The University Record, February 4, 2002

Nashida and Nakanishi discuss Asian American Activism

By Dana Ondrei Fair
News and Information Services

Mori Nashida was just six years old when he and his parents arrived at an internment camp. Amid bombs raining down on Pearl Harbor months earlier and anti-Japanese sentiments running high, such became the plight in 1942 for countless U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. For the next three years, Nashida called the “camp” home.

Speaking before a standing room only crowd that had come to hear the Movement Makers panel discussion, Nashida—a revolutionary nationalist activist and working-class intellectual from Los Angeles’ Japanese-American community—discussed the events that led to his participation in the 1968 San Francisco State University strike, which resulted in the school’s first ethnic studies department.

“If you are to get free, you have to participate in your own liberation,” said Nashida, who turned against affirmative action for a while because many Asian-American students went to college, attained successful jobs and never returned to help the Asian community. Those who have gotten free by attending college need to give back to their communities, he said. “My participation helped me to find out who I was and how I was to get free.”

America should be a land of cultural pluralism, not a melting pot. People should learn to get along with one another, said Nashida, decrying racial profiling, especially of Arabs. “Do you think the events of Sept. 11 give the U.S. the right to bomb another country that never could have come over here?” he asked.

Nashida has come a long way since his internment camp days. Once vowing to never have a child in the U.S., he now has a 7-year old son.

A second panelist, Don Nakanishi, director and professor of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, had a different experience growing up. Although he did not experience the internment camps, his second-generation Japanese-American parents did. Yet they never talked about their losses, or the effect it had on their lives.

In a close-knit community of color, Nakanishi roamed the neighborhoods of East Los Angeles during the 1950s and 1960s. Latinos comprised 80 percent of his high school, Blacks 10 percent, and Asians 10 percent. After graduation, he attended Yale University during a time when the school was changing its admissions policies. Nakanishi remembers reading a school newspaper article lauding the school’s diversity efforts: out of 1,000 male students, seven were Black, seven were Latino and seven were Asian. “None were women,” he noted.

Yale was a tremendous campus, Nakanishi recalled, until Dec. 7 of his freshman year. The day went by without incident until that evening, when students from his dorm came to his room and, chanting “Bomb Pearl Harbor,” bombarded him with water balloons. The experience, he said, left him feeling disillusioned with the university and unclear about his connection to an event that happened 25 years earlier.

After doing research into the Japanese-American internments, he decided to major in political science and become politically active. “The first organization I joined was a Mexican-American group. I had a little trouble getting those in the local community to boycott grapes,” he recounts with a chuckle.

Helping to form the first Asian-American group on Yale’s campus, Nakanishi worked with admissions and clarified to the university what students of color needed to survive on campus. Around the same time, he visited U-M. “There are more people in this room today than there were Asians in the Ann Arbor community then,” he quipped.

At the end of his presentation, he encouraged students to take Asian American studies classes and, after graduation, to participate in alumni association activities.

“My experience would have been different if I’d stayed at home,” added Nakanishi, whose accomplishments include being a Clinton appointee to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund Board of Directors. Under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, a national apology and reparations were made to Japanese-Americans incarcerated in internment camps.