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-1000-460-17

<Begin Segment 17>

TI: So the next question I have for you, because you're kind of in this unique position. Because not only were you there for redress in this really critical role, but then the work you do now with other communities, taking a step back and looking at redress from, like, an American history standpoint, what's the significance? Was there something unique about it or something interesting? Because I'm kind of looking at American history, and it's very rare that the U.S. government apologizes for something like this. I mean, you can count on one hand some of these type of apologies. What made this happen? You have some people, like, when I interviewed Roger Daniels, Roger said, early on he said redress had to happen because it was the right thing, but then you talk to so many other people, says, no, it was so tenuous, it could very easily not have happened. So it did, but what's your takeaway?

RW: There's so many right things that haven't happened. I think we were...

TI: Was there something special about the community, the players? I'm just trying to get a handle on...

RW: I think it's confluence of all that. If you look at the aggregation of stuff, how do you get a 442 story? That's just... like Eric Saul, like when he says, like, this is an epic story, this is Thermopylae. People don't understand how, like in a military sense, how remarkable this is. Because I sure didn't get it, because the veterans didn't talk about it. But then you learned through that. Then the kind of... when you get to know the Nikkei members, both their strength and their frailties, it's just, it's sort of remarkable that they were in those places. Like when else have we had that many Nikkei in key positions, and with the qualities that they have?

TI: So you're talking about in, like, Congress?

RW: Yeah, how do you get that? That's not happening again.

TI: For a population with such a small percentage of the population to have so many members of Congress?

RW: Yeah, like Hawaii going in at the time that it did, that was critical. And Inouye rising up, and Inouye's, in his own way, a strange creature. He's buddies with Orrin Hatch, right? And Sparky is kind of... see, Sparky's Nikkei. He has so much Nikkei in him, like his table in the Senate dining room, he had shoyu, right, hidden in the... he carved his name in kanji on the desk. We don't have that. And Norm Mineta just astounds me. And Bob was much more of, kind of a cohort, and I think Bob had his flaws, but with Bob it was kind of like I saw him go through the journey with us. Because he wasn't the same Bob Matsui at the end than he was at the beginning.

TI: Tell me about that. Because I remember talking to Bob before he died, and the idea was I was going to sit down and have an interview with him, and unfortunately, that never happened. So I never really got his story. So when you say that he changed during that process, because I got a sense that redress was very important to him, and in some ways, he had this personal connection to it more than it felt with Mineta.

RW: I think it became that. I think, early on, I think he's a bit insecure. He's the junior Nikkei member of Congress, the other folks... these are heavyweights. I mean, Inouye's a heavyweight, so is Sparky, and Norm is just amazing. The affection that that man has, just because of the way he is, it's understandable that if you were in that same club as them, that you feel insecure, like, "How do I match up against these guys?" And I think Bob had to work through a lot of that, and I think he was not clear how redress would affect his career. I think there was a certain amount of tentativeness. So on one hand, like any other Nikkei, you couldn't turn your back on it, but you're not quite sure how this is going to play for you career-wise. Those other three had less risk, they were much more established. But Bob, at the end... here's a story. Right at the end, the day of the signing, I'm an opportunist, so I could get the room, and I look around, I only see one pen on the table. And so, okay, he's not going to give away pens. There's no printed program, but you know what there are? There are three-by-five cards on the stage. One says, "Mr. President," and then it says, "Mr. Inouye," they're all...

TI: Where they're supposed to stand?

RW: They're markers for them. And then there's a few in the audience, "Reserved." So as soon as the signing ceremony was over, I swooped, I grabbed every card that I could. Grabbed my hands, and then later in the day, Barney Frank is talking to us, and says, "I don't get invited to the White House, so I kept a souvenir, Mr. Frank. And I kept this one, too," it said, "Mr. President." And he made a joke about, you know, you'd think he would know where to stand by now. But as he was doing that, I was standing behind Bob and Doris, and I could hear Bob saying, "I should have got mine." And I tapped Bob on the shoulder, and I reach in and I fan them. And I could see the look on Bob's face, "You'd better give me mine." [Laughs] Because Bob was the only member of Congress that I was bigger than. I didn't feel physically threatened by him. And Bob was much more reserved, that sucker picked me off the ground.

TI: At that moment, right then? Because he wanted that card?

RW: And the whole event.

TI: Oh, because he was just so elated about everything.

RW: Yeah. So I think Bob Matsui, at the beginning, was much more tentative about, like, how should I play this? I want to have a successful Congressional -- and that's understandable. When I went in the JACL director the first year, I'm more tentative, I don't want to piss anybody off. Like I know the history of this place is like everyone gets... except for Mas Satow, gets kicked out in a hurry.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.