Densho Digital Archive
Japanese American National Museum Collection
Title: Norman Mineta Interview
Narrator: Norman Mineta
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Denver, Colorado
Date: July 4, 2008
Densho ID: denshovh-mnorman-01-0001

<Begin Segment 1>

TI: So today is Friday, July 4, 2008, we're in Denver at the Japanese American National Museum's conference. And this morning we have Secretary Norman Mineta with us. And I'm doing this differently. We usually do an oral history and I start from the very beginning, but because of time constraints, I'm really gonna focus on redress. And so the first question, I just wanted to find out, was there anything in your early life that led you to politics?

NM: Well, not really. I don't think anyone really at an early age says, "I'm gonna be..." well, other than, I guess, kids saying, "I want to be President of the United States." But I don't think anyone really says, "I want to be mayor of San Jose, California." But being -- and I started in community activities within the Japanese American community through our San Jose Japanese Methodist Church and JACL, and then that sort of expanded into activities in the total majority community. And so those kinds of community activities then led me to the possibility of being appointed to the city council. The first time I... I didn't run for the city council. We had a mayor who was, we had our first directly elected mayor, and that created a vacancy on the city council. So the new mayor and two members of the city council came to me and said, "We've got to fill that vacancy on the city council. Would you consider putting your name in for it?" So I said, "Well, you know, I'm in business with my father and I really should talk to him about this." So anyway, I talked to my dad and he said, "Well, we can make the arrangements between how you and I conduct the business," but he said, "In Japan there's an old adage about, if you were in politics, you're gonna be like the 'nail sticking out of the board.' And you know what happens to that nail? It always gets hammered. Now the question is, are you gonna be able to take that hammering?" And so anyway, I thought about it and talked to a lot of friends, and I finally said, "Okay, I'll put my name in." And so I was appointed to the city council for the two-year unexpired term of the mayor who had vacated that post to become the new mayor. So then in 1969 I then ran for election to stay on the city council.

TI: So I have a question. If, do you think if you were not appointed to that position, would it have ever occurred to you to run for city council?

NM: Well, I had people asking if I would consider doing it, and I was the first non-white on the city council. And so I always thought, "You know, that would really be a difficult task." So even though I had people ask me about it, I always dismissed it. Bu this was an opportunity through an appointment, not election. So you get appointed, and then you do your job, then you can seek election. So in 1969 I ran for the city council post that I had by appointment, but on the brochure I couldn't say "reelect Norm" because I hadn't been elected in the first place, so we used the phrase "retain Norm on the council."

TI: And how supportive was the Japanese American community to your campaign?

NM: Very. I had great support from within the community, and at that point it was probably maybe two percent of the population, three percent, very, very small, but I had great support from the Japanese American community. And so that was also true, by 1970 I'd become vice mayor, and then in 1971, for the reelection for the mayor's post, the mayor decided not to seek reelection. So then that mayor and many people said, "Hey, you've got to run for mayor." Well, I was trying to split my duties between being on the city council and running the business, and it was really taking more and more time. And so I decided to run for mayor in '71. So that, that was probably the most difficult decision I had to make, between a career choice in terms of the insurance business that had been in the family since 1920, and then running for mayor, because that really was gonna take full time.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright ©2008 Densho and the Japanese American National Museum. All Rights Reserved.