Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Peggy A. Nagae Interview I
Narrator: Peggy A. Nagae
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: April 17, 2009
Densho ID: denshovh-npeggy-01-0014

<Begin Segment 14>

TI: So when you finished law school, what did you do?

PN: I worked, I was a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow at Legal Aid in Portland, Oregon. So it was a fellowship, a national fellowship given to people who wanted to do impact litigation in legal services. So I went there for two years, it was a disaster of an experience, but I did fight my way all the way to the Board of Directors to start a civil rights unit when I was there.

TI: So this fellowship, essentially, gives you the pay so that you can do something in the community, essentially?

PN: Yes, yeah.

TI: And so you did this for two years, and then after that, what did you do?

PN: I went to the Urban Indian Council and started my own private practice and helped start an Indigent Criminal Defense Unit. And I did not think of myself as being a trial lawyer in law school, and I thought about poverty law. And I also did not think about doing criminal law, but I realized, when I got into criminal law, I really liked it. I had no idea, because I didn't... I tell students today, "There was only Perry Mason, and clearly I was not gonna be Peggy Mason." So that was the only role model I had about how to be a trial attorney. But I had a friend of mine who really helped me develop as a trial attorney, and I won a lot of cases. And I believe the reason I won a lot of cases is that I came out of my parents' experience of being incarcerated without due process and equal protection. So I believe in the Constitution, I believe in the democracy, I believe in the jury system, and so do jurors. So in the closing argument, I wrapped myself around the flag and just talked about those principles and those values and really talked, spoke from my heart, and also wrapped the facts of my case around that. And I think that people do still believe in justice, and I think that's why I was successful.

TI: And speaking of justice, about this time, redress was starting to heat up in terms of the community organizing and looking at this. Can you describe some of the things that were happening down in Portland?

PN: Well, Jim, Dr. Jim Tsujimura was the, he's from Portland, and he was the president of the National JACL, and they were starting a National Redress Committee, or had already started one. And there were lots of people before our committee who called for redress. Edison Uno and lots of people that you know and other people know, who were giants and leaders in this area, he appointed me to the National Redress Committee in 1978. I was one year out of law school and very appreciative that he would do that. He was generous. And I got on this committee and met people from all around the country, including John Tateishi and Ron Mamiya, who's a judge from Seattle, and met a lot of people. Probably one of the significant issues was individual payments versus group payments, and that was a real big fight on the committee. I remember attending a National JACL board meeting and realizing, wow, these division go pretty deeply into the Nisei community, that those who did this during World War II versus those who did that during World War II, pretty significant.

TI: You mean sort of around the issue of, perhaps, how they showed their loyalty during World War II in terms of... are you talking more like the veteran path versus, perhaps, people who went to Tule Lake and things like that? Are you talking about those divisions? I wasn't clear what you meant.

PN: Not necessarily those divisions, although that came later, but just personal relationships or personal... I'm not exactly sure, but there just seemed to be long-standing divisions between people. They weren't talking, really, about the issues on the table, they were talking from a historical context that they had that I didn't have. So, and I thought they had to do with their relationships with one another.

TI: Well, as an example, you mentioned earlier the issue for redress in terms of individual payment versus group payments. So there was a, people had different opinions about that. Did people sort of coalesce around that, and is that kind of an example where you saw, perhaps, the most divisions in terms of what side people were on?

PN: Yes. And I can't remember exactly clearly all the machinations. Other people, I'm sure, in Seattle -- because Seattle was really very strongly in this fight. And there were many people from Seattle who had done a lot for redress and spoken out about it. Chuck Kato and Shosuke Sasaki and Cherry Kinoshita and all those folks. And then Ron was on the committee, and I remember he just, he really got hammered a lot because he was representing Seattle, and Seattle really believed in individual payments. And it got down to some pretty interesting and pretty harsh conversations.

TI: And so in these meetings -- this is interesting, I don't think I've, I haven't interviewed Ron yet about this. But in these meetings, so I've interviewed a lot of Seattle people and, yeah, they came out early for individual payments. So there was, at the national level, lots of resistance to the idea of individual payments?

PN: Yeah.

TI: And what was the thinking? Because eventually they came around to doing individual payments. What was the thinking?

PN: I'm trying to remember, and you should definitely interview Ron, 'cause he will definitely remember. But how do you fashion individual payments, what would be the amount of the individual payment, would it look like we were going for it to be selfish and for self-aggrandizement or gaining in our pocketbooks. And I didn't know if behind the backstory was if it's a lump sum payment into a trust fund, then would it go more towards organizations and would it go more towards community groups versus have it dispersed with individuals. So I don't know if that was part of the backstory. I was pretty young and pretty naive. But we did fashion it so that there would be individual payments plus a chunk of money for a trust fund. So that, I think, was the ultimate compromise, but it was a battle right 'til the end.

TI: And the dynamics, how does a body like that shift? I mean, it sounded like initially, Ron was kind of this lonely figure, but eventually that opinion prevailed. What was the, can you recall the process? And if you can't remember, that's okay.

PN: Yeah. I don't remember, and other people would have sharper memories than me about that. I do remember talking to Ron, getting to know Ron, understanding the situation. 'Cause, you know, the theory is that people were individually harmed. And in this country, we do individual remedies. And then if they chose to do what they wanted with it, they could choose to give it to some organization or lump sum or whatever. But because it was an individual experience, then we ought to have individual remedies. Which made sense to me as a lawyer, etcetera, etcetera, so I voted for individual payments. But Ron, I think, would understand the blow-by-blow and the pain-by-pain, because I think he got a lot of pressure from a lot of different areas.

TI: And sort of heading the kind of group payment...

PN: Who was?

TI: Yeah, who was that? Was it an area or was it an individual?

PN: I don't remember that either. But there's a lot of backstory.

TI: [Laughs] I know there is.

PN: Whether or not people are willing...

TI: And that's why it's interesting to get your perspective. Because oftentimes I interview the "players," and I think over time...

PN: They gloss over?

TI: Yeah, they gloss over. And it's nice to be able to get someone who was there as more of an observer.

PN: And who's willing to say there was a lot of backstory? Lot of backstory, whoa.

TI: Well, maybe off camera we can get into this more. I'm curious.

PN: Yes. [Laughs]

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.