By Saki Ouchi / Yomiuri Research Institute Senior Research FellowFormer U.S. Rep. Norman Mineta, a second-generation Japanese-American, has served in the cabinets of both Democratic and Republican presidents and was a leading force in passing a bill to offer redress to Japanese-Americans incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The Yomiuri Shimbun asked Mineta — whose experience with racial discrimination began in childhood — his views on the polarization of U.S. society under the administration of President Donald Trump. The following are excerpts from the interview.
Compromise nowhere in sight
The Yomiuri Shimbun: Public opinion in the United States has swayed like a pendulum. Do you see any sign that its polarized society will swing back in the opposite direction?
Norman Mineta: No. I think that it’s going to get worse as President Trump prepares for his own reelection in 2020 and he’ll get meaner and the House and the Senate will be more polarized. The Democrats will take over the House of Representatives [in January] and some of those [committee chairpersons] will exercise their subpoena powers [over the issue of the so-called Trump-Russia affair]. As they exercise their subpoena powers, he’ll get his back stiffer and stiffer, get tougher and won’t cooperate. So I think the divide will get worse. He’s already saying things to divide us more than to unify us, so I’m not optimistic about where we’re going.
When I was in Congress, once we [Democrats and Republicans] got the work done, we would slap each other on the back and say, “Come on, let’s go have a drink, let’s go have dinner.” I have worked with a lot of good people until [the midterm elections in] 1994. Newt Gingrich took over [as the speaker] and it was very bipartisan in those days. Now it’s so polarized and they don’t talk to each other. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (see below), calling for apologizing to Japanese-Americans for the wartime internment, would not have been passed now.
Q: Even back in the 1980s, the Civil Liberties Act took five years to become law after being introduced in Congress.
A: It was a bipartisan passage. We had good bipartisan support.
In 1978, at the convention of the Japanese American Citizens League, they adopted a resolution saying they wanted a legislated program from Congress offering an apology for the internment and redress payments. In April 1979, the leadership of the League met four nikkei members of Congress. Sen. Daniel Inouye said: “That’s going to be a tough job to get that done. Because most Americans do not know about the wartime relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans.”
We introduced a bill to do that in 1983. A friend of mine who I met at Heart Mountain [internment camp], Sen. Alan Simpson, worked on the bill. We have enjoyed a lifelong friendship since we met at Heart Mountain in Wyoming when he visited during boy scout activities.
Q: How did the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 change your life?
A: On December 7, 1941, we were at church and we got home [in San Jose, Calif.] at about 12:15. My mother liked to listen to music, so she had the radio on. And then of course we would break into the news programming because of what’s happening in Hawaii, so we heard about it for the first time.
It was a seminal turning point for me. I really wasn’t aware of what was going on. But everything from that point on was different.
In November 1942, I was relocated to Wyoming with my family and neighbors. When we got off the train, the wind was blowing. It was really cold and that wind was blowing the sand in our face, and it was just really cold.
Q: Did you often encounter racial discrimination?
A: There was a great deal of anti-Japanese feeling. My father loved the United States very much, and he wanted to do something to help the war effort. So he applied to the University of Chicago where there was an army specialized training program, and ended up there teaching Japanese to U.S. soldiers.
We left camp, Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and moved to Illinois. In our school, I was the only Japanese-American, so there were a lot of times when people would call me a J-A-P. So I resented that very much.
By November 1945, we moved back to San Jose. San Jose’s newspaper had an editorial in 1945 and again in 1946 that said, “Remember, these are friends and neighbors coming back to San Jose.” Knowing what was happening in the States, they said, “These are our friends and neighbors coming back, so please don’t do anything untoward to them.” That helped very much in sort of tamping down any potential trouble from people. Many people moved to San Jose just because of the welcoming attitude.
However, discrimination has lingered on. [In the late 1960s] I was getting married, so I wanted to get an apartment house. I looked at the newspaper ads and I went to this apartment house and I said, “Do you still have this apartment?” The lady looked at me and she said, “You know, I’m not sure. Maybe my husband already rented it — I don’t know.” She calls and he comes and he looks at me and says, “Oh yeah, I’ve already rented that.”
I went to a nearby gasoline station, made a phone call and I said, “Do you still have that apartment?” “Oh yeah, we still have the apartment.” So five minutes later I was back again. He looked at me, and he says, “I told you we’ve rented it already.”
Working on behalf of minorities
Q: What brought you into politics?
A: There was never, ever a thought of running for politics. But in 1967, I thought I would try it [to become a city council member of San Jose]. One of the reasons was that in 1942, when they were thinking of evacuation and putting us in camps, our Japanese-American leaders at that time couldn’t talk to people at city council, the mayor, state assembly, state senate, U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate. They had no access to the political leadership because we were very unpopular. No one wanted to be associated with people of Japanese ancestry.
There was an issei [Japanese immigrant to the U.S.] person who said, “The reason we were evacuated in 1942 was we had no way to talk to people in government.” So he said, “You really ought to consider doing this.”
I have served as a city council member, mayor, member of Congress and then as Secretary of Commerce under President Clinton and Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush.
There are a lot of people who have worked over a long period of time to try to create opportunity for women, for minorities, for transgender, whatever their sexual orientation is. That’s improved over the years.
But those little improvements will all be going away because Trump is more divisive than he is a unifier. So for me, where I’ve been trying to work for opportunities, improvement, I just see that going down the drain.
United States as strong tapestry
Q: Do you still feel that the United States is a country of immigrants?
A: I do. The president doesn’t think so. I still think the country is a land of immigrants. They say that the United States of America is a melting pot. I don’t buy the melting pot theory, because when you put all of the ingredients into a crucible and you stir it up, everything loses its identity. So I like to think of the United States like a tapestry, each of those yarns are strong, they’re beautiful on their own, and the yarns represent religion, art, language, culture, whatever it is that people’s forebears have brought from other countries.
To me, when it’s all woven together, it makes for a strong whole, and that is what the United States is about. Every four years at the time of the Olympics, I know what the team from Norway or Japan is going to look like. But when you see that group of team members from the United States of America coming in every four years when they march in for the Olympic ceremony, I’m very proud of seeing people of different colors, men, women, transgender, lesbian, gay. That gives me a great deal of pride about the United States of America. And yet this president wants to shut that down.
Q: A documentary film about your life titled, “An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy” has been completed.
A: At first I didn’t want any books or movies or anything written about me, mainly because I was afraid it would look like I was just patting myself on the back. The project came up about 10 years ago, and two Japanese-American coproducers — one serves as a director as well — had long waited for me to accept. We’ve been filming for about four years now. The documentary will be shown on PBS in the United States in May 2019 during Asian Pacific Heritage Month.
(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Research Institute Senior Research Fellow Saki Ouchi)
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 21, 2018)
■ Norman Mineta, 87 / Former Representative of U.S. Congress
Born in San Jose, Calif., in 1931. His parents are from Shizuoka Prefecture. Mineta graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army and worked at an insurance company run by his father. He became a city council member of San Jose in 1967 and a mayor of the city. From 1975 to 1995, Mineta served as a member of the House of Representatives. He was appointed Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton as well as Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush. Mineta currently serves as a vice chair of the U.S.-Japan Council’s Board of Councilors.
■ Civil Liberties Act of 1988
U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 signed an executive order authorizing the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in 10 internment camps established in remote areas across the United States. About 120,000 people were sent to the camps. The 1988 act called for an official apology from the U.S. government and granted $20,000 to each surviving internee. The House of Representatives passed the bill with a vote of 257 to 156 and the Senate with a vote of 69 to 27 in 1988, five years after the bill was introduced. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.Speech