Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Bert Nakano Interview
Narrator: Bert Nakano
Interviewer: Larry Hashima
Location: University of California, Los Angeles
Date: September 13, 1997
Densho ID: denshovh-nbert-01

<Begin Segment 1>

LH: Densho interview with Mr. Bert Nakano on Saturday, September 13, 1997, Larry Hashima interviewer, and it's at Los Angeles, California. Thank you very much for coming to speak with us today. I want to start with some background information. A lot of people in the redress movement have a lot of personal ties to it and they, a lot of people also have misperceptions about the redress in terms of the fact that only the people who were interned were the ones who got involved. What was your personal experience during the war?

BN: Far from it, the Sansei, most of 'em were not born at that time, they were the backbone of at least our organization. They were the professionals, they had the know-how, they had the tools to help the whole redress movement. Without them, there's no way Niseis would be able to do it.

LH: But what about your own personal experience during the war, I mean, how did that sort of...

BN: Well, I was born and raised in Hawaii, in the city of Honolulu. My dad was a building contractor and he was one of the largest, in fact, M. Nakano Contracting. And he had quite a few equipment and during the war they picked him up because he's an alien. Alien only because he couldn't become a citizen, not until 1957, I guess. But they picked him up, because I suppose not only an alien, but he was a community leader and FBI knew who to pick up right away when December 7th came around. So that's my dad who had a third-grade education, but was a master craftsman. And my mother, who is a typical Japanese lady... [Cries]

LH: Are you okay? We can stop if you like.

BN: Yeah, I think we better stop.


BN: So my mother, who was a Japanese lady, brought up in Japan, didn't speak English, and all she knew was taking care of the kids, feeding them, clothing them and when it came to financial stuff she didn't know a thing. And at that time when they took my dad away, Mom was completely confused. She didn't know what to do. My older brother, who was sixteen at that time -- and I was fourteen -- he became, all of a sudden, he grew up, he had to be the, the head of the family. And then when the army or the authorities decided that they no longer can keep the family here in the islands, they sent us on the first boat, first family boat, that left Honolulu to Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas.

And we were the first group leaving the islands, and it was a horrible trip. I mean, we were in a small boat, everybody got seasick because it was going up and down we had to zig-zag all over the Pacific because they are afraid that, you know, the Japanese were gonna either torpedo us or whatever. When we got to San Francisco, we got off, we saw a line of M.P.s all lined up and we had to walk through them. And when we got into the train itself, the shades were all drawn and they said, "That's it, you're gonna be here." We didn't know where we were gonna go. In fact, my mother was so worried that maybe they're gonna get rid of us or something. And we were on the train headed for Jerome, Arkansas, but we didn't know where we're gonna go. And on the train itself, as a young boy, fourteen, you know, very active and this M.P. came around, I stood up and I mocked a salute at the M.P., everybody in the train was laughing because I did that, and the M.P. turned around and he started to get after me. But Dr. Miyamoto at that time stood up and said, "You leave that kid alone!" And he gave a tongue lashing to the M.P.s and we, when we got to Jerome, Arkansas, it was almost December. In fact we left Honolulu in November, so December when we got there it was completely, it was a mud puddle. And most of the people from Hawaii didn't have proper clothing for cold weather in Arkansas. And Arkansas can be cold. They have snow, hail and bugs that big.

So we got off, we had to go to our assigned apartments and my mother and three boys were sent to a certain apartment. And here was a pot bellied stove right in the center of the, of the apartment. And we didn't know what the hell to do with it. What is this stove for? And we had people in the camp, mainland people, come in and told us, "Well, you have to burn the wood first and then put the coal on top of it, then it will keep you warm." Without their knowledge and their helping us, we would have probably froze to death in the apartment. And the bunk bed that they supplied -- if you hit the bunk bed you can see the dust flying. I mean, the, it was tarpaper barracks and there was hole in the tarpaper, through the cracks so wind used to come through there and it wasn't a very healthy situation, definitely. Anyway, this is how we got into the concentration camp.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

LH: When you left the camp, when you left Jerome, did you return to Hawaii?

BN: The irony of the whole thing was, when we went back to Hawaii, the government sent us back on a troop ship. And can you imagine, we going back with the heroes of World War II, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, on the boat going back to the island together with us, who were in concentration camp in the United States. I mean, this irony, you can't imagine. And the 442 boys used to ask us, "What (were you guys) doing in the mainland?" "We were in concentration camp, we were in a camp." "What? They put you there? For what?" And you know, they were surprised and when we hit Honolulu, we can hear the band going and all the people, the dignitaries out there waiting for the 442 returning vets, so they told us, "You guys stay in the hole." And then after the 442 disembarked they said, "Now you can come up." And when we came up there was nobody on the dock except our relatives and so forth. So it was a very ironic twist to the whole situation.

LH: Especially because not many Hawaiians were actually sent to the mainland.

BN: Exactly. The Hawaiians were very, very limited. In Jerome Block 38, 39, 40, were what they call "Hawaiian Block." In fact, 442 boys were training in Camp Shelby and knowing that the Hawaii people were in Jerome, they used to come, and because there were a lot of young girls around. And not only that, the food. They missed the food. You know, the soul food that Japanese Americans want, you know, and my mother had some neighborhood kids that were living in the neighborhood, come over to the apartment and she used to fix 'em tsukemono, you know, pickled vegetables and rice and miso soup. And they were so happy. And that's...

LH: Sounds like your mother actually did a lot for, you know, the others in the block to help them get along.

BN: Well... that's the only thing she knew. And she was happy doing it. But in camp, the kids all ate at the cafeteria, the parents ate (by) themselves and the kids ate by themselves, but in my house, my brother always said, "You bring the food home to the apartment and we eat together." Because my mother was basically introvert. She's not good mingling with people, and she wanted, you know... [cries] That's the only thing she knew.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

LH: Well, going from, you know, all this sort of these memories of your mother and camp -- it seems like we're gonna skip ahead a lot -- but how did that, was that a really big influence for you to start with the redress movement?

BN: Oh, definitely. Because of my parents. I felt that... getting involved in the issue was a necessity, because I want some kind of a closure on their hardship, what they went through.

LH: And at this time -- I mean, you talked earlier about your son -- and so how did the rest of your family sort of help you also get involved in the redress movement?

BN: Yeah, that's another story. I was what you would call an armchair liberal. I sat down and I read a lot of books and read a lot of magazine, basically left-wing magazines and so forth. And of course my son got lectured on various things concerning the issues and so forth. African Americans, Civil Rights movement and when he got stoned by some black students riding on his bicycle, delivering paper. So I told him, "It's individual person, it's not the race that's bad, but that certain kids are not, not the kind of kids that you want to associate with. So don't group 'em together like you don't want people to group the Asian Americans in one group, same with the African Americans, they don't want to be grouped together, because each individual is different." Things like that I was talking to him about. And of course he, because of what I'd been going through, he became involved. In fact, he's got a, he's got a scholarship to University of Chicago. It's one of the top school and at that time when I was in Chicago studying, that university was called the "pink university" because they were very left, and I thought maybe I'll send him to that school because the politics there are good. But he came back after a year and said, "Dad, that university is so right-wing, I don't even want to go there anymore." I said, "What? You got a scholarship, what do you want to do with that?" He says, "Well, I'm gonna quit, I'm gonna go to Berkeley."

So he went to Berkeley and eventually he got involved in Little Tokyo People's Rights Organization in Los Angeles. And, and he brought home literature about the struggle itself, and he says, "You know, these people are being kicked out again, not from their land but from their apartment, because they couldn't make it. And they want to live in Little Tokyo because they don't have any car, transportation, their working place, the food is there, they can walk to various places. And these people that were taken away back in 1942 from their livelihood, sent to camp, came back to L.A., and couldn't make it because they were too old or couldn't get any job or whatever. And they're living in these apartments, and they're being kicked out and by whom? By the Japanese combine that is coming down, the big Japanese, from Japan company." So I said, "Hey, this is not gonna happen." And he says, "Dad, instead of sittin' down there, why don't you get your butt and do something about it?"

So it was a challenge and I finally got involved. My wife got involved. We were involved in the Little Tokyo People's Rights Organization, we got involved with that. And then in 1978, when the redress struggle was in the JACL convention, they came out with $25,000 individual reparations. LTPRO people organized what we call the Los Angeles Community Coalition for Redress, LACCRR, and that coalition did some work within the community on redress. But at that time, when we had any kind of a, you know, events or meetings, we had maybe, events would be fifty people at the most. But we continued, and LACCRR felt that we should have a larger organization. An organization where we can have a platform for people other than JACL that want to join an organization that is fighting for redress and they want a platform to voice what they think about how the redress movement should go. So that's why NCRR was created for the anti-JACL people or whatever. The no-no people certainly weren't going to join the JACL people. The other people that felt that JACL is not doing the kind of job and they felt, many felt that JACL (had) a lot of the professional people in there and they couldn't relate to these people in their meetings and so forth. So NCRR was created for that.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

LH: And you mentioned earlier, too -- I mean, right at the beginning -- that it was really important for the Sansei to get involved. And you'd mentioned your son, who was a Sansei. So how else did the Sansei sort of really energize the movement?

BN: In fact, the Sansei were the whole LTPRO. They came from the 1960s, 1970s, early 1970, during the Vietnam War. They, you know, they had organizations, grassroots organizations, that were anti-war and they were for the African American Civil Rights movement. And all of these Sansei who were going to the university and fighting for ethnic, because of the African Americans, they were coming around with "black power "and "black is beautiful" and the Asians, because we were in camp -- Japanese Americans especially -- we weren't necessarily aggressive. We were like somebody said, like rape victims, you know, you didn't want to talk about it, they were ashamed because they were in camp. You can imagine walking through a column of M.P.s, how you gonna feel? You gonna feel like a prisoner or somebody that's not a part of the society. And then you go into camp and you have these guard towers, guns pointing down, and, you know, fences all around you. I mean, it makes you feel like you don't want to be Japanese American, because everybody in camp looks like you. So, you know, the whole psychology of the thing, it kind of broke down the Japanese American pride. And basically what it did was break up the, disperse the community to a point where you don't have a community, a united community. This was a hard part of redress struggle, to make them come out, to become pride, proud of themselves as Japanese Americans.

LH: Especially in someplace like Los Angeles, which is so spread out and dispersed. So what were some of the strategies that NCRR took in Los Angeles particularly to get that?

BN: We kind of went into a historical perspective of Japanese America. And in other words, we're saying, "It's not your fault, it's the majority community made you feel that way. But you as Japanese American can be proud, the fact that you had farmlands, you made desert bloom, you had railroads that you built, you built communities." Things like that we wanted them to understand why they should be proud of themselves. They shouldn't be ashamed. And we told them about the camps. The camps was not something that happened in aberration of history. It's a long, long history up to the camp. In other words, you had what, 500 anti-Asian legislation in California alone, and this kind of a prejudice and oppression by the majority community led to the camps. And that's the kind of rationale that we tried to bring out to the Japanese American community, and make them feel proud of themselves. Because the Sansei went through that, and the Sansei understands that and that's why they want their parents to feel pride, proud of themselves. And you know, the redress struggle really brought the family together, because the Sansei understood the Nisei, Nisei understood the Sansei. And that's how the whole redress struggle kind of galvanized the whole community.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

LH: Well, I'm gonna, again we're gonna skip ahead a little bit in terms of time. But just talking a little about when the commission hearings came to Los Angeles, how you sort of got organized, how NCRR helped organize those hearings, and getting people to the hearings as well. I mean, what were some of the things that you had to undertake?

BN: As a person, activist, I realized that you had to create an environment to get anything done in the majority community. Because we were such a small community, we had to create an environment where the majority community is gonna get on board. And how're we gonna do that? Well, the commission hearings was a vehicle. We felt that that's one way we can get education out to the majority community. And not only majority community, to our community, so they can understand that, "Hey, what you went through isn't because -- it wasn't your fault, it was the United States government, because of their racist policy that put you in there." And when we had the, helped the testifiers, you ought to hear the -- I mean, the testimony was too... you can't stay in the auditorium and listen to testimony, I mean, it was too heavy, you had to go out and come back in, get fresh air and come back in. There was one incident. I was in charge of the Japanese-speaking group that went up to the... and gave testimony to the commissioners. And many of them were Japanese-speaking and my father-in-law, he was one of the group, but he was a Nisei. And he's, by that -- he was about eighty-seven or something. And he was a Nisei, not an Issei. And we had elderly, eighty-something lady speaking in Japanese. When we went up there, this Dan Lungren, he was a vice-chair of the commission, came up and says, "Okay, we have your testimony, it's not necessary for you to speak Japanese."

LH: The translations of the testimony.

BN: Right. So they had the testimony translated into English, so he was, he said it was not necessary. And I got pissed. And so I stood up and I said, "You told these people to shut up forty years ago, no way they gonna shut up now." If I didn't say that, my father-in-law probably kick my butt when I get home. [Laughs] But anyway, Marutani interceded and he talked to Dan Lungren and they had 'em speaking in Japanese, so that was good. My father-in-law was happy. In fact, he came up and says, "You don't have to worry, I speak English." So he read his testimony in English, but it was very... and incidents like that brought out within the community understanding between Issei, Nisei, Sansei. That was the beauty of the hearing itself. And that's how I think it created an environment where the community was for redress and if you were a community leader, you better get on board, otherwise you're gonna be ostracized. Like same with Hayakawa, when he spoke at the testimony and he gave his testimony, he was jeered and people knew that, leaders knew that. And then certainly, you know, they gotta get on board, if they don't get on board, the community's gonna leave them behind, because they were moving, you know. So the hearing was good in that sense, one, it was educational for the majority population, and two, it galvanized the community to work for redress.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

LH: So after the commission hearings, though, I mean, what did NCRR do? I mean, it seemed like after that...

BN: Oh, we had meetings, and before, we used to have maybe four or five people at the meeting or six people at a meeting, now we're getting fifteen, twenty people at a meeting. And they all wanted to voice their opinion about certain things and what the strategy should be and so forth, which was very good, that's what we wanted. We wanted input from the community. And we were getting an ear full. And they made sure that we're gonna toe the line that we have talked about. And I mean, when we had the Day of Remembrance program, when we had program like that, fifty people showed up, but after the hearing, 200, 300 people showing up for the program, so it was a big difference before the hearing and after the hearing. So the movement was there already, I mean, it's started and the environment was there, the leaders can talk within the environment. Without that environment, they were scared to open their mouth about redress because they are afraid of people criticizing them. But with the kind of environment that we created and the hearings created, they felt comfortable working in the redress movement.

LH: So again, how did they keep that momentum going then, sort of 1984, 1985, right after 1983 the hearings are over, the report comes out -- how does NCRR keep that momentum going until...

BN: Well, it was difficult, but we always had -- you know, people, the coram nobis thing came out, the class-action suit. There was a lot of information coming out of the, from these two law cases. Good information we can use. We in NCRR recognize the strength of JACL and we wanted to unite the community, and work together as one united community, because we were too small of a community, we have to be united. If not, they're gonna pick us apart. So any criticism leveled at us we never spoke in public. In private, oh yeah, oh yeah, it was different. But in public we never publicized our opposition to whatever. We just put our views through and that was it.

So it's the kind of a situation where the hearings and the momentum kept building and building, we had to create a lot of things. We had to have press conference, we had to have the Day of Remembrance program become bigger and bigger, and we had speakers from various groups. We in fact had speakers from the, I think the Four Corners, they had the Indian, the big mountain struggle, you know, Four Corners, and they were trying to move the Indians from that area and they called it relocation, like they called us. And we backed them and they came to the Day of Remembrance program, spoke about their struggle. We had chiefs there speaking about, we had a movie -- I don't know, it was Broken Arrow or something -- and we tried to educate people that these things are happening. It happened to you, it's happening now. We have to work together to create an environment where we can pass legislation so that our congresspeople will be able to, be able to vote for it. If not, they're not gonna do anything without that kind of environment. It's the same with the African American movement, the Civil Rights movement. President Kennedy wouldn't have signed the Civil Rights Bill if it wasn't for the African American people mobilizing and coming out, thousands, and sacrifices by the young folks. And, you know, these African American leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for the movement of the African American people themselves. It's the same thing with redress movement. The leaders wouldn't be leading us if it wasn't for the environment created by the community itself.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

LH: Well, sort of jumping off from that point, then talking about the community in sort of moving the leaders, let's talk a little about the lobbying trip that NCRR put together.

BN: We got criticized for sending a lobbying trip, and so-called people in the "beltway," they said that, "Hey, you do, you don't lobby from California to people like, people in Iowa, and, you know, in Montana or down south. You gotta have the constituents go up there and talk to 'em. You gotta know somebody." I said, "We don't believe that." We felt that the gut feeling of the Niseis going up there and telling their story to the Congressmen, whoever they were, they gonna respond because they're human, they understand the human suffering. And when they, the Niseis went up there and talked about their own experience, we had the Congressmen in tears. I mean it was different, it's like Rudy Tokiwa, when we send him to Chairperson Bennett of the Armed Services Committee, Bennett wasn't for redress. He was against it to begin with. But we, when we sent the 442 boys over there to see him, he met them and said that, "Hey, I'm not gonna vote for your bill, but you come in." By the time they got through with him when he went out, "I'll support your bill." That's the kind of influence that we felt was necessary, they had to know because a lot of people didn't know about the camps and what hardships these people went through and when they heard these, you know, Japanese Americans talking about their experience it touched them, no doubt. I have no doubt in my mind. Especially this is the, in the history of the United States, the largest, largest Asian contingent ever to lobby in Congress. Can you imagine, 120 people, teams of four or five walking around all the halls of Congress. People were thinking, "Hey, the Japs invaded here," or something, you know? But we were all over the hall and when we went to lunch, we went and used the congressional lunch room. They saw so many Asians for the first time and it was -- our issue became known because of that. People was asking, "What they doing here? Oh, these guys are for that HR442." And, "What's that?" And that's how information also got around.

So the criticism about people, constituency, seeing the... of course it's good if you had that, but we had, we knew number one, the Lutheran church, Reverend Paul Nakamura, who was the, who gave the Convocation last night, he's from Hawaii. His wife is my Japanese schoolteacher's daughter. And we got him involved, and he turned the whole Lutheran church for redress. And you're talking about white folks. All in the Midwest and their newsletter going around, it was fantastic. We had people going into the Lutheran, knowing that he's a Lutheran. We had people going in talking about the Reverend Paul went there, too. I mean, things like that, we mapped out everything. And who did all this groundwork? Sansei. They had the know-how, they had the tools to do it. And they matched up all these people, like Claude Pepper, who was a champion of the elderly. We sent elderly people there and make sure that they talk about those things. I mean, we matched people according to their background. It was pretty effective. And when they voted in September of 1987, just three months after we took our lobbying trip in July, we went back for the count and we made sure that Rudy would be sitting in the disabled vet area. And Bennett came walking in, he had four House of Representatives, I think it was four. And he's a senior one from Florida, so whichever way he voted, everybody else is gonna vote the same way. And he looked up and it reminded him he has to vote for, because Rudy was there. You know, things like that, I mean, it was, to me it was an effective lobbying trip because we had Niseis all dedicated. They all paid their way, paid the hotel, took time off from work and that's what a grassroots organization can do.

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

LH: Well, I want to go a little bit more toward the last couple of days of the conference. Is there anything in the conference that you sort of feel needs to be corrected, or you feel that hasn't been really talked about?

BN: Yeah, I think people should realize that it's not the so-called leaders that did the, got the redress passed in Congress, it's the people themselves. Don't fool, don't fool yourself thinking that you played a major role. They did, maybe, but if it wasn't for the people, there wouldn't be any leaders. Period. So I have to remind these people that individuals are good, but the bottom line is the people behind them. And it's creating this atmosphere where the so-called leaders can operate.

LH: And as for NCRR, it's still together. I mean, what kind of goals does it have for the future?

BN: Well, NCRR, I'm not too active in it, but Kay Ochi was involved in the redress struggle, Richard Katsuda and a lot of the Sanseis, they're still working on the redress. They're working on the Latin American internees, and they've got, you know, that Phoenix people, that was in Phoenix at that time. They got all this redress stuff. And in fact, a lot of 'em, they won cases, where a lot of the attorneys in NCRR and people that the attorneys knew who worked towards this issue are still working. But in my case, I'm getting old and I have my grandchild and that's my life right now.

LH: Just to finish up, what do you think you'd like your granddaughter to learn from this experience of, you know, the camps and redress?

BN: I want her to feel proud of whatever background she's (from). I want her to be proud of her mother's background, who is, which is Mexican, and her father's background, which is Japanese American. And I want her to know what the Mexican American people did, and what the Japanese American people, and I want her to feel proud of that.

LH: Great. Thank you very much.

BN: Uh-huh.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 1997 Densho. All Rights Reserved.