the director was abusive and disrespectful to the staff, Jim was at the ready to speak out and support them. 

Jim had a long memory and never forgot how Kajima Corporation had destroyed the mom/pop businesses, hotels and the Sun Building to make way for the New Otani Hotel. He led the march to JANM to demand that they not use Kajima Corporation in the construction of the new museum — and won.

Most significantly, Jim was the guiding voice for redress and reparations, starting with the Los Angeles Community Coalition on Redress/Reparations (LACCRR). It was the first group to outreach to Nisei and encourage them to talk about the camps and laid the groundwork for the formation of NCRR in 1980.

In 1981, Jim coordinated the call for testifiers before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), and helped prepare them to testify. Many may recall Jim’s testimony before the commission chair, Judge William Marutani, where he angrily objects to being rushed and bangs his fist on the table. 

Jim knew that he could not be the only one speaking about the camps or reparations and set up a speaker’s bureau so that more NCRR members could be trained to do presentations and workshops to gain support for redress. Consequently, NCRR was ready for the 1987 lobbying delegation to Washington, D.C., where 140 regular folks traveled to share their camp story and to win congressional support for monetary reparations. Jim, the usually tight-fisted treasurer, committed NCRR funds for the trip, money well spent when the Senate and the House passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. 

While Jim was recognized with the NCRR Fighting Spirit Award in 1993 at the Day of Remembrance program, he wanted people to know that without the NCRR women, there would be no reparations. 

When redress was won in 1988, Jim continued with NCRR as it transitioned from the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations to Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress in 1991, knowing that the fight against injustice was not over. He unwaveringly supported the Muslim community after 9/11, the demand for reparations by the “comfort women” and by African Americans today. He believed in continuing to educate others about the camps and was in demand as the consummate storyteller.

He was a touchstone for the play “Tales of Clamor,” which talks about breaking silence in 1981 and today. He was principled and let people know where he stood on issues, but Jim was also kind and thoughtful, always looking at an issue from many angles and sharing thoughtful reflections. He even joined the Nikkei Progressives/NCRR bimonthly PODs, where participants shared personal struggles with the model minority myth and the harms of anti-Blackness.

NCRR was like Jim’s family and, as the patriarch, he insisted that the group continue to meet each month without fail even as the members were aging. He was most concerned about making sure that NCRR’s legacy and history be recorded correctly, so he initiated a collection of stories, selected the topics and asked people to write about them. When very few responded, Jim wrote the stories and put others’ names to them! 

Although Jim was the long-time treasurer for NCRR, he was really the historian, keeping meticulous files on every event and action. When NCRR finally did write about its history in “NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations,” Jim was the one who had to write the prologue and the chronology, having the best records both written and in his memory. 

He also insisted that the chronology start with Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement, which he felt was key to our movement. With NCRR’s history now written, Jim wanted to find a good place for his 40-plus years of NCRR materials and was relieved to find a good home with the archives at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Some may have seen Jim as a “curmudgeon,” but he also enjoyed all of life. He talked about how he would ride his bike out of the drudgery and misery of the trailer camps where his family was forced to live after the war and how he would spend the day taking in the sights, movies and food at The Pike in Long Beach. Jim never lost that sense of exploration, excitement and delight at finding new things, new foods and new people.

Jim’s heart was big and his arms were wide enough to embrace people from all different backgrounds, from the Mexican ladies in his ceramics class to youth in the Summer Activist Training and the Muslim high schoolers in the Bridging Communities Program. Everyone felt they were special to him and they were. Jim had the uncanny ability to make each person feel that he/she/they was important and special.

NCRR will miss Jim, its toastmaster, speechmaker, rabble rouser, straight shooter, adviser, and the list goes on. NCRR is only able to share the comments of a few people in this space but welcomes more people to share their reflections and tributes to Jim, which can be posted later. 

A Celebration of Life is planned for Saturday, Nov. 19, from 2 to 5 p.m. in Little Tokyo. More information will be provided — please save the date.

NCRR Responses to Jim’s Passing

In a photo from the 1990s, Jim Matsuoka speaks to the media on behalf of NCRR.

Alan Nishio: In 1972, I received a phone call from Jim asking me to consider applying for a position that was opening at Cal State Long Beach to direct outreach, admissions, and support services for low-income, first-generation college students. At that time, Jim was a counselor with the Educational Opportunity Program. That phone call led to a three-decade professional association with Jim that was grounded in a common belief in educational equity and social justice programs.

In leading EOP, Jim found his calling as he tirelessly worked to build unity amongst students, faculty and staff in serving students who had not been given the educational opportunities and support necessary to gain a college degree. When Jim retired from CSULB 20 years ago, he left a legacy of the educational success for generations of low-income and students of color who were touched by his leadership and guidance.

Tony Osumi: For 20 years, I have been going to Santa Anita Park with Jim and friends from NCRR. He taught me how to bet, pick horses, and which concession stand sold beef stew. I never hit it big, but every outing was a winner.

When hanging out with Jim, you got wit, humor, and adventure. He was a master storyteller and shared close calls with rival gangs, taking CSULB students to Vegas, and watching odori dancers Tanko Bushi down the dirt track at Hollywood Park’s JA Appreciation Day. Jim was an elder, but he made you feel like a peer. See you at the track, Jim.  

Kay Ochi: Jim Matsuoka was a warrior; he was also the heart and soul of NCRR. Like the other Nisei in NCRR, he and they were the firebrands of their generation. Think of Frank Emi, Lillian Nakano, Jim Saito, Bert Nakano, Tom Shiroishi and many others … willing to speak out, not willing to be the quiet Nisei.

Jim was courageous, fist-pounding, megaphone-wielding, and … he could write. His letters to The Rafu Shimpo called out people and organizations in our community when it was needed, calling a few of them “pigs at the trough.”

His moral compass was unwavering. Jim, we are so grateful and you will be missed!

Janice Yen: I first met Jim in the early ’70s when I joined the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization.  LTPRO sought to empower the residents of Little Tokyo, many of whom were produce workers and retirees living in cramped hotel rooms. 

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when I saw Jim pound the table at the 1981 CWRIC hearings and at the end of his testimony pay tribute to the “real heroes of the community, the Nisei domestic, the clerk and the gardener, common people who kept us from starving while the country turned their backs on us (after the war).” Jim’s words drew repeated applause from the audience, and I thought to myself, right on, Jim!

Miya Iwataki: JIM MATSUOKA: GENERAL, WARRIOR for JUSTICE & REDRESS. As a teen, Jim Matsuoka was known as “The General.” He continued that leadership role as a founding member of NCRR. Jim helped craft — and never ever veered from — our Principles of Unity. I wanted to emulate his qualities. He was the real deal. A welcoming presence for NCRR members, newcomers, and people from all walks of life. There was room in his heart for everyone.

Unless you dared disparage his community, his beloved NCRR family, his values. Then watch out! He could cut people to the quick. “You know why (Sen.) Hayakawa wears that beret? To keep his brains from falling out!”

Jim, you were an uncut gem with many facets:

“The General” marking off Black Juan territory in J-Flats;

Union shop steward – unopposed, feared by management;

JA griot who could spin a story, mesmerizing young folks and friends;

Community leader — not the name-in-headlines leader, but the mentor, the one who led by passion and inspiration.

Richard Katsuda: If you needed someone to be the lion to roar about an injustice, you called on Jim. He was the ultimate warrior. He never minced words and never backed down. But Jim was also the consummate teacher. He cared about what younger people were learning in their lives. He cared about their futures and the future of our community.

Jim enthusiastically gave talks at our annual Summer Activist Trainings in order to give guidance and inspiration to the young, budding activists. He also gave annual presentations about the camps and the redress movement to LAUSD teachers for over 30 years.

traci kato kiriyama: Jim always brought out “The General” in his storytelling at Tuesday Night Cafe, where he was proud to say he attended every show until he stopped driving at night. Even then, he’d watch regularly through the livestream. He was a huge supporter and collaborator and inspiration for so many things throughout my entire adult life – TNP, Vigilant Love, zero 3 back in the day, and most recently “Tales of Clamor,” a play that features part of his testimony at the 1981 CWRIC hearings.

I’d introduce him to the audience as the guy who slammed the hearing table, proclaiming he would not be rushed by this government ever again. The audience would gasp and want to take photos with him. He was our true superstar. Cheers all ways to Jim.

Jan Tokumaru: Personally, I appreciated individual conversations sharing our respective experiences in the labor union movement as we each organized with workers in different industries — Jim in the auto industry and myself in communications and workforce development. We shared so many laughs as well as common political and systemic challenges that perpetuate inequality for workers and communities with common interest.

It was only in recent talks that we discovered that we knew some of the same earlier labor leaders who impacted our lives, positively and otherwise. Every time we were closing a discussion, we agreed that we had much more to talk about the next time. I am grateful for the time shared in struggle and in community.

Kathy Masaoka: Jim and I were tasked with presenting NCRR’s concerns to the JACCC Board chair and the then-director about his abusive treatment of long-time staff. The night before our meeting, we had received information about the possible criminal background of the director and Jim and I were faced with the decision whether to share this at the meeting.

He and I met in the plaza to confer and, after quick reflection, he concluded that letting the board person know sooner than later was critical.

Whenever I am in doubt about the right thing to do, Jim will be my North Star.

Jim Matsuoka and traci kato-kiriyama in 2019. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

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  1. I always appreciated Jim pushing to support controversial, uncomfortable issues like racist police practices against Asian youth in Fountain Valley, the comfort women and opposition to Japanese militarism. He never forgot that redress was at one time a controversial issue. Until he and others made it “acceptable”. I also appreciated how he and James helped my son participate in the Nikkei basketball leagues when I could not due to custody and work.

  2. I first got to know Jim when I was attending Cal State Long Beach in the late 70’s. Thank you Alan Nishio for getting me back in school. I attained a work study position at EOP as a student counselor. I think Jim was my boss, he never acted like my boss. He always said he help me get my start as a chiropractor because I set up a blanket on the floor of his office and would work on people there. He also introduced everyone in that office to horse racing and football pools. Organizing outings to Santa Anita and getting all of us to join the pool. Jim was really one of a kind, keeping everyone’s morale up and fighting when the need arose! Yes, you will be missed!