Jim Matsuoka

Interview with Jim Matsuoka
Interviewed by Kasumi Yoshida
Legacy of Japanese American Activism Conference

“One minute I was Jim Matsuoka, United States citizen… The next moment, I was a United States prisoner-of-war. I was essentially a stateless person… I was a nobody at that point.”

Jim Matsuoka was born in Los Angeles in a part of what used to be a residential area of Little Tokyo, now a part of skid row. As a seven year old Nisei who attended 9th Street School, he was sent to Manzanar along with most of the other Japanese Americans around him. Jim says that after being released from the internment camps, he had to put his life back together; saying that, “All that [the government] ever gave you was a bus ticket out and 50 dollars per person.”  Everything had been taken away – including his father’s life savings, which were never returned. After his release, Jim’s family lived in a trailer park which were “shabby looking huts fit only for animals.”

I cannot imagine living in worse than a middle class household; so it came as a surprise when Jim told me one of the nicest sounds he heard was the toilet flushing. Manzanar had replaced comfort with cold and dust storms, a home with a trailer camp and communal bathrooms filled with strangers. Hearing that first toilet flush after moving back to Los Angeles sounded like heaven. He even joked that his current condo has three toilets in order to compensate for the past.

Jim lived in the West side of Los Angeles for a while, and afterwards moved to an area near where Belmont High School is today. Soon after moving back to the west side he was drafted into the US Army, and committed to two years on active duty at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. When he told me about this story, Jim did not complain like I had expected him to. I could not help wondering how a person could work for a government that once placed him in an internment camp, but I kept quiet. Jim continued, telling me that the reason he went back to school was because the army had taught him the value of education. At first, he attended Los Angeles Community College (LACC), for the opportunity to attend dances and parties he saw while driving up Vermont Avenue. One day, he noticed a small trailer outside LACC, which turned out to be the roots of the administrative headquarters for California State University Los Angeles.

After LACC, Jim entered CSULA, and received his BA. In the late 60’s, there was turmoil on campus due to the Vietnam War. Jim said that at one point, the students formed a huge human chain across the San Bernardino freeway to try to stop the war. Jim saw these protests, but as someone who had been in the army, he viewed the people war protestors as draft dodgers. It wasn’t until he attended rallies that he realized the futileness of the Vietnam War. Tired of the meaninglessness of the war, Jim became interested in the Asian American movement, asking “Do we call ourselves Orientals or Asians? What is our history?” He felt that other ethnicities including African Americans and Hispanic Americans had strong identities, and he felt that Asian Americans should have their own movement. His strong beliefs led him to become one of the originators of the Asian American Studies Group at CSULA, and in 1969 he wrote the first constitution. He was able to provide the first Asian American class because of his connection with the Dean of the History Department, who simply told him to find an instructor for the class. At the same time, there were Asian American movements at UCLA and USC as well. “A lot of the questions asked during this period are relevant to this day,” he said. Jim felt very lucky as he eventually wound up with the Educational Opportunity Program at CSULB. This was a program for low income students with close to 3000 students. As the Associate Director of Retention Services, he took care of the counseling and instructional programs.

Along with the Asian American movement, he brought back the memories from the past by retelling the history of the first Manzanar Pilgrimage as a member of OSAAO, the Organization of Southland Asian American Organizations. This organization was composed of delegates from schools and community organizations, including the Chairman Warren Furutani, who is currently running for the Los Angeles City Council. Many students would ask Jim about his times in the camp, and whether he considered “camp” as a relocation or prison camp. Without hesitation, he would answer that it was a prison camp. In order to awaken Japanese Americans to their history, the pilgrimage was started.

Although Jim suggested to OSAAO that they should wait until April to go to Manzanar, everyone else disagreed, saying that they should go in the middle of winter so people can experience the cold. Jim, having lived more than three years at Manzanar, wished everyone luck, having no desire to experience the cold again. In the end, Jim was persuaded to go and give the opening statement for the pilgrimage. Wearing every piece of clothing he had, he attended the first Manzanar pilgrimage, since he knew it was going to be freezing. Everybody came, including media outlets such as NBC and CBS. However, they left right after the religious ceremony due to the severity of the weather. Only the members of OSAAO were left by the time Jim was ready to give his speech. Fortunately, after the first Manzanar pilgrimage, the event was no longer held in December and moved to April instead as Jim had suggested.

 As a member of Nikkei Student Union at UCLA, I decided to attend Manzanar Pilgrimage for the first time last year. What I realized there was that there were only a handful of former internees there, but a lot of students. I imagined what might happen in a few decades when we can no longer hear about first hand experiences, and I asked Jim, why is it important for younger generations to participate every year? He told us a story about how NCRR has been working very closely with Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who was sending two busloads of students to Manzanar. With anti-Islamic sentiments at a high during the war on terror, it felt like an all-too-real possibility that the government could repeat the same mistakes, imprisoning our Islamic brethren as “enemies of the state.” NCRR was asked to give presentations at mosques, and Jim was chosen to speak at the Corona Mosque. A man asked what he would get out of the pilgrimage, noting that he was not Japanese American. In response, Jim stated “like any other pilgrimage, you’re making a sort of statement of who you are and what you believe in.” At a pilgrimage, we can either take the bus and look at the scenery, or make a commitment by going on a pilgrimage. Jim and I have both seen the white monument at Manzanar, and have tried to understand the meaning of the words that are engraved. Years from now, the monument will still stand, along with the memories of the internees and those who made the pilgrimage. By going on a pilgrimage, we are standing up for our ideals, knowing the past is not something we want to repeat.

As an activist, Jim stood up at the Manzanar pilgrimage, but didn’t always get the support he wanted. “When people ask me how many people died, I say a whole generation. At that time, I felt that Nisei’s were dead [because] they weren’t speaking up.” Jim “made enemies” with them, because he was one of the few who spoke up. This was the exact reaction he looked for, in order to wake them up… to push them to speak up. “We have Asian American studies and a community to fight for. What about our time in the camps?” He wasn’t thinking about redress back then, but he believed that someone needed to speak up because we can’t go on forever acting like Prisoners-of-War. I asked about how his family members reacted when he became more active? Jim got people involved during the redress movement since they needed people. One of his sisters joined him in NCRR, and would bring leaflets and petitions to public locations such as markets and libraries. At first, his mother was astounded and would ask “How will you get money from people who put us into camps?” Many people became supportive of Jim and his movement once they knew what he was trying to do.

Many times, Jim saw older Nisei ladies who did not want to bring “ugly” memories back about living in barracks. Unlike them, many from his generation got involved in activism – pushing for Asian American studies at UCLA and CSULA, opposing the war in Vietnam, and fighting for their community. As a part of his generation, Jim focused on Little Tokyo and helped start the Pioneer Center. A group called Pioneer Project reached out to college students. One year, on New Year, the Pioneer Project decided to do something positive instead of celebrating New Year’s Eve. They decided they would make mochi and invite the Issei living in the old little hotels in Little Tokyo, and celebrate the New Year. The Issei women helped teach them how to cook, and someone from Boyle Heights let them borrow an usu, a stone mortar to pound mochi. Flyers were made and left at each doorway in the old run down hotels. Although Jim did not expect many to show up, on New Year’s morning, the Old Union Church (East-West Theater) filled with more than 70 old-timers, Issei men and women, and visitors. The Pioneer Project made a huge impact on the Little Tokyo community, including the lonely single residents. The Pioneer Center continued strengthening their services, by asking the county and city Welfare Assistance to publish bilingual flyers on how to apply for assistance. One of the most important actions Jim took was the participation in the fight for redress. Countless people asked him how they were supposed to obtain redress from the ones who put them in internment camps. Ten years later in 1988, they won, with 1.6 billion dollars in redress and 80,000 people receiving payments.

When I asked him how he defines a Japanese American activist, and whether he considers himself one, he confidently gave me an answer, saying it was, and that it is still the hardest question he has ever run into. “It’s a matter of circumstances –we got thrust into things,” Jim said. He listed possible circumstances: if he hadn’t been sent to the camp, if he hadn’t been called names filled with prejudice, if he had been allowed to live the “American” middle class life… Jim Matsuoka may not have been an activist. He continued on, telling me that the most important quality an activist can have and share – compassion.

Like Jim, I believe that most of the activists have a compassionate personality, in one way or another. I also agree that being compassionate and caring towards one another has become a huge struggle in the United States today. Are the values articulated by people ones that we should be passionate with to each other? We don’t seem to treat each other as brothers and sisters anymore. To him, our current society reflects social Darwinism. Only the fittest survive. Sometimes, it feels like there are those who won’t mind the other half of society be pushed down to the streets.

When I asked Jim about the challenges he faced during his career and his involvement in organizations, he gave me important advice about being an activist. Sometimes, you tend to do too much and tend to burn out. The danger of that type of person is you may never see them again. It is a challenge to make activism a part of your life, and it isn’t something you do as a phase – you have to make it a part of your existence. It’s not something you receive a penalty for if you don’t succeed, but if anything, it enriches your life. A positive thing that comes out of being an activist is that you stay on top of things, and learn to view and understand issues because you pay attention more.

Jim did not have a mentor, although he wishes he did. For him, everything was a learning process, sometimes doing things he wished he hadn’t done. In order to be a good activist, he told me to pay attention to what other people are saying, but not to conform to everything; it is a self-collective learning process. There were times when he worked with NCRR and his ideas were not taken. Instead of getting angry, he learned to respect their opinions, and try and see the full picture. As for Japanese Americans, Jim told me that we tend to be geniuses on organizing everything. He told me that being an activist won’t hurt me, but instead it will open the door to a lot of potentials.  In the process, I must be careful, understand, and be patient. Although Nisei’s had a role to fight for JA rights, as a Shin-Nisei, I was not quite sure what my role is. Jim believes that we have a current role in the society, not just as Asian Americans, but as American citizens as well. One of the reasons he wanted redress was because he wanted the other American citizens to acknowledge that he was a first class American as well. As a Japanese American, he read a lot about his heritage, and watched Japanese movies. “If you walk away from your heritage, I think you give up a lot,” he said, “I don’t see being Japanese American as something to be defensive about – it’s [a] positive.” As for his Japanese ancestry, he stated that he was not a Japanese nationalist, and has been critical, but also has been proud of his heritage. We as Japanese Americans have a long history, like other ethnicities do. It is up to us whether or not we cherish the words that have been passed down from our elders. “I’m a Japanese American and I’m an Asian American. To me, an Asian American is someone who is very aware of who and what they are.” He continued on, saying that in the United States, there are “Asian Americans” and “Asians who just happen to be in America.”

In a recent conference, I found out that the population of Japanese Americans is decreasing. Jim agreed that the Japanese American community is becoming more and more multiethnic, as though the JA population is disappearing. It is interesting because multiethnic Japanese Americans are more Japanese American than Japanese Americans who may not be prideful. No matter what circumstances we may end up in, it is always good to have something to remind Japanese Americans where we came from. “We have millions of people in America now, and it may be a matter of time until we melt into the melting pot,” he continued. “There’s nothing that says we can’t enjoy each other’s presence. We can do some things to keep our traditions, lots of good things to be Japanese Americans.”

Jim helped me conclude this interview by bringing up some of the most pressing issues in our community today. We touched on various subjects throughout our conversation – what role do we play in society? How do we treat our heritage? We must be proud, but we must also be very quick to understand that our Japanese heritage is open to criticism, he said. It is also our role to support Muslim Americans, to alleviate the same problems we went through more than half a century ago. Like he stated earlier, being an activist is about being compassionate and helping others – from this, I learned that we don’t have to call ourselves “activists” in order to be an activist. First hand stories are not easy to retell, but I hope that this opportunity I had with Jim Matsuoka will help us create a further legacy for Japanese Americans through the Nikkei Student Union and Japanese American community.

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