Rafu Staff Report

Martha Miiko Nakagawa, a long-time community journalist, researcher and advocate, passed away on the morning of July 28 at Los Angeles General Medical Center. She was 56.

Martha Nakagawa (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

She was suffering from late-stage metastatic breast cancer, according to Marie Morohoshi, one of the friends who comforted Nakagawa in her final days.

Nakagawa, whose father was incarcerated at Tule Lake during World War II, was born in 1967 and grew up in Gardena with her childhood friend Morohoshi, whose father was also incarcerated at Tule Lake. They attended the Japanese language school at Gardena Buddhist Church, where they also cultivated deeper learnings in chado (the way of tea) and ikebana or kado (the way of flowers).

Nakagawa attended Stanford University, where she received a bachelor of arts in Asian studies with a minor in Japanese in 1989. Her activism blossomed while she was there when she was arrested during a campus wide protest demanding a more robust Asian American Studies program.

She also spent a summer abroad at International Christian University (国際基督教大学, Kokusai Kirisutokyō Daigaku), a non-denominational private university located in Mitaka, Tokyo, commonly known as ICU and established in 1949 as the first liberal arts college in Japan.

After her father, Lawrence Akio Nakagawa, passed away in the late 1990s, she returned to Gardena to tend to her mother, Sugako, until she passed away in 2021 at the age of 90.

Morohoshi said of Nakagawa’s final days, “Martha had a regular mammogram check-up just 2.5 years ago where she tested negative. As it turns out, Martha had a fast-growing type of breast cancer that metastasized.

“Even in her final moments in dealing with metastatic breast cancer, Martha’s mind was sharp and clear as a whistle. She responded to every question with exactness and she even had her oncology team laughing with her dry sarcasm just two days before she chose to transition out of her body.

“Willful and clear until she took her last breath, a warrior to the very end.”

Nakagawa was a journalist for more than 30 years, working for Asian Week, Pacific Citizen and The Rafu Shimpo and contributing to other community publications, including Nikkei West, Hawaii Herald, Nichi Bei Times, Hokubei Mainichi and Nichi Bei Weekly.

Nakagawa was a frequent contributor to The Rafu Shimpo and, along with photo editor Mario Gershom Reyes, chronicled some of the most important events in the Nikkei community, including the Manzanar and Tule Lake pilgrimages and the lives of historic figures such as Art Shibayama, Rose Ochi, Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig, Cedrick Shimo, Bill Nishimura, Frank Emi and Yosh Kuromiya.

Often paying her own way, Nakagawa covered numerous events, including protests by Tsuru for Solidarity at Fort Sill in Oklahoma in 2019 and the fight for Latin American redress at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Her last article, a review of Warren Furutani’s memoir, is in Saturday’s edition.

“So many important issues, so many stories would be untold without the courageous work of Martha Nakagawa,” said Rafu Senior Editor Gwen Muranaka. “Her sudden passing is shocking but her legacy is in her historic work and her commitment to social justice and community journalism. We offer our deepest sympathies to family and friends.”

Nakagawa was a coordinator for UCLA Asian American Studies Center’s Eiji Suyama Endowment Project, which aims to preserve the history of Japanese American resistance during World War II, including the draft resisters, No-Nos, renunciants, and other Nikkei dissidents. She also helped to archive the papers of the late activists and researchers Jack Herzig and Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga.

Nakagawa was a supporter of Tsuru for Solidarity, a non-violent, direct-action project of Japanese American social justice advocates working to end detention sites and support front-line immigrant and refugee communities that are being targeted by U.S. immigration policies, standing on the moral authority of Japanese Americans who endured the wartime concentration camps.

From left: Martha Nakagawa, Valerie Matsumoto, Mario Reyes and Rose Ochi in 2017 at a screening of “Rebel with a Cause: The Life of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga” at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Following are some of the tributes that have been posted on social media or submitted to The Rafu.

Naomi Hirahara, author and former Rafu Shimpo English editor: “We called you Mothra because Martha didn’t seem to quite fit you — a name of another era. Like Mothra, you were a protector of stories about resistance. You didn’t care who you faced. You were going to stand your ground.

“You were always careful about your health. I remember you drank too much freshly made carrot juice that your skin turned orange. That’s why hearing that you had been diagnosed with cancer, a cancer that had spread to your liver, last week was such a shock. And that you were on life support this week was unbelievable news.

“In the past, we had talked about a Rafu reunion from the 1990s but never seemed to be able to get it together. I regret it so much now. This loss is such a painful one, but like Mothra you have left such a legacy of vibrant work.

“I’m glad that you are not in pain anymore but will miss your intense truth-telling.”

Irene Kuromiya, wife of Heart Mountain resister Yosh Kuromiya: “We are all devastated in Martha’s passing. She made us better people by her words, efforts and courage to make our community stronger.

“She was instrumental in getting the Heart Mountain draft resisters and other camp resisters together as a group to support and promote their endeavors. Martha would attend many of the draft resisters’ events.

“She was a great person to have in our lives for advice or just talk. We have so many good memories of her visits.”

Judy Shintani, artist: “I will miss her bright spirit. She was a powerful writer and interviewer of those touched by the Japanese American incarceration. We were roommates at my first Tule Lake Pilgrimage. Thank you for interviewing me and my father. You left us too soon.”

Densho (Seattle): “Our hearts are heavy with the news that dedicated journalist Martha Nakagawa has passed away. Nakagawa worked for The Rafu Shimpo, Pacific Citizen and Asian Week, and published articles for many other publications over the past 30 years. She documented key events in the Japanese American and Asian American communities with passion, wit, and intelligence — and with anger when necessary.

“She had a particular interest in resistance, whether Nisei draft resisters, military resisters, or contemporary activists like the Nisei Progressives, and led a project to uncover the history of Bronzeville, as Little Tokyo in Los Angeles came to be known when it became home to many Black families migrating from the South to the West Coast during World War II.

“Nakagawa made a substantial contribution to Densho, conducting some 60 oral history interviews for us — a range of resistance figures such as Cedric Shimo, Los Angeles area community leaders such as Bruce Kaji, and cultural leaders such as Chizuko Omori. She also authored 11 Densho Encyclopedia articles, most on topics related to resistance or remembrance.

“Throughout her career, Martha worked to uplift lesser known stories and expand our knowledge of Japanese American history. She will be sorely missed.”

Nakagawa’s Densho Encyclopedia articles can be read here: https://encyclopedia.densho.org/authors/Martha%20Nakagawa/

Kenny Ina, former Topaz incarceree: “She was a young woman of a small stature with a big voice. Her voice has been heard through many Japanese American publications loudly, telling it like it is. She was always there during many Japanese American events carrying her camera and notebook, and later, a recorder. You could always see her interviewing people, and photographing them. 

“If there was a story to be told about the renunciants, she would write about it in depth, hoping people would change their minds about them. During events, I would always photograph her interviewing people. She was an amazing young lady, who is gone too soon. I will miss her sweet smile and the friendship we had. May she rest in peace until we meet again.”

Jenni Kuida, Los Angeles community activist: “Martha Nakagawa, amazing writer and journalist. I learned a lot about writing, interviewing and editing from working with her, especially when she was at The Rafu. We edited a ‘Nanka Nikkei Voices’ book together, a long time ago. I also learned from watching her work as a journalist and storyteller.

“At the heart of all the great JA untold stories of resistance and resilience was Martha. She was fierce when it came to getting the story, telling the story of draft resisters and others. She often introduced us to her friends, many times these sweet older JAs with powerful stories of activism.

“Your friends in the JA community will miss you. Rest in power, Martha.”

Lorna Fong, Sacramento community activist: “Martha — my heart is with you. You were a strong advocate and critical voice in sharing the important stories of WWII JA incarceration. Your legacy will live on in your passionate writing. I will miss you at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage.

“I recall with fondness your desire to create a Facebook account, and how I created it for you. May our collective memories of you and your huge smile and laugh bring your friends and family comfort at this time. Namo Amida Butsu.”

Kenji Taguma, Nichi Bei Foundation and Nichi Bei Weekly (San Francisco):++ “She passed away this morning in Los Angeles after discovering cancer on July 16, on her 56th birthday. I had texted her birthday wishes, when she informed me of her diagnosis.

“I’m still quite stunned, shocked and saddened by this loss, but I appreciate her long-time friend Marie Morohoshi, who flew down to SoCal from San Francisco to advocate for Martha in her final days, and kept a few of us informed via text thread.

“Martha represented the best of community journalism, with her tenacious reporting and commitment to social justice. We are proud to have featured her writings over the years, and her contributions to the community are irreplaceable.

“Personally, my family and I will always be appreciative of her efforts to shed light on the Nisei draft resisters in particular, including my father Noboru. As the National JACL was debating the apology and recognition to the resisters for their 2000 National Convention in Monterey, Calif., it was Martha’s reporting and role as assistant editor of the JACL’s Pacific Citizen newspaper that was critical to the evolving movement, providing a forum for open discussion among the JACL’s membership.

“But as she shed light on their story of reasoned protest after years of community ostracism, she was verbally attacked by JACL members opposed to the resolution.

“As part of our annual Nichi Bei Day of Giving in 2021, I sat down for an interview with Martha and Takeshi Nakayama, two long-time contributors to the Nikkei press, to discuss why they had been so involved and committed to the community. I wanted to honor their work by finally giving them some sort of spotlight. I’ll always and forever remember her tenacity and dedication …”

The interview can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhgZcTOWHGs

Mary Farrell, principal investigator for Trans-Sierran Archaeological Research: “I don’t want to believe that such a brilliant, wonderful, vibrant, valiant, eloquent, funny, and kind person is gone. Rest in peace and rest in power, Martha Nakagawa.”

Barbara Takei, Tule Lake Committee: “After a sleepless night, woke up late to learn Martha is gone. I’m personally heartbroken but relieved she is no longer suffering. She was only 56 but had done so much in her short lifetime, honoring and preserving the stories of her hero’s and heroes — people who shared her traits of integrity courage, independence, and a loving and generous spirit. 

“Her death is a great loss to us all, and I grieve.”

Soji Kashiwagi, Grateful Crane Ensemble: “About three weeks ago, Martha participated in a Zoom call regarding our Tule Lake panel at the JACL National Convention held in LA last week. At the time, she was not aware of her cancer, but

was definitely not feeling well and could only attend the meeting because it was Tule Lake ‘and I can get up for Tule Lake,’ she said.

“Our hopes were that she would get well in two weeks and join us on the panel, where she was planning to tell the truth about the JACL’s treatment of the Tule Lake resisters. Sadly, the week before convention, she received the devastating diagnosis, and immediately withdrew from speaking.

“But I want everyone to know that her fighting spirit was still there, and was likely with her up until the very end. On behalf of my dad [the late Hiroshi Kashiwagi] and family, I thank her for fighting the fight for all those who resisted. She will definitely be missed.”

Frank Abe, lead author, “We Hereby Refuse”: “I still can’t write about Martha being gone. Just hours later I shared the news at the authors panel at the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage and i choked up in the moment of having to refer to Martha in the past tense.”

Nancy Ukai, Wakasa Memorial Committee: “I’m heartbroken to share the news that Martha Nakagawa, our truth-telling sister and one of the earliest members of the Wakasa Memorial Committee, passed away on Friday. She was 56.

“Some of you have known Martha for decades. I first knew her through her writing, especially about resisters, for Rafu, the Nichi Bei, Densho and the Pacific Citizen. She was one of 23 Nikkei who traveled with Tsuru for Solidarity to Fort Sill, Okla., in 2019 to protest the construction of a detention facility for migrant children. At Fort Sill she insisted on staying with the survivors, who had volunteered to be arrested, in the event they were taken away.

“She also went to Tsuru’s first action at Crystal City and Dilley, Texas, and reported on it. 

“Ever the fierce journalist, she wrote a commentary, ‘The Desecration of a Monument,’ for The Rafu that included little-known information about acts of resistance by Topaz Issei. She noted previous problems with the Topaz Board, such as the soft-pedaling of Topaz history for the new museum text. After community protests, the NPS reviewed it and ordered a revision before the museum could open. 

“She suggested our committee contact the local paper in Delta and took it upon herself to do so. The editor of the Millard County Chronicle Progress then attended the first WMC ceremony in December 2021 (which was not well publicized), and interviewed committee members. He wrote a powerful piece, viewed by more than 3,000. That fire was lit by Martha.

“She said in an interview with the Nichi Bei, ‘Journalism is history in a hurry, so if we don’t document our history, our history gets lost.’

“We love you and will miss you, Martha. You have gone far too soon.”  

Jan Yen, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress: “Martha, you are an inspiration to me. I’ve read your informative articles in the Japanese American vernaculars for many years. You have contributed so much to our understanding of Japanese American history, especially the resisters of conscience during World War II. Thank you!!”

Kathy Masaoka, NCRR: “A fierce supporter of the JA resisters who made sure their stories were known. Thank you, Martha.”

Miya Iwataki, NCRR: “She wrote with passion and conviction about her community. She had a sharp mind, sharp wit, sharp tongue. We will miss you, Martha.”

Art Hansen, emeritus professor of history and Asian American studies, CSU Fullerton: “For the past quarter of a century, I was blessed to have Martha as both a very close friend and a greatly respected colleague. While I was profoundly moved by her courageous championing of multiple civil liberties, human rights, and social justice causes relative to the Japanese American community, what most impressed me within this context was her personal and journalistic support of the WWII Nisei draft resisters of conscience.

“Unlike the mainstream Nikkei and American communities who largely championed the military actions of heroic individuals like airman Ben Kuroki and those who served in the Go For Broke 442nd Infantry Regiment, Martha paid homage to the alternative and largely neglected brand of patriotic Americanism exhibited by the comparatively small cadre of draft resisters.

“Whereas Frank Abe produced the film ‘Conscience and the Constitution’ and Frank Chin and Eric Muller wrote the seminal books ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘Free to Die for Their Country,’ which publicly lionized these young men, it was Martha who privately befriended and nurtured them in their autumnal years. She was also the person who wrote a stunning series of obituaries lauding their respective lives and consequential achievements.”

Sojin Kim, curator at Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and former staff member at Japanese American National Museum: “More than anyone I’ve ever known, Martha understood that community and historical stewardship are intergenerational endeavors, and she extended herself so generously to this very time-consuming and careful work.

“She supported her own parents as well as family friends, attending to their needs as their physical health became diminished. She was dedicated to many community elders, who entrusted her with their stories and insights.

“Martha was especially committed to ensuring that those whose histories were inaccurately represented, if not entirely overlooked, were respectfully included in the public record. She interviewed and visited with them; she accompanied them to public functions; and she became the caretaker or steward of books and other belongings when they had to downsize. Martha was also often the person who memorialized them in print after they became ancestors.

“My connection with Martha was anchored by our friendship with the late Cedrick Shimo (1919-2020), a military resister and former American Honda Motors executive, whose obituary she penned for The Rafu. We had a recurring lunch group that would meet for a meal and a field trip, whose destinations ran the gamut from a pumpkin patch, Cedrick’s old office at Honda, The Studio for Southern California History in Chinatown, Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop, Cherrystones restaurant, etc.

“Even after I moved away from Los Angeles over a decade ago, even after Cedrick went into Keiro Retirement Home and later the nursing facility, we would still get together at least once or twice a year at Keiro. Martha would make the drive into L.A. bearing bags of bento and pastries, and we would spread these out in one of the common areas.

“I like to imagine that Martha and Cedrick are now enjoying long, raucous meals around a table with many dear friends — laughing, getting caught up on news and gossip, and sweeping the crumbs from the table to the floor where Martha’s beloved furry pal Taro happily slurps them up.”

A celebration of life will be held on Sunday, Aug. 27, at 11 a.m. at Fukui Mortuary, 707 E. Temple St., Los Angeles.

For those who can’t attend, the service will be live-streamed here: https://bit.ly/MarthaNakagawaMemorial

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