LOS ANGELES — 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 October 21, 2022, 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 were 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, California. After that, his family moved to the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, and then to the Virgil Avenue area of Los Angeles, colloquially known, at the time, as “J-Flats.”
After graduating from high school, Matsuoka was drafted and served in the United States Army. Upon completing his military service, he enrolled at Los Angeles City College, and later, transferred to California State University, 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 December 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 and reparations 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,” Embrey added. “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.”
The Manzanar Committee, sponsor of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and Manzanar At Dusk program, the youth education project, Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive, and their annual Sue Kunitomi Embrey Student Awards Program, is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when Constitutional rights are in danger. A non-profit organization that has sponsored the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage since 1969, along with other educational programs, the Manzanar Committee has also played a key role in the establishment and continued development of the Manzanar National Historic Site.
LEAD PHOTO: Jim Matsuoka (center), shown here with Manzanar Committee Co-Chairs Jenny Chomori (left) and Bruce Embrey (right), was presented with the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award during the 50th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 27, 2019, at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo by Mark Kirchner/Manzanar Committee.
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