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-1000-460-11

<Begin Segment 11>

TI: So let's kind of walk through this a little bit. So you're appointed the new national director, what was the reaction?

RW: At first it's like when the board... well, first, like on the interviews, we were scheduled for interviews, and then I'm packing to go home. And they said, "Can you stay another day?" Because the first interview was with the committee. He said, "Now the full board wants to interview you." I said, "Well, that wasn't the design." Said, "I know, but they weren't expecting you to be recommended, so let's check this out."

TI: And where were the interviews held?

RW: At headquarters.

TI: In San Francisco?

RW: Uh-huh. So I had to make arrangements to stay, and I did. And when I did get home, Jean and I had kind of a date thing with Debbie Nakatomi and a guy named Cary Nishimoto. And Cary was a district governor, he became a presiding superior court judge. Probably one of the handsomest Sanseis you'll ever meet, he's a Ken doll, only Japanese. And it was a great fit, but we go out together, and Debbie turns around in the car, and she says, "Come on, Ron, tell me, is it J.D., is it John?" I said, "You know, Debbie, they asked me to not say anything 'til everyone is contacted." She says, "You can tell me." But I'm sitting there thinking, "Goddamnit, Debbie, you didn't ask me if it was me." But I think it was a surprise to a lot of people, including me. I saw myself as an outlier going into it. When I did the interview... I mean, you know when you've interviewed well. I did that, and I think...

TI: But it's almost like with the JACL board, I'm still surprised they chose you, actually, just during that time. That's my sense... it surprised me, and I'll have to give them more credit, that they were open enough and had enough foresight to realize it had to be larger, these connections you talked about, was something that they appreciated.

RW: That's why I think... when I say I think I interview well, like when I interviewed for county human relations director or city human relations, I think you needed to have a more macro view of things.

TI: You almost had to tell them what they were looking for.

RW: Yeah. And I think that was, when I say I interview well, it's more a thing like, "This is what you need, and this is how we can do this." And then at each stage, I think I've gotten better at it. Because if I had to it over again, there's a whole lot I would do differently, I didn't do as well as I think I could have. But I do have a clear sense, because I interviewed well, I have an ability to try and capture the bigger picture and articulate it. Because even further back, one of the things... I'm not a natural speaker, and there was a friend of mine, she's passed away, but she was in the theater, but she made me come to her class to do impromptu comedy. And I found that really helpful on how to frame how to be present. And so I learned a lot from that, but it was a surprise to me as well.

TI: Okay, so you were surprised, your friends were surprised, but once people got, like, you're going to be the national director, what was the reaction? What kind of things did you hear and see?

RW: It's a difficult reaction. On one hand, it's kind of like... while I was selected, those things of, like, the dude is Buddhist, he comes out of the far left...

TI: And arguably, this was one of the most... what's the right word? Important positions in the Japanese American community, national director of the JACL.

RW: And that's the way I felt, like I felt that way twice in my life, that I was entering the thing where it's a very special space.

TI: Right, at a historic moment in the organization, I mean, they were embarking on redress, which was, I think, perhaps the most important thing they've ever done.

RW: Agreed, and I was terrified. It was kind of the feeling like...

TI: And so because of that, people, I mean, it's not just like, oh, new national director. I'm sure people had strong opinions and feelings about that.

RW: Actually, I think it's kind of like electoral politics, in the sense that I had different audiences that had questions, was helpful in hindsight. I mean, it was uncomfortable. Because when I left --

TI: Oh, interesting, I think I know what you're saying, Yeah, explain this.

RW: When I left L.A., I felt like I lost a large part of my roots, my foundation. Because there was a safety in being part of the left, right? Because then you're an outsider, an outlier, and your role is, "I can throw a rock, I can do that." Now that I'm becoming an insider, okay, I can't throw the rock, but I have feelings about not throwing rocks. And these people are worried that I'm going to throw rocks from the inside. And so there's a personal navigation to that. But I think I was fortunate that our national leadership at that time, Jerry Enomoto was a very broad-minded person, just remarkably. And in their own ways, every, under the national presidents I served under except the last had that. And I had, like even when Min was redress chair, Min and I had a really good relationship. For me, I articulated with them, like, "Min, there are some things you do that are crazy, don't do that. You'll get in trouble. But on the other hand, I think you are just so important to this." I mean, symbolically, energy-wise, there was no other Nisei that could speak like him. He was just rousing. Like in my generation, we've got Warren Furutani. Warren could do that, but there's no Nisei that could do that. I mean, Masaoka could talk a long time, but he was not stirring. Min was stirring, it's remarkable. Gordon wasn't stirring, neither was Fred, but Min was stirring. And so it's like, we need this. And it's the learning of all of our... learning that all of the people who pulled off things, they need to have this passion and even be off the wall. But the communities need a hero. It's not an intimate process where you can kind of go into details of what's totally correct, we need to move a lot of folks.

TI: But I know Min was a strong personality. When I interviewed Dale Minami, he said that he had words with Min, because Min was really against the coram nobis cases, and that was a source of contention between Dale and Min.

RW: Yeah. And for me, when you mention Dale, Dale was one of the... Dale's a remarkable person in his openness. Because I'm not from San Francisco either, right? And that's a tough community. Seattle is easier than San Francisco.

TI: Oh, I think Los Angeles is a pretty tough community. [Laughs]

RW: Yeah, but I'm from here, it's different. And even with Min, I mean, True, his wife, would say -- and I still have letters from her -- that say, "Min appreciated what you did to help him through that." But I saw Min that way. I even saw Masaoka that way. Masaoka is flawed in a lot of ways, but it's not like he's irrelevant or that he's totally bad. I just don't have a black/white kind of view of things, and actually, I don't like it, I think it's unfair. Because I would hate to be judged that way. There are things I'm good at, and there are things I suck at.

TI: Wait, so go back, because something that... because I've also interviewed John Tateishi, and so I know that he left right after you became national director.

RW: He was hurt.

TI: So was that the reason he left?

RW: I think so.

TI: It wasn't clear when I interviewed him, why he left. He keeps that very amorphous.

RW: I think John's gone through his own journeys on things, but he's a proud man. So Carol worked more directly for him, but there were just kind of things you recognized. Like John is someone like me, we come out of the community, we're not Washington establishment. But when he talked to the chapters, he would say things like, "My familiarity with commissions..." and he would talk, but that's a power statement, the way that's framed. And it's really like, I don't know shit about commissions, they're rare, and they all seem to be different, but I don't know about the reliance on that. So I think John had his own difficult journey for his own place, and it's difficult in JACL because you've got people taking shots at you all kinds of ways. Like if you look at after Mas Satow, nobody really survived being national director. [Laughs] It's really a tough environment to be in. I thought city council was tough with five city council members, the politics of that, and one of my reasons to move to the county is there's only five there to deal with. And now, in my current job, I'm so glad I'm not near D.C. Because it is hard to navigate the politics of something.

TI: And so you're saying the JACL national director, you're just in the middle of everything.

RW: Yeah, because you have so many different camps, and people are in there for so many different reasons. And it's not necessarily a cross-section of the Nikkei community, it's much more elite, it's people who have a certain degree of success within sort of the American system that become JACL members and its backbone. And you've got to satisfy that.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.