Lilian Nakano

Interview with Lilian Nakano
Interviewed by Hiromi Aoyama
Legacy of Japanese American Activism Conference


As I walk up the steps to the door, Lillian Nakano, accompanied by her son Erich Nakano greeted me.   With a genuine smile on her face wearing a white dress with flowery patterns on, Lillian was a kind and cute 82 year old grandmother.   At least that was my first impression. I actually couldn’t really imagine her being a hardcore activist.  However, I was very excited to hear about her experiences, a story that would be one of the last puzzle pieces completing my knowledge of the Japanese American history.

When I first heard about this opportunity through the email, I replied back immediately.  Yes. I want to do this.  As an active part of the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA, I learned a lot about the Japanese American immigration and internment experiences through plays performed at our annual Cultural Night performance show, as well as our pilgrimages to Manzanar we hold every spring.  Being a second generation Japanese American, or Shin-Nisei as people would call it, I was unaware about this history until I entered college.  I grew up in LA, but was pretty much detached from the general Japanese American community.  Although I heard a lot about the Issei, the Nisei, and have Yonsei and Gosei friends around me, the Sansei generation and the movements on redress and reparations were something I did not really understand, or know too much about.  Therefore, this was the perfect opportunity to learn about that, as well as reconsider what it means to be “active.”  After I told her my background and why I was there to hear her experiences, I proceeded with the interview.

Early Childhood and Camp

Lillian was a Sansei born in Hawaii to Nisei parents.  Her father operated a whole sale bakery business there.  However, because her father was affiliated actively with the trading group, their family was put into Jerome camp in Arkansas right after Executive order 9066 was passed.   Although Hawaii Japanese Americans were not put into camps usually, businessmen were taken and had to follow directions like the Japanese and Japanese Americans living in the west coast.  It was surprising to hear that she was from Hawaii, yet was in camp.

Lillian was 14 when she was sent to two different camps, Jerome and Heart Mountain.  She was moved to Heart Mountain after Jerome closed.  She experienced camp at a rather early age.  For her, because she was young she did not really think of camp as a burden.  Unlike her parents, she had a fun time, and did not feel the ramifications of camp.  She was actually sent from the Hawaii to the camps, which was unusual, and that part was rather traumatic, but other than that she felt she was protected inside the camp.

After camp, her father had a friend in Minnesota, and was encouraged to go to St. Paul.  Since he lost his bakery in Hawaii with camp, he started a new business there. Since he was a Nisei, he had a rather easier time compared to the Issei after camp.  She eventually got married and settled in the States.

LTPRO –Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization

Lillian was not very active at the beginning, and played the rather passive, traditional Japanese women role. It was not until the late 70s that she became aware about activism, its importance and significance.  At that time, she was raising a family, and activism was not something she had an interest in at first.  In contrast to that, Erich, her son as well as her friends were very active in the community at this time.  With the strong persuasion from Erich, she gradually got involved.  Back then, her friends and her son were involved in Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization, LTPRO.  LTPRO was an issue oriented group, very active and dedicated in helping out with redevelopment of Little Tokyo, and protect Little Tokyo from the large commercial developers.  This organization was truly an eye opener to her as she was exposed to the issues surrounding Little Tokyo at that time.
The involvement in activism was a family effort, as Erich persuaded his whole family to be part of the movement.  Lillian and her husband Bert both jumped into and participated in the activism movement together with her Yonsei son.  Lillian says that her husband, Bert Nakano, who passed away 7 years ago, was “more of a natural, made for activism, and a fighter.”

From her interview, I truly felt her respect towards her husband, and portrayed how she ran for the activism movement, not so much alone, but alongside with her husband and her family and friends.  It was rather a collective movement and energy that kept her going.  Throughout the interview, Lillian stressed the fact that her husband was more of a natural at these types of activism than she was.   This made me feel that activism is not just “her” story, but both her and her husband’s story.

NCRR and the Activism Movement

Lillian did not stay in LTPRO for too long.  For her, LTPRO was often harder to grasp what really went on, because she just jumped into the group, and rather was a novice.  From there, she then moved on to become the starting members for NCRR, which stood for National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, currently known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress.  NCRR was established with active Sansei members such as Alan Nishio, Evelyn Yoshimura, and people from other cities such as June Hibino, all of which were involved in LTPRO back then.  They branched out from LTPRO to put a focus more on reeducating the community about the importance and significance of Redress and Reparations.  This was more of the natural thing for her, since she also experienced camp.  At this point, there were many who experienced internment, but not many actually spoke up about it.  The experience and history was rather buried in the background and not a lot of focus was put on it.  NCRR was established because “pretty soon there will be a large issue coming up in the community, and it would be nice/ideal to move towards that.”   The Nisei generation was reluctant at first, and to NCRR members, it was a challenge to make them speak up.  The stance back then was that “we’ve been through all that, we don’t want to bring it back.”  The parents were very protective of their children.  With the lifestyle and status they established after camp, they felt that it wasn’t necessary to bring such ideas back to the table.
Lillian says that at first only some people talked.  However, as more people started to talk, the more anger came out.  NCRR members went around communities actively and talked to get people interested.  And eventually the idea spread from community to community, from Gardena, to the east side, etc.  It was intimidating at first, and took a while, but soon more and more came out to speak up, and felt that it was important to bring it up.  The group naturally grew.  It was a sign that people did care about it, and wanted to deal with it and look at it to see what they can do to correct it.  Public speaking, flyering… the days were very busy for Lillian.

Working with the other Sansei women

For Lillian, the activism movement was slightly of a different situation than other Sansei women, as she was one of the older Sansei members.  She was old enough to know about the camp experience, and understood the Nisei perspective, of not wanting to speak up.  The Nisei were supportive but was not involved, just as she was when she first came into the movement.  Unlike her husband, she was always in the background, took a very stereotypical role of being passive, not taking initiative.  That eventually changed.  She enjoyed the movement and activism.  The younger Sansei women gave her encouragement.  Those Sansei women also pushed her out into becoming more active.  She also learned through the general activism movement, and wanted Nisei to know the significance of it as well.  She says that working with mainly younger Sansei members pushed her harder to become more involved in the movements.  This activism was not only symbolic of her parent’s history, but also symbolic to women’s position in society as well.

Traditional Role of Women and Empowerment

All the public speaking and the flyering were very new and different for Lillian. It was a huge change from being the passive, traditional Japanese American woman to such a vested active member in the community and the movement.  When she first became active, her initial stance was rather of a Nisei, since she had never done this, and she did not think it was worth talking about the camp experience.  She was also shy and often preferred not to go out and speak in public often.
In the end however, Lillian says activism had a very positive impact on her.  From the traditional Japanese woman role, the push from her friends and family made her become someone who she was, and what she wanted to do.  She says that inside herself, she was always a fighter, but she never had that opportunity to bring that side of her out.  Once she was put into the activist movement she said “forget that role!” and delved into activism.
Moreover, in the end, she believes that activism empowered her as a woman.  The redress was also a time period in which women also fought for their rights as well.  By being part of the activism, Lillian says it proved something:

“In a way, I’m glad, because deep down inside… I was more… I mean activism wasn’t that foreign to me, although it was in the sense that I did not have the experience, or that wasn’t part of my life’s experience, but I must say I liked it.  Because I think it empowers women.  You know, it’s a sense of independence that you develop… I thought it was good for women to become active.  It brought out the different, a potential that women can develop, not just the background work.”

Activism and Music

Lillian was not only an activist, but also an artist, and mixed those two aspects very well into her activism involvement.  One of the reasons why Lillian had her traditional Japanese side so strongly was due to classical arts, which was with her ever since she was a young girl.  One of the most unique parts of the interview was her story about using Shamisen in activism.  She enjoyed her passion for music as well, but little did she know she would use it as one of her tools to voice her opinion.

Shamisen was more art for her than a tool of activism initially. However, this notion eventually changed.  Glenn Horiuchi, her nephew, was a Jazz pianist and composer politically active.  Although he passed away at an early age of 45, he left many compositions, some of which he collaborated with Lillian and was known as an avant-garde jazz musician.  Lillian used to play the shamisen as a child, and have also received a title.  Through her nephew, music became another outlet for Lillian to express her political activism.  Lillian and Erich introduced me to a couple of the songs composed back then.  One of the music which we got to listen later on was the Poston Sonata a rather controversial music, collaborating Jazz and shamisen.  Oxnard Beat was another piece made, which referred to the Japanese laborers who worked in Oxnard area along side with Mexican American farm workers in the 1900s.  During the time when Lillian was involved in NCRR, this music was part of the movement, and they often would perform within the community such as around the Day of Remembrance.  They even went all the way to Berlin Jazz Festival, and CDs were released as well.

NCRR today

Through her activism, Lillian says she learned a lot.  NCRR still exists. After redress was won, they took up the issue of redress for other Japanese from South America.  Then they got involved with broader issues.  Today they collaborate with JACL and Kizuna, etc.  NCRR was also a sponsor for Kizuna, a new program that launched recently in Little Tokyo.  In the Iraq war they were active as well, as they worked towards a Japanese American lieutenant, who was tried to court because he refused to go back because the war was wrong.
Lillian continued to attend the NCRR meetings after redress as well.  NCRR has also been active since 9/11.  This event not only changed the lives of many people, but also brought negative looks towards the Muslim Americans, who were thought of as a stereotypical dangerous “terrorist.”  The fact that Muslim Americans were pointed fingers at and were thought to be dangerous overlapped with the Japanese American experience of the Pearl Harbor and the incarceration.

In connection to this, she also spoke about it at the candle light visual ceremony.  The whole thing is vague for her, but Erich said that she spoke about how her experience after Pearl Harbor was very similar to how Muslim Americans were treated after 9/11.  Just as every Japanese American is not necessarily responsible for Pearl Harbor, every Muslim American is not necessarily responsible for 9/11.

The Future of JA and youth involvement

Lillian says she is not involved in the community anymore, but she still believes that involvement of young people in the community is critical.  She remembers the time when Nikkei Student Union (NSU- college Japanese American student organization) occasionally came out to NCRR meetings.  She said that this was a great tie to have, and believes that student activism is a very strong aspect of the community as well.  She remembered that there was always one or two that came out to the meetings, and some individual students came out to help out during the redress movement as well.  Unfortunately, with difficulty in coordinating rides, the tie became thinner and thinner.

However, according to Erich, NSU is still a very important part of the community, and was a product of the Redress, and the works of the Sansei generation.  Especially in southern California, the NSU’s sprang up and grew after the Redress Movement, as more people started thinking about their Japanese and Japanese American heritage and identity.

Lillian wishes that NCRR had a better system where individual students can be incorporated to the group in different ways.

“We could have made more concrete connection with the students. A lot of time for the students, they need more of a structure that incorporated the students.  Then it would have worked better.  I wished or we wished we could have worked out there.”

Lillian looks and hopes for the JA community not only to continue but also to grow in the future.  She believes that the community stays healthy by not only having the community reach out to the youth, but also having young people more aggressively come out to the community.  She stresses that the youth should come to the community and ask what they can do, so that something more concrete can be established between the two groups.

The Sansei are getting old, and she believes the next generation should come out.  She says “It would be great if you can form a basis, develop a basis for community-campus ties, something more concrete than just you know… I mean it doesn’t mean you have to come to the meetings every time…But it would be good if you can be part of the structure.”

Why relevant? And my thoughts

“Being part of the structure”… This word really inspired me.  I personally agree that a community is sustained if people care enough to help out and take care of it.  In order to have people care enough, we need people to be part of it, to feel included in the community and to be incorporated into the whole system.  Currently, I do feel that way, though it was not 4 years ago.

As a Shin-Nisei with parents from Japan, I was not aware of any of the history of the Japanese Americans, or more so uninterested.  Although I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, my family and I never integrated ourselves into the community.  Coming into college, I did not understand the concept of community, as well as the history of the Japanese Americans.  For me, it seemed irrelevant, as my family history is completely different from that of my Yonsei and Gosei friends.

When I joined the Nikkei Student Union (NSU) was the first time I was exposed to this culture and history, which was going to be something that would change my perspective completely.  Through NSU, I was exposed to the history, the culture, and the importance of community and Little Tokyo.  Moreover, this past summer, I was able to be part of the Nikkei Community Internship (NCI), which deepened my understanding of the Japanese American community, let me to meet many people active in the community, as well as meet other youth who were passionate and interested in the community just as I was.

The various opportunities and NSU really have educated me of the history, and made me feel like I was a part of Little Tokyo, or felt more included in the community.  In addition, for me this interview was quite empowering, to see how women can also accomplish so much, and be so strong out in the community.  To know that these people were the foundation of today’s Japanese American community is very amazing.  Although my family history does not necessarily belong to the long Japanese American history, I know for a fact that my experiences will eventually be part of the history of Japanese Americans in the future.

When we finished the interview, we sat in the living room listening to the Poston Sonata.  It was an interesting collaboration music with the piano and the shamisen on a minor key.  It was surprising to know that such music existed at that time.  Listening to the music which filled the room, I reflected back on the way in which Lillian got herself involved in activism, and the message she wanted to convey to the youth.  When I asked to myself how I can be active, my answer was to reach out to other Shin-Nisei who may not know about the Japanese American culture and history.  My goal is to share my passion toward the community and educate them, and have them also be part of the “structure” in the community.

    As we leave, I shake her hand once more.  This time, I knew.  A firm, powerful handshake.  I felt her powerfulness, the fighter side inside her through her firm, firm handshake. I felt her reserved, yet powerful energy that was communicated from her hand to my hand.

Lillian is like a candle that is quietly yet very powerfully burning.  And I feel this interview was one way in which she passed down that flame to the next torch.


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