Densho Digital Repository
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Ron Wakabayashi Interview
Narrator: Ron Wakabayashi
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: February 5, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-460-10

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TI: So let's get into this, and let me walk into this. So your appointment as the national director of JACL. So I went back to the Pacific Citizen, happened February 1981, and the previous national director had resigned, and they had J.D. Hokoyama as the interim, and there were three finalists for this position. It was J.D., who was the interim, there was John Tateishi who was the head of the redress, and you. At this point, did you have any formal JACL connections?

RW: Yeah, I mean, I kind of grew up at a chapter level, like East L.A. JACL. My cousin was very active in it, so at the level of, like, going to the Easter egg hunt. And they did an event that they called the Emerald Ball, So I had social ties with it, and then remember I said I was the JACL Youth Director? The previous youth director, Alan Kumamoto, had recruited me in, when I was doing college organizing. So I had that experience of being inside JACL. But then my journey really came into doing community building within the Asian community. And when that position came open...

TI: Yeah, so why did they select you? Because again, I think of the other two as sort of, at least from a national JACL perspective, having more of an inside track than you would have.

RW: Oh, clearly, they clearly did. Like initially, it was like within PSW, Pacific Southwest District, people were saying, "Let's throw your name in just to make sure the process is honest." Because you have enough, sort of, credentials to be competitive, but they have track, inside track on you.

TI: Well, first let me ask the question, so what were you thinking when people were asking you or saying, "Let's put your name in"? Is that something you wanted to do, and why?

RW: I think I did... I mean, when you said, I came through sort of this Asian movement and identity, and to me, like redress became the holy grail. And I can't think of anything else that I've been involved with where I felt it had really substantial importance, deep. Sort of the way I framed it was not that, whether we got redress or not, but if I didn't do a really sort of diligent job in working on this, my mother could not walk through J-Town, which is not something I would ever want to happen, right? And my own sort of journeys in looking at discovering internment... and actually, I think of myself in some ways as a marginal person, and I said, "I'm Nisei on my father's side, Sansei technically on my mother's side, but she's Kibei." I've got brothers that were in the resistance, I'm Buddhist, I went to Maryknoll, being the resident heathen, pagan infidel, they used that language. And in Catholic theology you're actually a "bastard," right? Because you're illegitimate because the marriage isn't recognized.

TI: Well, that, and you weren't confirmed or you weren't baptized.

RW: Yeah. And even when I talk about the Asian movement, like when we were forming Gidra and that kind of stuff, I was at the formation of Gidra. Like I was at the meetings where we named it, but if you look at all the literature on it, I'm invisible in it. And even JACL, there's an invisibility in the role. And for a while that sort of plagued me, like I was there through more of the stuff than most folks, but there's no visibility. And there was a period where I lamented that, but now it's more like I kind of appreciate that, saying, it turns out that way because I was doing it right.

TI: But going back, from all the things you said, when I hear about this, would not make you maybe the likely candidate to be the next national director.

RW: No, because I don't have that kind of profile in all this stuff.

TI: Exactly. Like you mentioned you were kind of this marginal candidate, so why did they select you?

RW: Well, one thing is, just generally speaking, I interview well. So if you look at me career-wise, I've gotten every job that I've ever applied for. Who does that? And I look back on that, because becoming director of this... like I may have been the first to be a department head in the city and the county, Asian and all, so there's that kind of stuff. But I interview well, and part of my learning is I value getting to what people's interests are. Because in my work as a mediator, we'd be focused in on the difference between position and interest. And people talk from position all the time, and that's fine, but if you talk from position, it's really hard to bring people together. But if you say, okay, you want that because, and you get to interest, are there other ways we can get to that interest that might meet this interest as well, or at least not conflict. And so it's that, and I guess the other thing I recall is that back in what I call the movement days, they had a meeting of what they called the "quiet people," and they invited me to the meeting, said, "You can come to the meeting." So I'm a "quiet person." And I wasn't really sure, at first I went, like, "Okay, I'm quiet." But then, in retrospect, you know what? Most of the folks that were involved came out of the Westside, I was one of the few Eastside people. So everyone else had longer relationships and histories, and I didn't, and that's kind of the other marginal thing, even in that. So, for me, it's just something I had to process through. And so with...

TI: And so with the JACL, do you recall what you might have said that really kind of resonated with them to say, okay, you're the one?

RW: I think what I said earlier about that... I had read those letters from this Nisei woman, and I knew the Hosokawa controversy about being "quiet Americans," and for myself being labeled that way and also being labeled marginal in different ways. I said my interest is not out of one camp. Like I know that I come out of the Asian movement and I don't want to do any denial of it. That's been sort of remarkable and I value it. I still consider that home. But where that brings me to is that I really think that this is not something that the JACL could and should do alone. There's different facets to it, and it turned out, I think, actually true. Like when you look at what NCRR did at a community base level, it was really important. It's what demonstrated that there was real community passion about this stuff. And the other thing that gets missed is Miya Iwataki was a congressional aide to Merv Dymally. Merv Dymally, in spite of being a liberal Democrat, was very close to Reagan.

TI: I didn't know that.

RW: And it made a difference. It was not like what made the difference, but it made a difference.

TI: At what level, or at what point do you think that connection made a difference?

RW: Because throughout the Reagan presidency, he kept talking to Dymally. And then what Frank has shared with you about this Jack Svahn, that adds in there. It's not like one person did it, I mean, it's a lot of things. And we get some serendipity.

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