As the movement for redress and reparations for the more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated or otherwise forcibly removed from the West Coast during World War II began to gain steam in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, different views on how to win redress emerged. Some might say that those divergent views became wide chasms. But in the end, those different paths to achieve victory came together, for the most part, and necessarily so.
One of those divergent views was that the people had to be part of the movement, that organizing the community on a grass-roots level would be critical if redress was to be achieved and it was NCRR that led the way in that regard.
On June 16, NCRR, originally the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, now known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, celebrated the release of their new book which chronicles their rich and important history, NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations.
A good portion of the book is based on Glen Kitayama’s Master’s thesis about NCRR’s history. A former NCRR member, Kitayama has been a very good friend of mine for 30 years now. The book also includes stories contributed by NCRR members, former incarcerees and redress activists, excerpts from oral histories and so much more.
The lead photograph at the top of this post appears on the cover of the book and I am deeply honored that NCRR decided to use my photo, along with two other photographs that I took. The cover photo was taken during the 1989 Day of Protest, held in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, when we were protesting the fact that although the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 had been signed by President Ronald Reagan, granting redress, Congress had refused to appropriate any money to provide the $20,000 individual reparations payments to each of the surviving former incarcerees or their immediate family members.
During the book launch event, a flood of memories from the redress campaign rushed through my mind, along with the fact that the event was really one big reunion for everyone who has been deeply involved in the Los Angeles Japanese American community over the last 30 years or more, not to mention so many redress activists. Fitting into both of the categories I just mentioned, I felt like I knew 80 percent of the people in the room, maybe more—after the formal program was over, I couldn’t walk five feet without running into someone I knew. It was a wonderful event.
But the most significant memory that ran through my mind during the program was that, as my friend, Tony Osumi, wrote in the book, so many activists of my generation, not to mention generations that have followed, became community activists, in large part because of NCRR and their continuing work to engage young people and expose them to the issues facing our communities—and not just those impacting the Japanese American community—and to grass-roots organizing. They have always focused on the process of serving the people, placing greater priority on helping people gain the tools needed to build movements and become grass-roots activists, rather than on just their immediate goals.
That philosophy—think of it as a long-term investment—has paid off many times over. Indeed, not only was redress achieved, but NCRR has played an immeasurable role in developing community activists who have gone on to become leaders in our community, working with just about every Japanese American community organization or institution that you can think of, some playing leadership roles in those organizations. Some have even gone on to create and lead new community organizations that are already having tremendous, positive impacts on our community.
NCRR’s role in developing grass-roots community activists was my most significant memory during the book launch event because so many of my friends and I are among those activists. Indeed, when I was part of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union, NCRR members helped us learn about Japanese American Incarceration and redress, subjects that we really didn’t know a lot about, at the time.
Our mentors at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center back in the mid-to-late 1980’s, including Warren Furutani, Karen Umemoto and Glenn Omatsu, were our biggest influences, in terms of our budding activism. But NCRR members Richard Katsuda, Aki Maehara, Kathy Masaoka, Jim Matsuoka, Alan Nishio and Kay Ochi—they were the ones we had the most contact with—were not far behind. As we worked with NCRR during the redress struggle, they made sure that we weren’t just doing grunt work. Instead, they involved us in the organizing work, whether it was for a Day of Remembrance event, an educational program, or a rally. They wanted us to learn, develop and grow, and quite a few of us took their teachings and nurturing to heart.
The lessons we learned from our mentors about grass-roots organizing and community activism during the redress movement played a key role in the tenure case of UCLA Professor Don Nakanishi, who was denied tenure (permanent faculty appointment) in 1987.
To make a long story short, racism was at the heart of Nakanishi’s tenure denial. But the University made the mistake of underestimating the political will of our community and perhaps most notably, the grass-roots organizing abilities of the student activists fighting for Nakanishi.
One memory from that three-year battle was a UCLA Nikkei Student Union (UCLA NSU) meeting held fairly early in the tenure battle when we were deciding whether or not to officially endorse the fight against the University and to join the ad hoc organizing committee that had been formed to work on Nakanishi’s behalf. During that meeting, some students expressed misgivings about speaking out and taking a stand. But like NCRR so often did during the redress struggle, those of us who were already involved in the tenure battle took time to educate our fellow members about all the issues surrounding Nakanishi’s case, including the racism involved and how it could potentially affect their own career advancement. After all, if Nakanishi, our best and brightest, could not get tenure, the door leading to his advancement would not be the only door that would be slammed shut for a long, long time.
During that meeting, we worked to educate each other about the issues before us, to bring those who didn’t know about the Nakanishi tenure case up to the level of those of us who did. We worked to empower them, not just talk down to them. Those are all critical factors in building a grass-roots movement and we were able to apply the lessons we learned during the fight for redress to a future struggle—this is all about NCRR’s focus on the process of serving the people that I mentioned earlier.
In the end, the UCLA NSU voted to endorse the campaign and to join the ad hoc committee. They became the lead student organization fighting for Nakanishi, who was finally granted tenure in May 1989. He went on to become the Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and his 20-year tenure made him the most effective, impactful Director in the Center’s history, to that point.
Fast forward back to the present…as I mentioned, I am a product, in part, of NCRR’s teachings. Since the days of the redress struggle and the Nakanishi Tenure Case, I have remained involved in the community, mostly connected to the Manzanar National Historic Site, Japanese American Incarceration, youth engagement and leadership training, primarily through my work over the last 23 years (or thereabouts) with the Manzanar Committee. But whatever contributions I’ve made to the betterment of our community would not have been possible without the mentors and teachers that I mentioned earlier and NCRR has played a huge role.
I can’t thank NCRR enough for all they’ve done for me. I owe them a debt that I will never come close to being able to repay. I can only hope that my community work and activism honors what they’ve taught me and all that they’ve done for me for so many years, which continues to this day.
Congratulations NCRR on the publication of a book that’s been a long time coming. The work you’ve all done deserves to have the brightest of spotlights shined on it.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
Gann Matsuda is the Manzanar Committee’s Director, Communications and Social Media/Web Editor. He writes from Culver City, California.
LEAD PHOTO: Community members marched through Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo during a Day of Protest, held in August 1989. Photo: Gann Matsuda.
NCRR Book Launch Event: NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations – June 16, 2018
63 photos by Gann Matsuda. © 2018 Gann Matsuda. All rights reserved. Click on any photo to view a larger image and to scroll through the gallery.
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