Jim Matsuoka (center), shown with Manzanar Committee Co-Chairs Jenny Chomori and Bruce Embrey, was presented with the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award during the 50th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 27, 2019, at the Manzanar National Historic Site. (Photo by Mark Kirchner/Manzanar Committee)

The Manzanar Committee extends its deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Jim Matsuoka, long-time social justice activist, and a founder of the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR; now known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), who passed away on Oct. 21 at the age of 86 due to complications from medical conditions he had been suffering from in recent months.

Born in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, Matsuoka was among the 11,070 Japanese/Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar, an American concentration camp, during World War II.

After the war, Matsuoka’s family returned to Little Tokyo before they moved to a trailer park in Long Beach. After that, his family moved to the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles and then to the Virgil Avenue area, colloquially known at the time as “J-Flats.”

Jim Matsuoka shares his memories of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum in 2017. He gave powerful testimony at the CWRIC’s 1981 hearings in Los Angeles. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

After graduating from high school, Matsuoka was drafted and served in the Army. Upon completing his military service, he enrolled at Los Angeles City College and later transferred to CSU Long Beach, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social sciences. During his time in college, Matsuoka also worked in the aerospace industry and served ten years as a union representative.

Matsuoka’s work for the union was a catalyst for his activism.

“I spent something like ten years as a union representative fighting for the workers,” he said in a 2019 interview. “I really began to develop a social consciousness. Working people are being kicked around and taken advantage of. That kind of leads up into, as I continue on into school, people began to ask me about things like Manzanar, and somewhere along the line, I began to see that we’re not being told the whole story.”

Matsuoka was among the leaders of a group of activists who participated in the first organized Manzanar Pilgrimage on a very cold Dec. 27, 1969.

“Jim played a central role in the first community-wide Pilgrimage to Manzanar in 1969, and went on to be one of the founders of the Manzanar Committee,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “He played a pivotal role in crafting the language for the plaque at Manzanar, commemorating its designation as a State Historic Landmark. The wording on the plaque is often cited as one of first places where the terms ‘concentration camp,’ ‘racism,’ and ‘economic greed’ were made public. Jim always stood up for what was right, no matter the consequences.“

Matsuoka, who received the Manzanar Committee’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award in 2019, was often recognized for his work during the fight for redress in the late 1960s through the early 1990s, especially with NCRR. But he was far more than just a redress activist.

“Jim was more than our inspiration,” Embrey noted. “He offered us guidance and direction. His life as a labor leader, community organizer, fighter for ethnic studies, and leader in the redress and reparations movement with NCRR gave him a breadth of vision few people had. He was a leader whose stories were packed with lessons and wise counsel. Jim was a role model. His integrity and commitment to principle should serve as a model for us all.

“Jim had a fierce commitment to social justice. His honest and forthright approach, his integrity, and his tireless activism was not just impressive, it was almost unparalleled. Always striving to place the interests of the people ahead of anything else, he never sought the limelight. He had a grounded, deep love for humanity.

“This is just devastating for us. Jim was such a tremendous person, leader, and presence in our community. On behalf of the Manzanar Committee, I want to express our condolences and best wishes to his family, and to everyone who knew and loved him. Jim was, in a word, special. We miss him dearly.”

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