EEOC Chairman Stuart Ishimaru keynotes the Twin Cities JACL’s 2010 Annual Chrysanthemum Banquet on November 6, 2010.
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
Medicine Lake, Minn. (November 6, 2010) – The Japanese American Citizens League – Twin Cities chapter, held its annual Chrysanthemum Banquet last weekend at the Château in Medicine Lake. In his Keynote address, Stuart J. Ishimaru, Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, spoke about the impact that Japanese Americans have had on society and the importance of cultural legacies. He credited JACL with keeping the internment record a part of American history.
He encouraged the next generation of Japanese Americans to create a broader coalition with disparate communities that may have not shared the same experience – but are perhaps caught up in potentially similar struggles.
“That’s the way to make progress,” said Ishimaru.
The 2010 recipient of JACL’s Japanese American of the Biennium Award, Ishimaru spoke about his upbringing in San Jose, California, raised on the stories of his parents that were interned during the war. He went on to study Political Science and Economics at UC Berkeley, and earned law degree from George Washington University.
He said his first trip to Minnesota came in 1984 when he was working on the Mondale Presidential campaign.
Now in his second term with the EEOC, Ishimaru was nominated in 2003 by President George W. Bush, and then designated as Acting Chairman in 2009 by President Barack Obama. He has led a successful effort to acquire adequate Congressional funding which allowed an unprecedented hiring of enforcement staff to investigate and litigate large and complex discrimination cases.
It was in 1981 when he was named a research assistant on the US Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. He said it was the first time that personal testimony was being given for an official government hearing as part of an investigation into the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.
He said despite his knowledge of the internment history he was stunned with the eloquent stories of what happened to people and families, but as much with the impact years later from a stigma that was still there from being labeled untrustworthy by their own government.
In just two generations the Japanese have gone from “the suspect class” into the American mainstream. As a civil rights lawyer he said this is an amazing brief transition.
“It hasn’t always been like this,” he added. “For the older generation they have gone through a lot over the years, and I know for the Issei forebearers before that it was quite a struggle.”
In the days following the 9-11 attack, Ishimaru said there was serious talk about locking up people that came from the same ethnic background as the terrorists.
“I was quite proud of the response from the Japanese American community,” he said. “It would have been easy to say, ‘you know they brought down the Twin Towers, they crashed a plane into the Pentagon, we should lock those people up, whoever they are’.
“I was proud that people stood up and said, ‘well, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. We did that; we did that before. We need to learn our lesson.”
While visiting Japan as part of a Japanese American Leadership Delegation to improve relations, Ishimaru said this offered a chance to reflect on the disconnect that Japanese Americans have with their heritage because of the war.
He said on one hand, the American Japanese have had access to opportunity that they would not likely have enjoyed in Japan. On the other hand, he said that Japanese Americans should consider the role their children will have as a bridge as the importance of the Asia region grows in an increasingly globalized world.
Ishimaru said the next generation needs to ask themselves how to move forward in the context of the Japanese American community that is now part of a growing Asian American community. At a time when mixed marriages are creating mixed identities he said it is important to understand how to incorporate the Japanese American legacy into everyday American life.
He said Japanese Americans want to make sure their story is told and that students learn about internment story as a fundamental part of American history.
“I would argue that it is so important to keep this going,” he said. “It may not be the same sort of story that we have seen historically – just because things have changed and situations have changed.”
Ishimaru served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice between 1999 and 2001, where he served as a principal advisor to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. While there he accompanied his boss on a speaking engagement to Salt Lake City and they decided to tour the Topax Internment Camp in Utah.
“I didn’t realize how far in the middle of nowhere it was,” he said, adding that there were only remnants left after locals took most of the buildings in postwar salvaging.
They visited the nearby town of Delta, where the county museum is taken up mostly with a Topaz camp exhibit. He said there were not any Japanese Americans living there for many years but that they were so much a part of the town at the time that it has left a lasting legacy.
“The people of Delta made it their priority to preserve the story because it was part of their history too, and to try to tell the story of what happened during this difficult time during World War Two, as part of their legacy,” he said. “They have over the years worked with Japanese Americans around the country to try to preserve that legacy to try to buy up that camp land so that it would be preserved here in the middle of nowhere as a remembrance of what the camp was, and they do that work to this day.”
At a time when the nation has elected an African American president, Ishimaru said there is a common belief that issues of racism are confined to the sophisticated and complex matters. He said people would be shocked to know that cases come to his attention each day that are as blatant as stories told from decades past.
He said that surveys show Asian Americans are the largest group that report experiencing racism, but rate among the smallest in the number of cases reported. He said there are cultural issues of course, but that it is his hope that APIA organizations will make racism and discrimination reporting a component of their program mission.
At the banquet, the Twin Cities Oral History Committee presented clips from its new Nisei interviews CD, which includes 16 interviews of local Japanese Americans that went through the internment experience and moved to Minnesota during or after the war.
In 2009 JACL TC began recording and preserving the stories of its ‘greatest generation’ – with the help of award winning documentary filmmaker Bill Kubota – who produced the PBS documentary, “Most Honorable Son: Ben Kuroki’s Amazing War Story.”
The Committee formed in 2007 after discussions with Densho, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization founded in 1996, to document oral histories from Japanese Americans that were incarcerated during World War II. The effort evolved into a multifaceted mission to explore issues of historical relevance.
The Committee held fundraisers, took personal donations and applied for and received grants from the National Park Service and area foundations. For more information visit www.twincitiesjacl.org and contact JACL TC President Dan Motoyoshi at [email protected]