Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Mark M. Nakagawa Interview I
Narrator: Mark M. Nakagawa
Interviewer: Jim Gatewood
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: July 28, 2010
Densho ID: denshovh-nmark-01

[Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]

<Begin Segment 1>

JG: Okay, this is Jim Gatewood and I'm here with Mark Nakagawa, and we're doing an interview here in Los Angeles. Today is the 28th of July, 2010, and Dana Hoshide from Densho is also present, behind the camera. And Mark, I have to begin by thanking you for allowing us to talk to you and having you regale us with stories from your fascinating life. So what I'm gonna do is we're gonna talk a little bit about your early background and then we'll lead into specific aspects of your life, including your ministry. And then we're gonna talk about some of the work you've been doing on the history of the Methodist Church and its relationship to the Japanese American community, and... yeah, so I want to start by just asking you where you were born.

MN: Okay. First of all, Jim, actually the, the gratitude and the pleasure is mine for being included in the Densho interview group. I really feel blessed to be included in these interviews and just want to thank you and the Densho group from Seattle. As I mentioned to you in a previous conversation, my dad is from Seattle, so in a way, my life is coming, in some sense, full circle. Growing up, my dad would always tell us stories about his days growing up in the old International District there in Seattle and going to Franklin High School, living on Beacon Hill, playing a short stint at Washington State on the football team, so on and so forth. So in a way this is kind of poignant that this is happening today, so my thanks to you and the Densho group.

I was born here in Los Angeles, actually nearby at Saint Vincent's Hospital here in Los Angeles, and I was born in the central part of town here in L.A. We grew up in the area known as the Crenshaw area, historically that's what it has been called and to this day still is referred to as the Crenshaw area. That well-known movie from the 1980s, Boyz n the Hood, was filmed in Crenshaw, most of it, that is. And I think that's one of the reasons people know the area so well. Crenshaw was, had a large Japanese American population, primarily after the internment camps. When folks came back, that was one of the areas where Japanese Americans, who had previously lived in other parts of L.A. prior to the evacuation and the internment, came back and resettled. I think a lot of it also has to do with the property laws, real estate laws that were enforced back in the late '50s, early '60s. As a matter of fact, my parents tell the story that when they first wanted to buy the house -- the one and only house that I ever grew up in before I finally moved out -- at the time that they wanted to buy the house they could not because the real estate agents were enforcing restrictive covenants. And the Crenshaw area back at that time -- and we're talking late '50s, early '60s -- was primarily white, actually primarily Jewish, but then later on things began to change and they were finally able to move into that part of town.

But for our entire life, at least my brother, sister, and I, the area was primarily ethnic minority. African American, Japanese American, some Latinos back then, and there were some Caucasians living in the area when we were growing up, so it really was, in a way, an integrated community. Again, because of the real estate laws, the restrictive covenants that were enforced, not just there in Crenshaw but other parts of town. My good friend, Reverend Mas Kodani at the Senshin Buddhist Temple here in Los Angeles, always says that historically, if you wanted to find where the Japanese American church or Buddhist temple was in town, just find out where the black churches are because we all shared the same neighborhoods, and he was referring to the fact that... you know, again, because of the real estate laws and the property laws, most people of color were just basically herded into certain areas of town, and that's why our historical experiences are the same. As a reflection of that, one of the pluses of that reality was that the Crenshaw area during the '60s and the '70s, the black power movements, civil rights movement, was a really exciting area to grow up in. And also a lot of well-known athletes came up out of that area, guys that my Sansei friends and I went to school with. Here in L.A., familiar names such as Marques Johnson who played basketball for UCLA and then Milwaukee Bucks and then finally the Lakers, Wendell Tyler, football star at UCLA, we were in junior high school together and ended up playing football for UCLA and then the Rams. Darryl Strawberry, the infamous baseball player, came up out of that area. So, right, one of the benefits of growing up in that area, in spite of the historical realities of the time, was we got to mix and grow up and rub shoulders with a lot of folks, athletes as well as entertainers, who ended up becoming famous and making a mark here in society.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

JG: Let me ask you... you're providing a lot of good information about the neighborhood in which you grew up. I'm interested in knowing a little bit about what predates that, talking about your family and its history, and in particular I'm really interested in thinking about when the first Nakagawas, or the first kind of members of your family came to the United States. Can you describe for me what you know about that?

MN: Sure, a little bit at least. My father's family was originally from Hiroshima. My mother's family was originally from Niigata, Japan. And like traditional Isseis who immigrated, they came at the turn of the last century. My father actually was born in Missoula, Montana. His dad was a railroad worker, and then when he was about, I think eight or nine, the family moved to Seattle and so that's where he considers his home really. That's where he grew up. His family ran a tofuya, tofu shop there in the International District, which is where a lot of the Issei and their families grew up during the war, and my father mixed with a lot of the Nisei kids in the International District and also on Beacon Hill. He remembers going to the Japanese Presbyterian church when he was a kid, and went to Franklin High School there in Seattle, and during his days growing up played football with some well-known Niseis, or Niseis who later became well-known, such as Bill Hosokawa the writer, Harry Yanagimachi, who was a very well-known athlete there among Nisei circles. My dad was also a member of the Taiyo sports organizations, one of the well-known Nisei sports organizations before the war. He actually went to Washington State, I believe around 1930, '31 and actually was on the football team one of the years that they went to the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, though, he had to leave school. His father had passed away, so the, kind of the traditional story of the son having to leave school and go back home to help out the family, so he never finished his college education. In a way, I've always felt that maybe it wasn't all that bad because he often told us his lifelong ambition was to become a forest ranger, so had he finished his college and been able to realize his dream, I don't know if that would've sat well with us. Living out with Smokey the Bear in some remote forest. But anyway, that's how his life turned out.

When the internment happened, after Pearl Harbor and the internment happened, during that time he was already down here in L.A. working in the produce market, and so when he was evacuated he was evacuated to Poston and spent the internment camp there and then came back to Los Angeles -- actually, did a brief stint in Chicago, which a lot of Niseis did, and then ultimately came back to L.A. where he met my mom. My mom's side of the family, again, was from Niigata, Japan. They immigrated, actually, here to L.A. My mom grew up in East L.A., the area well-known as Boyle Heights, where a lot of Japanese Americans grew up during the war. During the evacuation she was sent to Heart Mountain, and that's where she spent the war years, and then after Heart Mountain actually went to Chicago. Nothing to do with my dad being there, 'cause they didn't even know each other back then, but went to Chicago for a brief stint and then came back to Los Angeles where she and my dad ultimately met. As a matter of fact, last week we moved my dad into the Keiro retirement home over in Boyle Heights, so I've been cleaning out the house, getting it ready for whatever we're gonna do with it, but as I was going through some old drawers I came across the wedding certificate that the Methodist minister who married my mom and dad signed. And so I believe they were married in 1951 or '52 at the, what is today called United University Church, which is a church on the campus at USC, and so I've got that marriage certificate at home in a safe place now. It's not just lying in one of my dad's drawers back at the house.

JG: What do you know about their courtship?

MN: I don't know a whole lot, other than that they met here in Los Angeles and through some good friends, who I believe are still alive to this day. And again, they were married at the church on campus over at USC and just stayed here in central, south central part of town for the rest of their lives.

JG: What kind of work did your, your parents do?

MN: My dad, again, was here working in the produce market, I believe, at the time of evacuation. When he came back I believe he went back to the produce market but ultimately got a job at a local poultry processing plant here in downtown, not too far from us, and for all of the lives of my brother, sister and I growing up, that was his job that he had for all of his working years. Ironically, his boss was an Italian guy who we grew up just knowing as Joe Fish, but his real, legal name was Joe Pesci, like the actor, and pesci in Italian means "fish," which is why we always knew him as Joe Fish. But I always thought it was kinda funny that his boss was named Joe Fish, and yet they worked at this poultry processing company here in Los Angeles. And the company actually sold out to another company back, the latter part of the '80s, and actually Centenary, this church, when we have our bazaar there every year, we continue to buy our chicken for the bazaar from that company because of the connection that my dad still has with that company. So that's basically his bio here.

Our mom was a traditional Nisei mom, at least when we were kids. She didn't work outside of the house, although I do remember her having a job working for a greeting card company, something she was able to do at home, assembling greeting cards. And she did that up until the time I was in college and my younger brother was in high school. She got a job at a local branch of Bank of America, did that for a number of years, and then was able to land a job at USC, where she actually worked in the department that processed the scholarships for the athletes, and it was because of that that my brother got to meet a lot of the athletes coming though SC who were on scholarship. He would bring them home to the house, and particularly the ones who were from Hawaii, who played football and baseball for SC. So that was kind of neat right there. But she did that until she retired from USC, I believe in the early '90s some time.

JG: I didn't ask, but what are your parents' names?

MN: My father's name is Roy. Roy Nakagawa. And my mother's name was Shizuko, actually Shizuko Yamada.

JG: Tell me a little bit about your siblings.

MN: I have one sister and one brother. We're all one year apart. I'm the oldest. My sister, Julie, actually lives in Redmond, Washington. She's been up in the state of Washington since around 1978, where she originally went to Kirkland. She landed a job in the Kirkland school district, and so she's been up there ever since then. But she and her husband, Chip, have been living in Redmond for at least the last twenty years, I believe. They live a mile down the road from the Microsoft campus, and they're in Redmond and they always say they're the only two people in Redmond who don't work for Microsoft. And they have one son, Brent, who's now a middle schooler, about to be high schooler, there in the Redmond school district. As an aside, I remember when Julie first moved up there, when she was living in Kirkland, the first couple years she would come home every now and then and tell us about these huge stores they have up there called Costco. And naturally we didn't know what that was about because they weren't down here in Los Angeles yet, but we later figured out that the reason why all of Costco's store-branded items are named Kirkland is 'cause that's where they're from, is Kirkland, Washington. And so it's funny now that back then we didn't even know what the name Costco meant, let alone where it was from, and yet she was way ahead of us 'cause she was living up there at the time. My brother Grant is down here. He's a dentist down here and still keeps in touch, runs around with a lot of guys that he grew up with. He's an avid USC sports fan, but pretty much just as involved in some local activities down here.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

JG: So you've described some of the qualities that made the neighborhood of Crenshaw special to you, growing up. I wonder if you could describe some of your own kind of early memories of growing up there.

MN: Sure. As I said, historically, it was really kind of an exciting time to be growing up in that part of town, particularly, when I came of age during the '60s and the later, late '60s, early '70s. But my memory of growing up, a lot of growing up there was really shaped by the social climate of the time, mainly the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. I remember, I can even remember back in elementary school when Cassius Clay, the boxer, later on Muhammad Ali, was gonna fight Sonny Liston, and I think I was in, like, the second or third grade and I remember the African American kids at that time saying, "Gosh, if Sonny Liston beats him, I'm movin' out of, out of the state," and I couldn't figure that out. In my mind, I thought, "What did that have to do with you living, or moving out of town?" But because, as you may recall, Cassius Clay was known as, was supported by the white folks, whereas Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali was really seen as, as the hero of African Americans. That's how forceful, in that respect at least, the social climate was at that time. Also, Vietnam was... America's involvement in Vietnam was starting to escalate, and I vividly remember some people close to me who were either being drafted or had gotten involved in the military by some other ways, being involved in Vietnam. And fortunately they survived the war and were able to go on with their lives and really were unscathed by the war, unlike a lot of other vets who came home. But I also remember one of my relatives, my cousin's husband, actually, who was at the front, and during Vietnam, from the middle to late '60s when he would come home on furloughs, tell us, at least from his point of view, what was happening over there, and when I would listen to his stories and then juxtapose his stories with what I was reading in the papers, I just knew that there was no way for America to, to win this thing, let alone to get out of it unscathed. And it really opened my eyes at that time to the difference between what you read in the papers and the press and to what really happens.

Another seminal event of my childhood was the Watts riots, which was in 1965 here in Los Angeles. That happened when I was ten years old and I vividly remember that time here in Los Angeles. It just so happened my uncle and some partners had a liquor store in Watts at that time, and one of the stories I'll always tell was when the riots broke out, we drove out there to board up the store, thinking that was gonna do any good. And when we got to the front of the store, there was a crowd of people in front, and the people said to my uncle, "Don't worry about the store. We'll guard it. We'll protect it. Nothing will happen to it." And sure enough, after the riots ended, after about two weeks, my uncle's store and a Mom and Pop grocery -- Mom and Pop, we called it a yao yao vegetable store, which was owned by an Issei couple next door to us -- were the only two structures left standing on the street. And those stores, my uncle's store and the Issei store next to us, were on Central Avenue at that time, which was part of the area known as Charcoal Alley during the Watts riots. All the other stores had gotten torched, except for my uncle's store and the store next door to him, and so the question is, well, why us? Why were we spared and not everybody else? And it was because of the relationships that my uncle had fostered during the brief time he had been out there up until that point. By that time he had only been out there maybe three or four years. But what I remember, the way he ran the store -- I was going out there on the weekends to help stock the shelves and everything -- I remember he and I were the only non-African American workers in the store. All the other workers he had hired were African American. A lot of 'em were local high school kids from the area. He had a couple of Latino workers, also, in the store. The other thing I remember was we gave credit to a lot of the customers who came in, which is what a lot of small stores did back then. And to give you an example of how it worked, back then a guy would come in and buy, say, five dollars worth of goods, groceries, maybe a six pack of beer, a half pint of alcohol, whatever, but unlike today where you're required to show proof of ID and, and fill out a bunch of documents with the store, all we did was have people just sign basically a receipt. And we just trusted them that they would come back and pay their bills, and lo and behold, they did. Now, certainly every now and then, a few guys never came back, but I would say nine and a half out of ten people would always come back and make good on their bills. We also cashed people's checks that they got from the county and the city, the first of the month. And again, unlike other stores and check cashing outlets, and definitely unlike these payday lenders that we have today, we didn't have a policy of charging you a percentage of your check. In fact, our only policy was, if we cash your check, we just ask that you buy something. Even if it's just a one penny bubblegum and we cashed a check for fifty or a hundred dollars, that's all we asked. And again, that was our policy and it worked.

Another example of the way my uncle fostered relationships was we had a couple kids from the local high school, Jordan High School there in L.A., who were good athletes, good enough to go off to college and get scholarships, but I recall that on a couple of occasions during the summer my uncle would buy them plane tickets to come home so they could visit their families, 'cause they were getting homesick. And so my uncle did things like that for these kids, just as a way of, of being kind, but also giving them opportunities to come home and visit their families. And so I believe it was because of things like that that my uncle did to foster these relationships that his store and the store next door -- and I'm sure that elderly Issei couple also operated their business in the same ways -- that spared them. But not just spared them, but even went on towards how he was able to make it out there for as long as he was able to make it there.

Nowadays, liquor stores have a bad, bad rap in African American and other ethnic minority neighborhoods, and probably for good reasons, but I've always said that you got to think, back in the '60s, late '50s, when Japanese Americans were coming back, their only opportunities for going into business for themselves, their only opportunities to work in the business world really were to open up small businesses like stores. Big American corporations were not hiring Niseis. Japanese corporations were just now coming over and were not hiring Japanese Americans. Later on they did, but in the early days they didn't. And so for Japanese Americans, particularly Niseis, to go into business, their only chance to get into business was to go into businesses that no one else wanted to do, which were Mom and Pop stores and on top of that stores in areas and neighborhoods that mainstream white businesses considered undesirable. So my uncle's store, while it was, yes, a liquor store, really served a useful purpose in those areas. In fact, I don't have any hard data on it, but again, I just know from those times, a lot of the liquor stores that were owned in minority neighborhoods were run by Japanese Americans, by Niseis, and none of them experienced any, at least so far as I know, any really serious problems in those areas. Again, because I think they ran their businesses and established relationships with the people in those areas the same way that my uncle and his partners did with theirs.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

JG: You must've thought about your uncle around the time of the 1992 L.A. uprising. I mean, 'cause clearly, just from the way you describe this, the experience of watching your uncle, it sounds like it was formative to you in some ways.

MN: It was. I've always said the 1992 uprising, what I call the Rodney King riots, was really a swap meet or a flea market compared to the Watts riots. I mean, the Watts riots really were a riots, and I mean, just to reflect one more time, I vividly remember the white folks livin' over in Southgate -- I didn't see this, but some of the African American customers in my uncle's store, when things settled down and the store got open and business started going on as usual -- I remember the African American customers coming in and telling us that, yeah, all the white folks over on Firestone Avenue were standing there with their rifles pointed west, which was the direction of Watts. So you know... the Rodney King riots really were... again, I don't mean to belittle the pain and, and the suffering that a lot of people experienced, but really it was a flea market compared to the Watts riots. Again, during Watts, the National Guard came in, the military came in and occupied Crenshaw. Another personal experience I remember, we were driving down Crenshaw Boulevard during the riots. Although the, the damage and the actual rioting didn't spread as far west as the Crenshaw area, still the military had come in. The National Guard had come in, occupied the junior high school where we were going to at that time. They occupied the shopping center, what was then the Crenshaw Shopping Center. But I vividly remember driving down Crenshaw Boulevard and seeing an army soldier perched in back -- he was sitting on a jeep, but he was perched in back of a machine gun. And I had a camera, in fact, one of the old Kodak instamatic cameras, and I was about to take a picture and my mom stopped me from taking that picture. And I think to myself to say, "Gosh, I could be rich and retired living on my own island, had I been allowed to take that picture." [Laughs] But really, that was the seriousness of the Watts riots compared to what I saw happening during Rodney King, the L.A. uprising.

Not to take away anything from that time, but speaking about my uncle, the irony was my uncle did get involved, was unfortunately involved in a very harmful way during the Rodney King uprising. For whatever reason, the day that the rioting started, he went out in his car to drive around to see what was happening, and while he was actually on his way back to his house, at an intersection about a block away from his house, where there was a signal, he was a right light and his car was rushed by four young African American kids. They pulled him out of the car, thinking, I guess, that he was Korean, and beat him. Left him there. He wasn't unconscious, but an African American woman who had been sitting in her car at the red light on the other side of the intersection saw this happen. She ran through the red light, came over, shooed those kids away, picked my uncle up and drove him to the closest hospital, which was Brotman Memorial Hospital in Culver City, which is about, I guess, ten minutes away. My aunt gets a call from the hospital saying her husband, my uncle, is there and I guess she hadn't known that she left the house in the first, that he left the house in the first place. So anyway, she got her daughter, my cousin -- I think that's what happened -- to drive over to the hospital to see him there. And rather than console with him or show pity on him, they proceeded to yell at him for being so stupid, for doing what he had done. So he was involved, yes, in the L.A. uprising, but in a different way than he was involved during the Watts riots.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

JG: So you're growing up in Crenshaw at a time that, of this kind of burgeoning African American consciousness, this kind of... you had mentioned the rise of kind of the Black Panthers and here we have the Watts riots, and I'm just wondering how this informed your own understanding of the African American community, and the relationship that existed between Japanese Americans and other groups that were living in Crenshaw at the time. I'm just curious how that, what kind of influence that had upon you.

MN: It had a very profound influence, and as you might suspect, it formed my outlook, not just on the local L.A. area, the Crenshaw area, but it formed my outlook on race relations early in life, but it also informed my outlook on the larger world because it gave me an opportunity to see life through, not just the lens of the Japanese American experience, but of the African American experience, which really is the experience of people who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Now, I need to balance that, though, by saying there were other Japanese American kids who grew up in Crenshaw, and a lot of them, I'd like to believe, have, or had similar attitudes as I did, but there were some that didn't. There were some who, for whatever reason, went through the same experiences as myself but, but grew up looking at the world a little bit differently. But I think, I can honestly say that, for the most part, I really was not a whole lot different, in some respects, than my contemporaries. We were all shaped by these same influences. In fact, even to this day, although most of the Sanseis have moved out of Crenshaw and are living in other parts of L.A. in the urban area or out in the suburbs, a lot of us still have parents, like myself, how are in that area and, I think, use that as an excuse to come down to the area. But I think even if we didn't have parents living there we would still find other reasons to come down there, simply because it's the area we grew up in, and the area in which we were shaped. I also have come to believe that for most, for many African Americans in Los Angeles who grew up during that era, whether they grew up in the immediate Crenshaw area or not, their encounters with Japanese Americans was very similar to what... the racial and ethnic dynamics that went on down in Crenshaw. And I think that just has to do with the whole postwar experience here in Los Angeles of people of color in general that happened during that time.

JG: What do you mean by the...

MN: Well, for African Americans, their communities, again, they were affected by the restrictive covenants that the real estate agents imposed on people, and in the city as a whole, for African Americans, the whole downtown area was transformed -- I believe right after, or, during or after the war -- with the area that was called "Bronzeville," that went through a transformation because of redevelopment. So in a lot of respects, African Americans went through their own time of resettlement, just within the city, and then when you take into consideration the African American experience during the war, I mean, black soldiers had their own segregated outfit known by some as the "Buffalo Brigade," and then the story of the Tuskegee Airmen on a larger level. In a lot of ways, African Americans went through... well, for them it was a continuation of the slavery experience, of segregation. And they went through their own experience, specifically related to the Depression and the war and the postwar period, in the same way that Japanese Americans went through our experience.

JG: So was there a common understanding among African Americans and Japanese Americans that they, that there was this shared history of discrimination or... did you ever see that manifest in any way?

MN: I believe there was. I can't say that it was a spoken understanding, but I, it's something that I feel. I can't prove it through any empirical evidence or anything, but again, if you look at any of the major... well, today, the major metropolitan areas where Japanese Americans historically grew up, whether it's the Crenshaw area or the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, the Mission district in San Francisco, the International District, Beacon Hill district of Seattle, in Chicago, the area where Japanese Americans grew up around, I believe they call it the Rush district, or whatever they call it. But if you look at the patterns of where people of color in general have historically grown up in America, and particularly where Japanese Americans have grown up, there's no mistaking that we weren't the only people of color in those areas, that there were others, as well. And there were reasons for that, and we couldn't help but mix with people of other ethnicities and have a shared experience.

Where this really hit home to me was years ago, when I was fortunate to interview Mr. Seizo Oka, the historian from San Francisco, Japanese American historian from San Francisco. When I first got to know Mr. Oka and interviewed him, he made a comment to me one time that I've never forgotten, and his comment was that the Japanese Isseis and Niseis who grew up in rural areas, when it came time for the internment camps, he noticed a difference between the attitudes of Isseis and Niseis who grew up in the rural areas, central valley of California, Sacramento, Willamette Valley up in, in Washington, so on and so forth... between their attitudes of mixing with others and the Isseis and Niseis who came to camp from the urban areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, even other parts of the Northern California Bay Area, San Jose. And his thought was that people in rural areas, number one, they often lived far apart from each other on their farms or properties that their parents were sharecropping or whatever, maybe a mile or two apart, so really didn't see too much of other people. And so they could afford to live in their own little world, whereas the Japanese Americans, Isseis and Niseis who lived in the cities were already used to mixing with people of other ethnicities, whether they wanted to or not. And so if nothing else, we're forced to get along with people of other nationalities and ethnic groups. And Seizo Oka pointed that out, or remarked on that, always felt that that was one of the reasons why the camp experience, even though it was a negative experience overall for Japanese Americans, one positive outcome that it had was it forced the Japanese Americans from all backgrounds, whether rural or urban, to mix with each other and learn how to get along with people from other socio-economic backgrounds.

JG: So in terms of your own kind of associations, do you, I mean, do you recall having many African American friends, and do you have any recollections of, you know, did members of the Japanese American community date African Americans, for example? I mean, to what extent were those associations developed?

MN: First of all, to answer the first question, yes, we all, those of living in Crenshaw, all had African American friends and we would bring them home, we would associate with them. There was just no way getting around it, even if you wanted to, but we really felt comfortable with African American kids. We'd... in our world we thought, hey, this is how the rest of the world is. I joke to people. I didn't really, for the most part, I didn't really know any real live white kids until I got to high school, and that's because we ended up getting transferred, initially through forced bussing, out to a white high school. But up until that time, as I facetiously say, I always though white people only existed on TV, because we really didn't know a whole lot of 'em. And so for us, growing up with African Americans was the norm, and because of that you can figure out the next step. We acted like them, spoke like them, tried to dress like them, although we weren't successful at it, but it was just a great time growing up. And there was just no second thoughts about that. In terms of Sanseis going out, dating with African Americans, I don't recall any specific incidents of that happening, not among kids that I knew. I'm sure it happened. It happens a lot more nowadays, which is great, but at the very least we were all friends. Socially, we all got along. Yeah, we got in fights every, into fights every now and then, but it didn't have to do with race or ethnicity, it just had more to do with everyday, regular reasons why kids get in fights. You know, someone wanted my lunch money, or somebody liked the lunch, lunch box I brought and wanted it. So it had more to do with that kind of stuff than anything else.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

JG: Well, it's interesting because one of the things that I'm taking away from this line of conversation is just your own kind of awakening... you had mentioned how the different things that were taking place in Crenshaw kind of heightened your sensitivity to race, for example. And just to take a step back from that, I mean, you're growing up in a time when United States is embroiled in kind of, you know, the culture wars, if you want to call them that. Vietnam is taking place, you have the civil rights movement, the rise of black power, yellow power, brown power, and I'm just, I'd like to get a sense of your own kind of political awakening. And maybe to take a step back, you had mentioned Vietnam and its impact on you, and I'm wondering if you might talk a little bit more about that, because I'm interested in, specifically, how did these relatives, you talk about your brother... no, not your brother-in-law, your cousin's husband, okay. My mind is not as supple as it once was, clearly. But you talk about your cousin's husband telling you these stories, and I'm just wondering if you could talk about what your understanding was of Vietnam and how that influenced your own kind of development.

MN: Sure. Let me put that relative off to the side for a second by kind of backing up a little bit. I'll share some other experiences I had back then that really were the first formative influences on my thinking about Vietnam. First of all, I have to say, one of the earliest influences on Vietnam was Muhammad Ali, the boxer. People often ask me, "Mark, where did you learn public speaking?" I tell them I learned it from Muhammad Ali, watching him on Wide World of Sports every Saturday, 'cause this is when he was going up, coming up the ranks as a boxer, but also he was heavily embroiled in the civil rights movement from the standpoint that he had changed his name from Cassius Clay, what he called his slave name, to Muhammad Ali, the iconic figure of Islam. But one of my earliest awakenings, in terms of my consciousness about Vietnam, was when he made the remark, when he refused to apply for the draft, and his comment was, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. They ain't never done anything to me. Why should I go over there and kill them?" And that really hit, as simple, not simplistic, but as simple as that logic was, it really hit home to me. And on top of that, when I thought about the fact that the army had said that even if he did enlist they wouldn't send him to the front, that they would just use him to go around doing boxing exhibitions, which I think was a lie, really, even when they said that, I thought to myself... I was naive enough to think from the standpoint that, God, the guy wouldn't go over there risking his life. He'd just have to do boxing exhibitions. Why doesn't he just go do that and stop all this ruckus, especially when he was banned from boxing for, what, five years or however it was, which was arguably the best years of a boxer's life, in terms of the age that he was at that time. The fact that he was willing to risk all that for his convictions, as a Muslim, as a humanitarian, but as one who was just opposed to war, really hit home to me. And so I honestly tell people that. That's the influence that Muhammad Ali had on me when he was coming up as a boxer.

Another experience I had really was in a way a benign experience but something that really hit home with me in an equally powerful way. A cousin of mine had gotten married back around 1973, '74. I think I was either still in high school or first year in college. But another relative of ours on that side of the family who had gotten accepted to Annapolis, the naval academy, had come, was able to leave Annapolis and come home and attend the wedding, and in fact, he sat at our table during the reception. And during the reception, during the lunch, we started talking about Vietnam, and I had voiced somewhat facetiously that, hey, maybe I'll enlist in Vietnam. Then I could have the army pay for my college. Assuming I survive, have the army pay for my college on the GI bill when I get out. And my cousin Jerry said to me at that time, says, "Mark, don't enlist for the draft." I said, "Well, why not? Look at you. You're in Annapolis. I mean, you've got it made." And he said, "Don't enlist for the draft." He said it's terrible and he says, "I'm telling you as one who's at the naval academy. You just don't want to do it. Even though I'm at the naval academy, there are certain members of my class besides me who aren't like a lot of other folks." And I didn't realize what he meant at that time, but now with hindsight I understand what he meant. "But they treat us like dogs and they treat us like we're below grade, so if that's happening to guys like me in Annapolis, just think how it's gonna happen to guys like you who are on the front lines. So don't enlist." And I just said okay.

JG: Because he was Asian American?

MN: I'm sure that's what he meant, right. And my cousin Jerry, he was an older Sansei, graduated high school back in the '60s, '61, '62 era. I've always thought of that era of Sanseis, the older Sanseis, I call that era the Kennedy Peace Corps generation. They were the ones who were very patriotic, pro-Kennedy, went into the Peace Corps, did good things like that. And unlike my generation of Sanseis who came of age during the late '60s, early '70s, we were very cynical about, not just Vietnam but a lot of things happening with the government, but... so here's my cousin who's this patriotic, Peace Corps Kennedy type who's telling me not to enlist, and here he is in Annapolis. And that really made me think hard about that. That also had a shape, shaping influence on my attitudes towards Vietnam, and really towards government in general. Now, getting to my cousin's husband, who was actually in the Air Force, in a way he was similar. My cousin's husband got drafted during the late, mid to late '60s, but being a black belt in judo and being, having moved up the ranks in judo, he actually was good enough to make the armed forces judo team, and so he did. He was actually the number two man on the armed forces judo team, and he did spend most of his time in Vietnam going around doing judo tournaments and exhibitions for the GIs and also competing against some of the armed forces teams from other countries, but he did experience the front lines every now and then. But it wasn't like they put a rifle in his hand and sent him into the foxholes. It wasn't like that. However, there were times when he would come home on furloughs and tell us things about the war that you just didn't read in the papers or hear on the radio or on TV at that time. He would say, though, what the public did know, that there were certain rules of engagement that the U.S. were bound by that really limited the U.S. Army and Air Force and Marines and so on and so forth from really being effective, and one of those rules was the no fly zone that the U.S. Air Force -- him being in the Air Force, knew this -- were not allowed to fly into when, at the same time, North Vietnamese fighters were allowed to encroach on the South Vietnamese air space and come into South Vietnamese zones, which made no sense at all and really tied the U.S. Army, U.S. efforts' hands behind our backs. He would mention things like that, and it's one thing to read about these things in the paper, but to hear someone from the front or someone who was over there really talking about it and, and mentioning the effects that it was having, really reinforced, not just the stupidity of the war in general, but the stupidity that the U.S. government had in agreeing to these types of rules that really handicapped our war efforts in the first place. He would also tell us stories of things that happened personally to him. Told a story one time where he volunteered for helicopter duty twice. The first time, after volunteering he came down sick and couldn't go on the mission. The second time he volunteered he got into an argument with his commanding officer and his commanding officer punished him by giving him latrine duty that day, so he couldn't make the mission then. But what happened was the first helicopter that went up got shot down by a North Vietnamese helicopter, or fighter jet. The second helicopter that went up got shot down by mistaken identity by another American helicopter, so after that he never volunteered again, and that taught him never volunteer for anything so long as he's in the army, or as long as he's in the armed forces. And gosh, you hear stories like that, it makes you really think twice about the role of luck and fate in one's life.

JG: Did you, can you recall any conversations taking place within your immediate family about the war? I mean, did your parents talk about this with you and your siblings, or do you have any memories or recollections of that?

MN: I don't, I honestly don't recall them saying too much about the war. Again, I was about, when our involvement, when the U.S. involvement in Vietnam really started to escalate, I was all of, what, ten or eleven years old, so I was well outside of draft age, so I guess, in an immediate level, they didn't worry. Now, when I was in high school at that time, we did have to register for the draft, so I did go down and register for the draft. But they weren't too concerned about it because I had mentioned to them that my number, because the draft back then really was more of a lottery that we registered for, my number, my birthday was so far down the list, and also, on top of that, the U.S. had really started to talk about deescalating in Vietnam. I think those two factors really didn't make me too worried about it, and also didn't make them too much worried about it, either. So that's why I don't remember them saying too much about Vietnam.

JG: Would you have gone?

MN: I'll tell you, I don't know. I think ultimately I may have gone, but I was honestly at that time thinking about packin' a bag and goin' up to Canada, which was what everybody was thinkin' of doing and some folks did. It's one of those questions I'll never have to answer, but that was difficult decision for me. On the one hand, it was a personal decision that I would've had to make. On the other hand, I kept asking myself, gosh, do I really have the guts to do something like that? There was this part of me that was the traditional, good, loyal, obedient eldest son in a Japanese American family that didn't want to bring shame on my family, so there was that factor weighing on me as well at the same time. But honestly, I don't know. It's one of those questions I'll never have to answer and that never will be answered. But it did cross my mind. It really did. Fortunately, I didn't have to answer it.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

JG: So would you describe yourself, I mean, in these years leading up to college... I mean, were you politically active, or was this just kind of... 'cause knowing you know, I'm interested in this kind of, your own kind of political development, the genesis of this kind of political awakening in your own life. I mean, would you characterize this as the period when that began, or was that something that occurred later on?

MN: To the extent that I became and am politically active, that really didn't start 'til, actually, after college. Most likely during my seminary days, or maybe even after that. However, those experiences, to the extent that my political consciousness was shaped and formed and developed during that period, I think I could say that yes, that's when my political development started. Even when I was in college at UCLA, even though the big excitement on campus was Bill Walton and Marques Johnson leading UCLA to basketball championships, and even UCLA went to a Rose Bowl one year during that period, even though you had things like that happening... again, it was the seventies, late seventies and there were, it was still a, really a time when there was a lot of political ferment in the country. Even thought the U.S. was deescalating in Vietnam, we were involved in Chile and things happening in Latin America and, and the protests, the marches that happened on campus at UCLA, which I saw, didn't participate in them, but I saw, really had an impact on me.

I do remember one very, very profound experience that happened during that time, also, and it was when Alex Haley, the author of the book Roots, came and spoke on campus. And at one point in the, his talk, he mentioned that he never really aspired to be a writer, but he had an experience when he was in the merchant marines, I believe it was, and the experience he had was, not only was he one of the few black sailors on his ship as a merchant marine, he was also one of the few literate members of the crew, black or white. And after a while he had the white sailors coming to him, asking them, asking him to read their letters to them, because they were illiterate, and Alex Haley said some of these letters were very personal. It wasn't just letters from Mom and Dad, but it was letters from their girlfriends or from their wives, but these white sailors were, couldn't read or write. They could neither read nor write, so they had Alex Haley read their letters back to them and then after that asked him to compose their letters that they couldn't write, but to dictate to him the letters, and he wrote the letters. And he's, Alex Haley said, "I felt embarrassed writing some of this stuff," but that's where he learned how to write, and then the rest is history. He later became an author and so on and so forth. But I've never forgotten that story because every now and then when I sit down to write something, whether it's a church newsletter article or an article for a local paper or, or something like that, I think about that story as well. That here's a world renowned author who maybe went to college, but learned how to write as, as a merchant marine, and when you think about it, he learned how to write from people who were illiterate and couldn't read nor write. And that's where he got his experience. In a roundabout way, those experiences like that had a hand in shaping my political consciousness as well. So yes, to a certain extent you could say that's when my political activism, to the extent that you can call it that, really began, because it began with the shaping and the formation of my political and social consciousness and awareness back then.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

JG: Okay, so shifting gears a little bit, I'd like to just talk about your life leading up into college. What were some of the activities that you were involved in?

MN: A lot of our activities, of our family, particularly our brother, my brother and sister, were similar to the activities of so many other Sansei kids growing up in Crenshaw during that time. They all revolved around the Japanese American community, but more specifically around the churches, the Christian churches, and the Buddhist temples. I can remember even the old CYC baseball league -- Community Youth Council, which was Japanese American league, which still exists today -- I can recall, even though you had just independent teams... for example, my dad, we were part of the organization called the Red Sox Organization, and my dad was a coach, but there were other, a good number of other teams that were sponsored by churches and temples that were also part of the league. But anyway, a lot of our activities revolved around this church, Centenary United Methodist Church, which was one of the well-known Japanese American Christian churches here in Los Angeles during that time. I'd like to think it still is one of the more well-known Japanese American Christian churches, a very biased opinion. But all of our activities, sports, social activities, youth activities, again, sports activities, to a large extent revolved around the church. This church had a very active YMCA program back during those days and also had a very, very active program of girls, girls' clubs and sports was one of the components of those clubs. So we were always, gosh, when I think about it... my wife and I think we're busy nowadays shuttling our one son to sports activities, but when I think about our mom and by extension all the other, the Nisei moms did back then, shuttling two or three or four kids around to different activities all on one day, usually Saturday or Sunday, it just blows my mind. But our activities revolved, to a large extent, around the churches and the temples and other community organizations that were around. I remember, for example, at least in the Crenshaw area, there was a very strong Optimist Club that was run by Niseis that, they had programs for the youth growing up there. There was also a, there were several independently run swim schools. Everybody that, back then, had to learn how to swim, and there were two or three independently run swimming schools owned and operated and run by Japanese Americans that were in the community that we went to a lot. For example, this time of year during the summers. But it really was, at least for us, this church, Centenary, back then called Centenary Methodist Church, that was the outlet for a lot of our activities. Sports, the youth fellowship groups, the bazaars. A lot of our even Japanese and Japanese American cultural upbringing was as a result of this church. And I know that's true for a lot of other Sanseis, my generation. Whether they went to another Japanese American Christian church or to a Buddhist temple, that's how it was for them as well.

JG: At what point did your family become involved at Centenary?

MN: Well, let me put it like this: this is the only church that... I mean, apart from the fact that I'm now the senior minister, this is the only church that my family, and my brother, sister and I personally, ever knew growing up. This was, this was the church we came to. Probably for several reasons. One, it was the most convenient. It was right in the area. Also, Centenary did have a very, very strong history of being rooted here in the local Japanese American community, which before the war was known as the Seinan community, or Southwest area, because of the fact that a lot of Japanese Americans lived in the area. Crenshaw was a part of that Seinan area, but it was generally known by the larger name of Seinan. And I also believe -- I never asked my mom or dad this -- but given what Japanese Americans as a whole were going through during the postwar resettlement era, I have a suspicion that one of the reasons we came to Centenary was because it was a Christian church and this was one of their ways, efforts to "Americanize" their kids, which was something that all Nisei parents were trying to do for their kids back during that time. I've often pointed out that the Buddhist temples had just as many Boy Scout troops as the Christian churches, and if you look at today, I would be willing to bet that there are more, within the Japanese American communities, there are more Buddhist temples that sponsor Boy Scout troops than there are Christian churches, and I believe that has to do with the historical experience of Japanese Americans, particularly the Nisei generation, wanting to assimilate into society, wanting their children to assimilate and become good Americans so that they wouldn't be ostracized from being who they are and of their ethnic heritage. And I believe the Christian church, in a lot of ways, provided a mechanism for that, to do so, and that's why our parent sent us to the Christian church, whether it would've been Centenary or any other.

JG: As opposed to sending you to a...

MN: To a Buddhist temple.

JG: To a Buddhist temple, okay.

MN: Right, yeah.

JG: Were your parents religious?

MN: They weren't religious in a formal sense, although my mom, when we were kids, did mention that she and a lot of her Nisei friends went to what was then called the 20th Street Church. Now it's called All Peoples Christian Church. But it was a church that back during her days of growing up during the '20s and '30s, early '40s, and here and Los Angeles, was a church that reached out to Nisei children, and so she would always tell stories of going to that church. My dad later on in life, 'cause being a typical Nisei male, didn't really talk about things like church, but he did later on in life mention that he grew up in the old Japanese Presbyterian church up on Beacon Hill in Seattle, which in some ways kind of threw me for a loop when he mentioned that. I don't know why, but he did mention that at some point when we were either in high school or college.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

JG: So it's interesting, this idea of sending you to a Christian church kind of as a way of promoting, I guess, Americanism or this kind of the quest of the Nisei after the war to put the war behind and really embrace this, the future, if you will. If that's the case, why send you to a Japanese American church? Why not join a church that wasn't kind of a predominantly ethnic congregation, one that was more, I don't know, for lack of a better term, a white congregation? Why send you here?

MN: Well, first of all, I mean, I'm tempted to say I don't think there were any white congregations in Crenshaw back then. There might've been, but who knows? Or at least close enough for us to drive to. But the reality was there were, there were African American churches, and yeah, I guess we could've gone there, but... your question's a good one, Jim, because I think that even though their quest was to make it easier for their children by assimilating them into American society as much as possible and that going to a Christian church, as opposed to a Buddhist or Shinto church or any other tradition, would foster that. At the same time, they had a desire, if not, or probably more of a need to still associate and have their children associate with Japanese Americans. Also, being in a Japanese American environment would still be more comfortable for them, and most likely for us, than if it would've been in a non Japanese American environment. So, right, there's kinda this Jekyll and Hyde psyche that was going on back then. On the one hand, they wanted to be good Americans and assimilate into society and be invisible, and for their children also, but at the same time there was this need to be comfortable, and the way they could be most comfortable was to still be in an environment that was a Japanese American environment.

JG: It's fascinating because there's this tension between being too Japanese and at the same time wanting to hold on to what's important about being Japanese American.

MN: Yeah.

JG: It's an interesting kind of tension.

MN: Well, I have a theory about that, and my theory is that the whole attempt for the Nisei generation to distance themselves from Japanese culture, anything having to do with Japan, really, while I think that is the bigger picture, at least up to a certain point that's the larger picture, I think when you look in that picture, and what I recall, experiences growing up, to me it was the Nisei men who really wanted to dissociate from Japan and Japanese culture, and not so much the Nisei women. I've always felt that Nisei women have had a soft spot in their heart for Japanese culture and things from Japan, whereas Nisei men didn't. Why? I think one is practical, one reason is practical. For Nisei men, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the internment camps just stopped everything for them in their tracks. The few that were in college, on the West Coast at least, had to leave college. Those that had any kind of career aspirations, all that ended with Pearl Harbor and the internment experience. For Nisei women, I don't think that necessarily was the impact. Let's face it, Nisei women, their chances of going on to college really weren't that good in the first place. They were just expected to go out into the workforce, and maybe in some ways the war opened up some employment avenues for Nisei women that they might not ever have had. But I've always felt, to get back to my main theory, that while the larger narrative is that Niseis for most of their lives sought to distance themselves from Japan and anything having to do with Japanese culture because of identity confusion, that was more pronounced in the men, Nisei men rather than Nisei women, simply because for the Nisei men Pearl Harbor and the internment did end any hopes of going on to college, establishing a career, even though their career choices were limited in the first place, and anything else. I mean, the whole 442 thing really is an outgrowth of that. It was an attempt to prove your loyalty to America, and what better way to do that than to fight against America's enemies. And so I think that has a lot to do with it.

JG: Interesting.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

JG: Thinking about you specifically... I mean, it's, at what point does a young boy decide to become a minister? Where does that, where does that seed begin to take root? And I'm just wondering, how did you, at least in these, the earlier part of your life, say through, from elementary through high school, how did you experience religion specifically? You've talked about these events that you were a part of. How did you experience religion as, as a younger person?

MN: Gosh, that's a... well, number one that's a question I always get asked in a variety of ways, and my answer is really based on several factors. One, which is just my own experience growing up in the church. And maybe that's where it starts. I did grow up in the church, as did my brothers and sisters, and as I said, church for us was really, in terms of our social experience, sports, everything else regarding our family life, anything else regarding our life outside of the family, Centenary was kind of the, the locus around which our lives rotated. And so the church was always a part of our lives growing up, and so I think that's just an overarching environment that we had. If nothing else, subconsciously I always grew up just knowing that. So that's one response to the question. Specifically though, I never really intended to go into the ministry, and I've said this over and over again. To this day I honestly don't choose to be in the ministry, although I enjoy what I do, I like what I do, I value what I do and I'd like to think that what I do benefits some people in life, but I really consider it more of a calling, rather than a choice. I've always said I'm suspect about anybody who says they want to go into the ministry, because when you look at the biblical text, very few biblical characters chose to follow God. If anything, they ran away from God and God comes running back after them, whether it's Moses, whether it's any of the biblical prophets, whether it's the apostle Paul... nobody in their right mind in the Bible chose to follow God. They ran away first and then God had to go grab them, bring 'em back, and then they saw the light, and I think, not that I ran away from God, but just going into the ministry never was on my radar screen when I was growing up, even all the way through college.

However, having said all that, being the fact that I did major in history when I was in college and I was exposed to different religious traditions just from studying history, my interest in religion in general did pique. I did actually aspire to be a schoolteacher. I did go through one year of teacher training through UCLA after my undergraduate years, but then it was at that point in life, I was about, what, so eighteen or nineteen, I decided just to take a step back, sit out of school and work for a while just to get my feet on the ground. I recall a very, very innocuous experience. I happened to know a guy who taught in the MBA school at UCLA. He was actually a professor from, from USC, but taught at the extension program at UCLA. And I used to work out the old gym at UCLA and this guy would come over and use the gym at the same time, so we began to be friends, and I remember talking with him one day and just for the heck of it I said to him, "I'm kinda thinking maybe I might like to do an MBA." And his comment to me was, he says, "You know, Mark, I tell all prospective MBA students that what you really need to do once you graduate is sit out of school for a while, work any kind of a job for two or three or maybe four years, figure out which end is up, and then see if that's what you really want to do." And he said, "I say that to people regardless of what their academic aspirations might be, whether they want to go for an MBA, a PhD, become a doctor, anything. I really recommend, once you graduate from college, just sit out of school and work a job. Go flip burgers at McDonald's or something. Know what it's like to really work and then see if you really want to get that degree or what else. You may be better off doing something else." And I also recall, as I say this, a professor in the history department basically said the same thing at one point when I had half facetiously said to him one day after history class that I might be interested in doing graduate work in history. And his response to me basically was the same. In fact, I remember him saying -- this was Professor Jeffrey Simcox at UCLA, a well-known professor at that time -- saying, "Mark, if I were you, I would just go out and get a job. Heck, go out and get a job just selling shoes. You might be happier, you might find out you're happier doin' that than going on and doing graduate work." And so hearing these comments from people in academia, professors, made me just sit out and work, so I worked for four years, did various jobs, and it was during that time that... number one, it was a great time in my life. I was working, had an apartment, would work during the day, get home, go to the beach, go out at night with friends, and I did this for about three or four years. But during that time it really made me think about what I wanted to do in life, and it also gave me an opportunity to see what some other friends of mine were doing. Guys who had gone off to law school, guys who were in medical school. I had, knew some friends who were in MBA school at the time. I also, though, at the time, had some friends who were in seminary, and so I corresponded with all of these folks and it was a result of, of talking with them and keeping in touch, with all these people, that not so much made me figure out what I wanted to do, but more through process of elimination kind of made me think seriously about what I didn't want to do. And after I had eliminated everything, or the things that I thought I didn't want to do --

JG: Like what?

MN: For a while, for example, I thought I wanted to go to law school, but then after meeting some attorneys and seeing what my friends in law school were having to go through, I figured that wasn't the way, the route that I wanted to go. I thought about medial school. I just didn't think I was quite smart enough for medical school, quite frankly, so that really left my thought. And then even going into business, while initially that kind of looked attractive, when I really thought about what I really wanted to do, which was to help people, not that being a business person or a medical doctor or an attorney wouldn't allow me to do that... I really realized that those professions, as well as others, including teaching, 'cause I only stayed in the teaching program for one year, really would not afford me or enable me the opportunity to help people in the way I wanted to help them. And when I really sat down and thought about it, I wanted to help people through working in the community, so that really left out only a couple of options, either a social worker or what we know call a community organizer. And then it dawned on me that, gosh, so much of what I do about the Japanese American community came through the church, so with all these thoughts in mind I decided to enter seminary, but again, not because I had made up my mind to become an ordained minister, because I hadn't, but if nothing else, I figured that doing time in seminary would at least, basically extend the time that I would have to get my head together and figure out what I want to do, but if nothing else, I thought it would be a good experience and would prepare me for any vocation in life that I would do after I got out. Really my plan was to go to seminary for three years then come back and then figure out what I want to do after that, and that was it. It didn't turn out like that, which is, which goes back to my original statement that, really the fact that I'm in the ordained ministry really is less because of my conscious decision to do so and more because of God's calling on my life. I mean, if I had my druthers, if I had my choice, it wouldn't have worked out like that. I would've just gone, done three years in seminary for the basic degree and then come back home and figured out what to do next. But it just didn't work out like that.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

JG: Why didn't it work it out the way you had... or let me put it differently, what forces intervened, I guess, to push you to the decision that you were being called? Is it, it's an interesting question. I mean, what is it that, how do we identify that we're being called, and not just to a vocation, but this is, this is a unique vocation because it's divinely inspired, this call that's taking place. What forces intervened in your time at seminary that said, okay, "Yes, I am meant to be a minister"?

MN: The short answer is a lot of things. The longer answer is that it just, the seminary experience itself was a good overall experience. Now, I attended seminary up in Berkeley, in the Bay Area, which is something I thought I'd never do. Not... number one, I never thought I'd enter seminary, number two, I never thought I'd live in Berkeley of all places, but it was a great experience, and I say that as one coming from Los Angeles -- you know, you're a Los Angeles native, and you know, at least when it comes to sports, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, San Francisco, they just don't get along.

JG: And other things, too. [Laughs]

MN: Yeah, and I often thought, now, is that God's judgment on me or God's judgment on the Bay Area that I ended up living up there, but anyway, I ended up going to seminary in the Bay Area, at a seminary that was very, very open, if not liberal, Pacific School of Religion. And it was just a good atmosphere to be in that, again, gave me time to just open up and think things through. Obviously, it exposed me to a lot of things, a lot of people I didn't know before. The seminary experience itself really called me... it wasn't so much professors or instructors posing questions that I needed to respond to them so much as questions that I needed to respond to and answer just for myself. And I think that's one thing unique about at least my seminary experience, that it really was a time that enabled me but at the same time compelled me to answer some of the deeper questions of life that we just don't have opportunities to be asked or we just never think about. What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose here on Earth? What am, what is my role as a human, let alone someone who is being called by God? Those are the questions that I really thought about and that nudged me along the way.

As a matter of fact, I really, again, I really didn't decide to pursue ordained ministry 'til my final year in seminary, my third year. Other classmates of mine who were United Methodist at least began the ordination process our very first year in seminary. I didn't decide to start the process 'til my last year, but we all ended up being ordained and going through the process at the same time. Not that it was a race or anything, but I think the reason why I ended up getting ordained on or around the same time as they did, even though they had started the process a year or two before me is because, number one, it was a practical reason. Your first, second years in seminary, you're so busy focusing on coursework you have very little time to satisfy the ordination requirements, which involves some written papers, exams, those sorts of things. But also, I think by the time I had thought about it, or because I had taken time to think things through, by the time I had made my decision in the third year to begin the process, I had figured out which end was up and figured out that yes, this was what I wanted to do. And because of that I was just able to start the process and just to go through it without having to worry about finishing a lot of coursework and papers and things like that, whereas I know that some of my classmates who had started the ordination process early on, in addition to having to complete coursework requirements, were also having internal struggles, I think I can say, about whether or not this was the path that they had really wanted to go down, or that God had chosen them to. So again, it really wasn't until my third and final year in seminary that I actually made a, made the decision to enter the ordained ministry, so that was one of the factors.

I think another factor, another influencing factor, was that it was during seminary that my own ethnic identity was even more firmly grounded than it was prior to that, and I also was able to see a connection between the biblical texts, the Christian faith, and my own ethnic awareness and understanding as a Japanese American. Not that I didn't detect it before, but at least it was during my seminary experience that I was finally able, at least on some level, to articulate it. And that's when I began to see that, if I didn't consciously know it before, but that's, then I realized it then, that working within the Japanese American church was something that really was important, not just to the Japanese American community, but to the church, in my case the United Methodist Church. And once I figured that out, once I figured out that yeah, what I really wanted to do was something that involved me working in the community and that I could do this within the context of the church, then it was really easy for me to move forward.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

JG: Did you have, thinking about transitioning into this new role, did you look at or... I guess the question I'm trying to ask is what kind of model had been provided to you through clergy you knew growing up? I mean, did, was there, to what extent did that influence either the decision of becoming a minister or how you modeled your own kind of ministry afterward?

MN: That's a very good question, Jim, and let me start by looking at the current scene and then working backwards. When I look out on the current landscape in the Japanese American religious community, primarily mainline Protestant and the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temples, most of the clergy are, like me, baby boomers, and most of us, at least from the standpoint of time period, came out of college and whether we did our seminary work in the Christian tradition or in the Buddhist tradition, went through that, came out of the civil rights, '70s era, '60s, '70s era, and went into our seminary experience during the late '70s, early '80s, which was, again, still a very active, exciting time in terms of civil rights and other movements that were happening. And so my hunch is that so many of the Japanese American clergy, primarily Sanseis, whether they're in the Christian tradition, Buddhist, or Shinto, whatever, all are motivated on one level at least by our social consciousnesses that were formed during the '60s and '70s. And regardless of faith tradition, that has to be, in my mind at least, a compelling factor for why we all are in the vocations that we are in. Okay, so I think I want to say that in terms of a broad brush approach.

In terms of my specific experience, and for others my age, there were, there was a first wave, I'll call it, of Sanseis within the United Methodist Church that went into the ministry and who kinda blazed the trail for us. They, however, were encouraged by some very, very dedicated Nisei clergy who, in their own ways, paved the way for them. Some of these Nisei clergy, actually many of them are still alive today, and when I look back on it, they were really mavericks in their time for entering that, that vocation. Although, one of the realities for the Nisei generation is it was really public education, government and the church in which Niseis could find employment right after the interment camps, which is one of the reasons why I think you have a lot of Niseis who went into teaching. You have a lot of Niseis who went into government service, and you have a good number of Niseis across all, at least mainline Protestant denominations, who went into the ministry. So there's a practical aspect of, of how we were able to have a lot of Nisei ministers in the United Methodist Church, but across most of the mainline Protestant denominations. But it was that generation that really influenced us. When I think about it, among all the current Sansei United Methodist clergy that I know of, there is only a handful, and even then a small handful, whose parents were clergy, so that means it was someone else who encouraged us to go into this line of work.

JG: Was there anyone in particular that you think of, looking back, that kind of influenced your own, again, either decision to become a minister or the, someone you modeled your ministry after?

MN: Sure. First of all, I have to preface everything I say by making a comment that parallels what I said earlier about listening to Muhammad Ali on Wide World of Sports as being one of the ways I learned how to speak publicly, because one of my role models, growing up during the '60s, was Martin Luther King, but even after King, Jesse Jackson. And I remember, in the same way that I always took opportunities to watch Muhammad Ali on Wide World of Sports, I always took, took opportunities to watch Jesse Jackson and to listen to him, and Malcolm X, as well, during the '60s, whenever they would be on the news or debate or, or whatever. King, his great speeches of his era came when I was a little bit too young and precocious to, well, to listen to them, let along to really get the full force of them, but it was really the Jesse Jacksons, the Malcolm Xs and those that came immediately afterwards that really impacted me. And I have to also say that seeing the role that the church played in the African American community often impressed upon me the importance that the church did and could potentially play in the Japanese American community. Maybe not on as grand a scale or on a scale that was as noticeable to mainstream society, but which was nevertheless equally as important.

To answer your question about some clergy who have been influential to me, I kinda feel like a UCLA basketball coach, now late basketball coach, John Wooden, who never wanted to name his five top Bruin basketball players for fear he would always offend the other players that he had, but when I think about it, among the Nisei clergy, the Reverend Peter Chen, former pastor of this church, who probably spoke the best Japanese out of all the Nisei clergy. He was Taiwanese who was born and raised in Kobe, Japan. Peter Chen, Bishop Roy Sano, also who pastored here at Centenary years ago, when I was a kid, actually. Reverend Lloyd Wake, retired clergy up in San Francisco. Lloyd Wake really made his claim to fame at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church there in San Francisco, and really was one of the key figures during the whole Patty Hearst, SLA shootout with the FBI and the San Francisco police. Lloyd provided sanctuary there at Glide Church to Wendy Yoshimura, a Sansei woman who had gotten caught up with the SLA movement, so Lloyd is definitely one who I've tried to model in terms of my civil rights consciousness. Reverend Ed Iwamoto, retired clergy up in Seattle, Washington, who pastored here, actually grew up in West L.A. and was here at Centenary. Actually, he signed my bible when I was, I think, nine years old and I have it to this day. Reverend Mike Morizono, who is actually one of the first Niseis to enter into the ministry and actually entered into the ministry as what we today call a second career person. He was an engineer at first in San Jose and then chucked that career to go into the ministry. And I've always remember that, and again, for a Nisei man back in the '60s, to land a job as an engineer was really just so, not lucky, but just really plum. I mean, there really, really weren't any types of opportunities much better than that for a Nisei back in the late '50s, early '60s, but Reverend Morizono had that goin' for him, but he decided to chuck it all away and enter the ministry. And he's always served as a role model for me in that context. Among the Sanseis, again, there were a group of Sanseis that are a little bit older than myself who, who decided to enter into the seminary and then go on into the ordained ministry. Reverend Grant Hagiya, now Bishop Grant Hagiya who is now Bishop in the Pacific Northwest area, was one of the first ones. Following him out of this church, Centenary, was Reverend Gary Oba. Gary actually grew up with me here at Centenary and he's a product of the Crenshaw area. Reverend Bob Hoshibata, who's actually originally from Hawaii, Bob is now Bishop Robert Hoshibata up in the Portland area. So there are those three as well as a good number of other Sanseis who went into the ministry, again, earlier than I did, and who were really, not just role models, but catalysts for my generation, those of my peers, at least, who decided to go into the ministry. And I think what they did was they really, just by their actions, broke the mold of what a minister should look like and be like and think like and act like, not that they're all flaming radicals from the '60s, but simply because of the generation that they came out of just made them markedly different from the Nisei, and certainly of the Issei clergy.

JG: Interesting.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

JG: I'm trying to get a sense of what a prototypical... like I'm trying to think of Billy Graham or something, like, as a prototypical minister of the post-war period, but one of the things that's interesting to me is at the same time that you could be... and understandably you would admire the experiences of these Nisei and older Sansei, you were also coming of age at a time when Asian Americans, this was a period of not just awakening for African Americans, but we're talking about the Third World Strikes is a little, that predates your time up at seminary, but this is the time of the Asian American kind of consciousness, "yellow power," and also of kind of the nascent movement for redress for Japanese Americans and reclaiming this amnesia that occurred after World War II, this kind of desire to put the past behind. And I'm just wondering, in that context, coming of age and continuing with your own political development, your own, the development of your own political consciousness, were you also critical of the clergy? Did you kind of come to a sense of, at any point, that some of what had occurred in the Japanese American religious community was maybe short-sighted or not fully developed, and did you have an idea of what your generation could do as it moved forward towards ordination and beyond?

MN: Right. You know, Jim, as I was growing up during that era, civil rights, Vietnam and all that, I guess because our family, or at least I was so wrapped up in the church... and yes, I know that the anti-war protest movements were going on, some of them were inspired through religious channels, but our community was just trying to survive, and so those larger issues, even though I felt the war was wrong and I had my own personal political views on it, in terms of the church being a vehicle for that, for any kind of social change, it just didn't dawn on me that, well, Centenary, or Japanese American churches in general, could play that role. However, one recurring remembrance I have of those times with respect to the Church is that I do know, I do remember that the Church was one place, if not the only place, where Japanese Americans could congregate and have discussions about everything going on at the time and feel free to voice their opinions. Again, when you think about it, there were not a lot of social or political outlets for Japanese Americans, number one, to gather, number two, to express their views, number three, to let, to think that anybody cared about what you had to say in the first place. So in that sense the church served a very, very important role, and that may be a passive way. It enabled folks like me to listen to other discourse and dialogue, to hear other people's perspectives. I vividly remember one Sunday morning at church when I was, gosh, I couldn't have been more than thirteen or fourteen, hearing two younger Niseis arguing about the war. One guy was, said yeah, we need to be in Vietnam. We need to get rid of those Communists. The other guy was arguing no, this is just American imperialism and, and the war is bad, and besides... for me, to hear this kind of discussion, it just on the one hand didn't register with me. Why are these guys talkin' about this kind of stuff? But it's still the kind of stuff that I remember going on, and the old saying, hindsight's always twenty-twenty, but looking back on it, those are the discussions that I do remember hearing at church, and those are the remembrances that have stayed with me throughout the years. And in some way the Church did play a very vital role, whether it could've played a more forceful role or not, who knows? I think, again, even as a Sansei growing up, there were always other Sanseis who were saying the Niseis should've done this during the war, the Niseis should've done that to avoid, to protest evacuation, but the times were different and there were certain limits on what we could do, realistically could do, back during those days. So in that sense, my remembrances of the, what was going on at the church at that time are much more precious and more important than some of these hypothetical questions. Could the church have done more? Should we have done more? I think yeah, the answer's always yes, but when you realize what else was happening in the larger arena at that time, I tend to hedge against those easy answers.

JG: That's interesting. Interesting.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

JG: So you are in seminary and you decide, at, during your last year, that you are going to take the plunge, I guess you could call it, and become ordained. What does your family think about this?

MN: Well, it's interesting. It's kinda funny. When I first decided to even apply for seminary, I disguised it by telling my folks I was gonna, I want to do social work, and then when they realized what I was really doing, then they said, "Do you know what you're doing?" They asked me, "Do you know what you're doing? Do you know what this is gonna mean? How you gonna be able to survive? How you gonna be able to eat?" All this. But I noticed, though, not even after I became ordained and was in my first church, even when I was going through my last year of seminary, on a couple of trips I had taken to come back home, my mom would, I would hear my mom start to use the phrase to her friends, "My son's a minister." [Laughs] So I guess, it was also, I thought to myself, "Gosh, three years ago I know they really didn't think much of me going into seminary. Now it's 'my son, the minister.'" So I figured that was progress, and so that whole transformation happened. Their transformation happened along with my transformation as well, and yeah, I've never forgotten that at all.

JG: Did your, what did your friends think about you becoming a minister?

MN: You know, for the most part, they were very supportive. There were a few that said, "What?" or "What happened?" but for the most part, they were very supportive. And I see a lot of 'em, since I've been back in L.A. for the last fifteen years and I've reconnected with a lot of folks who were, I were away from for about ten or so years, and we all kind of have been keeping abreast of what everybody's doin' and yeah, they all sound very supportive and very, very positive.

JG: Were you dating Pam at this point?

MN: No, 'cause I didn't meet her until after I'd started, after I'd gotten assigned to the church in Sacramento, and even then it wasn't until about, a number of years after that.

JG: Okay, so she didn't factor into your...

MN: Oh, no. No, no way. In fact, around the time when we were getting married, I said to her, I'm sure other people said to her, too, "You know what you're getting into? You're gonna be a minister's wife, and so you know what this is gonna mean?" And she would say, "Yeah, I know." So that, that's always given me an excuse that if anything should ever happen, if... I always kind of jokingly said to her, "Look, if we ever decide to divorce you can't say you didn't know what you were gettin' into." [Laughs] It's not like we got married during seminary, not knowing what we were gonna get into and then that caused hardship on the marriage, which unfortunately did happen to some of my classmates. But I said, "You have no excuses. You know who you're marrying. You know who you're marrying, you know what kind of person you're marrying, so you'll have no excuses afterwards." But no, she had no factor into my decision, into ultimately my going into the ministry, because we met, it wasn't until after that that we met.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

JG: Were there any special kinds of, I don't know, I'm trying to think about... there wasn't really, from what you've said, it sounds as if you knew you were gonna be working in a Japanese American congregation at some point. Is that right?

MN: Yes. After I had sorted everything out and decided to move forward, I let it be known to the powers that be that I wanted to serve in a Japanese American church, and fortunately, at that time, the powers that be were very, very supportive of that. In fact, they felt a need to really support ethnic minority churches in general, so they had no problem with that. Also, I was starting to become more aware, again, of more the Japanese side of me, of my Japanese American identity, in several ways during my seminary days. But one experience that happened to me which really, was kind of like icing on the cake, was when I went to see my counselor in seminary, who was African American. And I said to him, I said, "Look, I've got this problem. I want to take Greek or Hebrew. I really want to study both, 'cause they're biblical languages and I feel I'll benefit by knowing at least one of 'em. But I really want to study both languages, but I know that I don't have the time and I'm not smart enough to study both at the same time, so I need some help. Should I do Greek or Hebrew? I know Greek is the language of the New Testament. Hebrew's the language of the Old Testament. Which one would help me most?" And my counselor said to me, "You know, if I were you, I would study Spanish." I said, "Why Spanish?" He said, "Well, you're gonna be in California, most likely, but whether or not in California, Spanish is the language of the future, and everybody in America is gonna benefit by knowing some Spanish from here on out, so if I were you I would forget the Greek and the Hebrew because, unless you're planning on becoming a biblical scholar, everything you'll need to know in terms of writing sermons or doing church work is in English anyway. So I would more, rather you concentrate on a language of more practical value, which is, and in California at least, that language is Spanish." So when I thought about what he said, I figured okay, well, if learning Spanish is gonna help me from the standpoint that I'll be in California, or at least in the western part of the U.S., then it stands to reason that it makes more sense for me to brush up on my Japanese, since I plan on serving a Japanese American church. And so out of that I was able to spend a year, actually my last year in seminary, I was able to sign up for a refresher course in Japanese language over at UC Berkeley.

And I did that, and then that following year when I graduated from seminary, knowing that there was gonna be about a month leeway, lag time between graduating from seminary and actually showing up my first day at the church where I was assigned in Sacramento, I decided to take a trip to Japan. And I took a two-week trip to Japan, started, I just planned it on my own, and did that, which was a very valuable experience for me. It was my first trip to Japan. I got to visit relatives I had never met before. But also, that trip in and of itself was very affirming of my own ethnic identity, and if nothing else, I could come back now and the next time someone asks me, "Have you ever been to Japan?" I can honestly say yes. So those experiences really affirmed my decision and gave me a strength in me and some tools that I would need serving a Japanese American church. And so I was very, very fortunate that those, that confluence of events all came together during my last year in seminary, and again, as I look back on it, I refuse to believe that it was just pure coincidence or chance that those events all came together at the same time, that God definitely had a hand in, in doing that. Last month, two months ago, I took a small group from Centenary to Japan, and it was actually my fourth trip there but my first visit in almost twenty years. And while we were there I thought back to that very first trip, some things I had experienced back then, because for this group from the church that went two months ago, for all of them it was their first trip to Japan, and so I can think back and put myself in their shoes, although they had one benefit that I didn't have. They had a tour guide, me, which I didn't have back then. But so I thought about that first trip to Japan, which happened now, what, twenty-five years ago, when I took this group two months ago from the church.

JG: Interesting.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 16>

JG: So I am, we're kind of at a point in our interview where I have... it's amazing. You have, you've done so much in your life. We have so much to talk about still. But I've covered, before going on to any new areas, I think this is probably a good place to stop for now, and I just wanted to know if there's anything, at least in this first part of your life that we've talked about, up through seminary, that you wanted to talk about that we haven't covered so far?

MN: There, there probably is. There are a lot of episodes, other experiences that I could point to that would kind of fill in some of the gaps. One thing I haven't touched on too much but which I think is another influence of my development during that time... I may have said it in, in maybe an indirect way, but another influence I would have to say, with respect to the Crenshaw area where I grew up, was that it was a very... I mean, whether you went to the Methodist church or another Christian church or the Buddhist temple or whatever, or whether your parents were Niseis or, or from Japan or whatever, the Crenshaw area in itself was a very stable community. And I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that there was a solid black middle class, and I've thought a lot about that recently. Well, number one, being back here in L.A. now for a number of years, but when I see what's happened, the transformation that's taking place in South Central -- well, now we call it South L.A., but when I was growing up it was South Central L.A. I mean, the geography hasn't moved at all, but the labels have changed. But even thinking back to the '92 riots, Rodney King, and what the whole city as a whole is going through, the transformation, particularly with the influx of immigrants over the last twenty, thirty years, particularly Latino immigrants. When I think about what's going on now here in L.A. and juxtapose that with what my peers and I experienced during our time, the Crenshaw area really was a stable, solid community with a very strong black middle class, and I have to say also that the other Japanese Americans and others who lived, were able to live pretty comfortable within parameters, lifestyles. Even my dad, who was a dock worker down on the loading docks for forty years, was able to support a wife and three kids just on his paycheck, 'cause my mom really didn't have full, start full time employment until I was in high school and maybe college. But to think that a guy like my dad working a forty hour a week union job could support his family of five on one paycheck, I mean, that's unthinkable now.

And so, again, when I think about those times, what I have not said specifically, but what I think undergirds everything I've said, and maybe I've said it in another way, besides the fact that it was an exciting time growing up down there in the Crenshaw area, it was also a very, very stable and solid environment and community, because it was a middle class community. I think, in part, because of just the economics of the time. Nowadays the black middle class, as we call it, while there're still remnants of it in urban areas, as a whole, the black middle class has fanned out beyond just the urban core, as have Japanese Americans. I mean, the Japanese American exodus, as I call it, started back in the '70s when, down here, families, Japanese American families started moving to the suburbs, places like the San Fernando Valley, the beach areas, the coastal beaches, areas. That also started to happen. And when I think again about what's happening today, a lot of turmoil. Not necessarily racial or ethnic turmoil. I mean, that, I think, is what people see and what the media likes to portray, but I really think it has more to do with the socio-economic realities of the time that are reflected in racial-ethnic realities. But again, it's just the solid community that Crenshaw was at that time that I think really undergirded and made possible a lot of the things that I remember and reflect on.

JG: Interesting. Very interesting. Well, thank you very much. This is... and again, you're not off the hook for doing another interview. This is just, thank you for this first interview. Appreciate it.

MN: [Laughs] You're welcome, Jim. Thank you.

JG: Thanks.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2010 Densho. All Rights Reserved.