Wilbur Sato

Jaymie Takeshita
Interview with Mr. Wilbur Sato
Legacy of Japanese American Activism Conference

On the way to Mr. Wilbur Sato’s house, I simply could not get rid of my nerves.  Even though I knew that two of my friends, Hiromi Aoyama and Jacie Matsuura, would be accompanying me, and even though this would be my second time meeting Mr. Sato, I was still a little concerned.  Although I think of myself as being active within the local Japanese American community, I have never considered myself an activist.  Would I be able to uphold a conversation with a Nisei activist who has worked so hard and accomplished so much?  I wasn’t sure because I’m just a regular college student.

When we arrived at Mr. Sato’s house, my nerves disappeared thanks to his kindness, enthusiasm and generosity.  As we prepared to conduct the interview, he warmly welcomed the three of us into his home.  He showed us the program for the Manzanar High School Reunion that had taken place a few days earlier in Las Vegas.  After covering his entire table with sodas, cookies, chips, and other snacks for us, Mr. Sato began to tell us his story.

Mr. Wilbur Sato, a highly involved member of organizations including the Japanese Americans Citizens League (JACL) and the Japanese American Democratic Club, was raised on Terminal Island, CA.  However, unlike many other Japanese Americans from Terminal Island, he did not grow up amongst an entirely Japanese population, or attend their grammar school.  “In a sense, I didn’t grow up in a Japanese community,” he explained.  “I had friends in the Japanese community.  My mother worked in the cannery, so we’d go to the fish harbor side and maybe go watch a Japanese movie.  But I didn’t understand Japanese.  We weren’t really part of that community.”

Despite living in a more diverse community than other Terminal Island Nikkei, the Sato Family experienced discrimination during times of anti-Japanese sentiment just as strongly as other Japanese Americans at the time. His mother, an American-born, “fiercely patriotic” Nisei, lost her citizenship after marrying an Issei “alien” ineligible for American citizenship.  When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mr. Sato was in the 7th grade.  He remembers Pearl Harbor being “really terrible” for the people of Terminal Island, which was left with “women and children who couldn’t speak English, and had 48 hours to leave.”

Although the Sato Family was fortunate enough to have the support of family friends who helped them to move and store their belongings before the evacuation, Mr. Sato clearly remembers the difficulties of that time.  “I didn’t identify myself as Japanese because we didn’t speak Japanese.  I didn’t know anything about Japanese culture, you know?  In that sense, it was more than a shock to me because all of a sudden I became an enemy! I was a Japanese.  Even though I didn’t think I was a Japanese, I was a Japanese.  That was really a shock because all of a sudden you’re not an American.  Your culture, your language, everything.  And you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.  When they say you’re an enemy and they call you all these names, it’s just devastating to your psyche.  Your sense of identity is just destroyed.  That’s the difficult part.”

When I asked Mr. Sato if these experiences were mainly what motivated him to become an activist, he said that it is difficult to say.  He asked us if we had ever read a short story titled The Man Without a Country.  We had not.   Written by Edward Everett Hale, The Man Without a Country tells the story of an American Army lieutenant who renounces his country, and is thus sentenced to life aboard a ship that is never allowed to return to the United States. Nobody on board the ship is even allowed to mention the United States.  “He suffered as a man without a country,” Mr. Sato recalled.  “This is your home, and all of a sudden you can’t talk about it.  And no one can talk to you about.  I remembered this book for years and years.”

One of the topics of the afternoon that I found most interesting was Mr. Sato’s college experiences.  Like Hiromi, Jacie, and me, Mr. Sato is a Bruin who was involved in the community on campus.   After graduating from high school in 1947, Mr. Sato attended UCLA as a sociology major and English minor.  He started a student paper called Nisei Bruins because Japanese American students had trouble with The Daily Bruin, the UCLA newspaper.  “We had a great time,” he laughed.   Mr. Sato was also involved in founding a student group called the California Intercollegiate Nisei Organization (CINO), a network of college students “up and down the coast of California” who were involved in the Japanese American community through participation in events such as Nisei Week.  The way Mr. Sato described student organizations such as CINO and their involvement with student representation on campus, as well as cultural community involvement, reminded me of our own student organization, the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA.

Unlike ourselves, though, these Nikkei student groups’ activities expanded beyond the UCLA campus and the local Japanese American community.  In 1948, at the height of the Cold War, the Nisei organized a group called Nisei for Wallace to support Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign.  “That group had an amazing number of intellectuals, artists, writers – all kinds of different people.  It was really an eye-opener for me.  They were very progressive.”

The time at which Mr. Sato was attending UCLA also made his experience unique from ours.  During the Cold War, many people were charged and convicted for advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence under the Smith Act of 1940. Those involved in labor unions and the entertainment industry were fired and arrested for being associated with the Communist Party.  This was occurring on college campuses as well.   Through his sociology professor, Mr. Sato was able to meet many students whose parents were on the Hollywood blacklist, and saw firsthand how people were affected by the Smith Act.   As Mr. Sato explained the historical context of the period during which he was in college, he said, “This was actually a violation of civil rights.  It was a bad Supreme Court decision, just like the Korematsu decision, which said it’s okay to put the Japanese in concentration camps.  There’s a lot of Supreme Court decisions that aren’t really good, and if you go back in history, you can see some of them.  Those times, the early 50s, were really contentious times in terms of what was going on in civil rights…It was a very interesting period.”  In a later telephone conversation with Mr. Sato, he explained this violation of civil rights to me further.  “I want you to understand that advocacy is speech.  The First Amendment protects speech and implies freedom of association.  If you convict people for what they say and who they associate with, you are depriving them of their First Amendment rights. This was a dark period of our history.”   Although later Supreme Court cases declared that people should not be convicted based solely on his or her own philosophy, but based on actual action to overthrow the government, this was not until 1957, long after people had been fired, or even forced to leave the United States.

After graduating from UCLA in 1951, he joined the Japanese American Citizens League.  Mr. Sato became the vice president and began attempting to get the organization involved in the political life of the community.  He explained his reasoning, saying, “We couldn’t get anything done without support. When Pearl Harbor hit, we didn’t have any Japanese Americans or Asian Americans for city councilman, mayor, congressman, assemblyman, [or] any kind of office.  We didn’t have any kind of support.  And the way politics works is they always go against the weakest people.  They scapegoat the weak people, and the politicians used us as scapegoats.”  They founded the Japanese American Democratic Club, which began to hold meetings in Fresno, and included people from all along the California coast, including Mr. Norman Mineta, who later served as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Mr. Sato later became the JACL Civil Rights Chairman, pushing for JACL involvement in community political life.  “That doesn’t necessarily mean taking a position,” Mr. Sato explained further, “but when we have elections, you invite people to address your group.  You raise your issues to these politicians.  We have to do that.”  One example of how they outreached to politicians was by organizing a dinner for Governor Edmund G. Brown as he was running for his last term.  Due to shared concerns over housing discrimination, the Japanese American Democratic Club invited members of the Chinese American, Filipino American, and Korean American communities to participate as well.  Many of those community members were able to become staff members for politicians, and later run for office themselves.

“Now we have a lot of Asian Americans in state government, which is really terrific,” said Mr. Sato, sounding pleased.  He named a few examples, including Mayor Jean Quan of Oakland and Mayor Edwin Lee of San Francisco.  He explained that in order for them to get elected, they must have both labor support and Democratic Party support.  “That’s how we got support for George Nakano to run for the assembly.   That’s how we got support for Warren Furutani to run for assembly…They had support not only from their own community, but also from labor and the Democratic Party.   I think that early on, that’s very important: to make sure we have a voice in government.  That’s almost like a civil right in a sense.”

When I asked more about cooperation between minority groups, Mr. Sato said that the Chinese Americans are the most politically active out of the Asian American communities.  “They really support their people,” he explained.  “They raise money, and they put their money on their candidate.  But the Japanese aren’t very good at that. I don’t know what it is.  This whole thing about a nail that sticks up, you get pounded down.  We need to have people who are smart to go into politics to represent us! We could use a congressman or two, you know?”

Deru kugi wa utareru – the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.  One of the very few proverbs that I still remember from Japanese school, “pounding down” nails was something that I had been thinking about before the interview as I read about Japaneses American activism.  I thought it was great that there were individuals trying to bring about change in the community, but at the same time I was surprised.  I do not mean to overgeneralize, but having a voice to bring forth change could stir up the community, and that does not seem like a very “Japanese” thing to do.  I could not help but wonder what the Nikkei community thought about their activism.  What about values like shikata ga nai (nothing can be done)? Do these Japanese ways of thought that have been passed down from one generation to the next make Japanese American activism different than activism outside of our community?

“I don’t know what it is about the Japanese community,” Mr. Sato said after explaining to us that there are some Japanese Americans who will not vote Democratic because they blame Franklin D. Roosevelt for putting them in camp.  “The Japanese don’t have a sense of democracy.  I don’t know about other groups, but the[Japanese] always try and find a consensus, and they always try and knock down people in the meetings.  You can’t stand out.  And they can’t take defeat.  We have a lot of discussions in our Democratic Club stuff, and you win some and you lose some.  You can’t take it personally.  You can’t get mad at somebody and hold a grudge.  You have to take things as they come.”   As Mr. Sato talked about attending meetings at which people begin to get upset and yell, and are thus unable to come to a resolution, I can clearly remember myself attending meetings that play out in the exact same manner; meetings at which people are getting upset, and I am ready to say something about it, until I think about how voicing my opinion will make me look.  Those who do not agree with me will get upset.  Those who agree with me might be upset that I said something.

“What do you think about that?” Mr. Sato asked.  I explained that as a Yonsei, I like to believe that the values are a little bit different  because most Yonsei are not raised in such a traditional Japanese manner.  However, I also explained that there are times when it is difficult, and even uncomfortable, for me to voice my own opinion on things.  I do not like creating messy situations.  I am very cautious about what I say and do not say, especially when I am with other Japanese Americans.  “Like you said,” he started, “they say things like, ‘Don’t say that kind of thing’ or ‘Don’t disgrace your family’ and all this kind of baloney.”  “Or don’t do anything to make the JA community look bad,” I added.  “Right, right, right,” he agreed, “They don’t have a sense of democracy.”

What is Mr. Sato’s advice to college students like Hiromi, Jacie and me? “I think you guys should not only get involved in Japanese community things, but try to expand out and meet people.  See the broader issues. When I was at UCLA, we had problems with  The Daily Bruin, [and] administration.  We didn’t have freedom of the press. We couldn’t get speakers we wanted to come to campus.  The sororities and fraternities took control of the government, and you had to fight to get independence and get elected to government.  Those are things, little struggles.”  Who could give us better advice than a fellow Nikkei Bruin?

I also asked him about his thoughts towards the future Japanese American community.  “I have mixed feelings about the Japanese community,” he answered.  He explained that things are changing because the Japanese American community is becoming more and more diverse.  “It’s not a homogenous group.  People are trying to keep it together with all its culture and all that stuff, and I really have mixed feelings about that.  I know it’s good to hang onto culture and language, but I really have mixed feelings.”

Yet Mr. Sato, who always seems to look at the bigger picture, also expressed his concerns for the global community as a whole.  “I think right now, the greatest issue that’s facing humanity involves global warming and overpopulation.  This is the biggest thing,” he emphasized.  “We’re going to run out of water and food. There’s drought all over the place.  Millions of people are going to die because of starvation.  The polar bears are dying in the arctic… One of the things we’re facing now is the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  There are thousands of people who are homeless, who don’t have enough food.  All these struggles against unions, and cutting Medicare.  It’s scary, you know – what will happen to this world, how we’re going to handle it and keep a sense of democracy and equality and humanity when people are struggling for food and water. Those are the biggest issues of the day, and somehow we have to do something. The future, you guys…,” he looked at us.

“When people are having a hard time, they turn on the minorities. It’s really scary that more than ever you have to start protecting the Japanese American community.”  Mr. Sato told us that  in the past, Japanese Americans had a difficult time receiving healthcare, and thus many who were affected by poverty diseases such as tuberculosis could do nothing about it.  “There’s a lot of things under attack that you have to defend…The Democratic Club, we’re fighting like crazy, but people aren’t registered.  You go around the block, people aren’t voting.  Democracy! You need people to participate.  You need people to vote.  You need to look after your interests.  That’s my message. To get people involved and active in your community.  Take care of your community.  Take care of the people.”

Although weeks have passed since meeting Mr. Sato this past summer, I am still impressed and touched by his modesty and kindness.  Although the interview was supposed to be focused on Mr. Sato himself, he tended to focus more on the accomplishments of others.  I could feel the sense of community as he spoke of the many organizations that he has been involved in over the years.  He never excluded us from the conversation, either.  Every time he mentioned a law, act, or popular California politician, he considerately asked us, “Are you familiar with that?” Embarrassingly, we usually answered, “No, we’re not.”  Yet rather than explain concepts and laws to us in complicated terms that fly straight over our heads, as I was expecting a lawyer to do, he took the time to give us a simple, clear explanation, placed within a historical context for us so we could better understand what he was speaking about.

I was also grateful that Mr. Sato incorporated some current issues and concerns into our discussion because it encouraged me to find out more about certain aspects of community politics.  I had seen titles with the word “redistricting” online and in articles, but I never took the time to properly read anything about it until Mr. Sato explained the active role that the Asian American community played in redistricting.  Because Japanese Americans no longer live in concentrated neighborhoods such as Little Tokyo, Seinan, and Uptown, it is harder for the community to support and elect candidates. He explained that the Asian Pacific Legal Center “did a terrific job” on collecting statistics about minority groups in order to ensure that politicians with our community interests in mind have a chance of getting elected.  “That’s a huge success if we can keep it going,” Mr. Sato stated.  I expected to learn about the past while talking to Mr. Sato, but I ended up learning about current political topics within the Japanese and Asian American communities as well.

Even after I had used up all of the questions I had prepared for the interview, he continued to take the time to get to know all three of us, asking us about our majors and our plans for the future.  He let us take a look at the books he was currently reading, and we had the chance to read some of his poetry, which was displayed on his living room wall along with many beautiful pieces of artwork.  It was a wonderful afternoon that I had no reason to nervously bite my nails over.

I still think about his message often: get people involved and active in the community, and take care of your community and its people.  When I look at the Japanese American community, especially the parts of that community that I am personally involved in, I can clearly see the importance of his message.  The UCLA Nikkei community, the San Fernando Valley community, and the Wakayama Nikkei community have all done so much for my family and friends, and I would love to be able to give back to them in the same manner.  Yet at the same time, I think about how he said that the Japanese American community lacks a strong sense of democracy, and I can see why this can be a challenge.

Now that I think about it, I am probably considered one of those Japanese Americans without a strong sense of democracy. I have a loud, piercingly high voice that is hard to ignore, but I do not use it unless I know it is safe to do so. In the past, I have kept my mouth shut about issues that have risen in the local community that I grew up in, despite having several things on my mind.  Most of my Japanese American friends also agreed that saying nothing in those situations was the best option.  I guess I am like the majority of the Japanese American community; I am really uncomfortable with being that nail that sticks out.

Just as I cannot picture myself waking up tomorrow and being different, I do not think that a sense of democracy or a need to express one’s voice will suddenly appear in the Japanese American community.  But by learning more about the actions and motivations of activists like Mr. Sato within our own community who have dedicated a countless amount of time and effort into protecting it and its members, we can slowly move closer to that day.  It is truly amazing how much someone can learn in one afternoon of conversation.  After talking to Mr. Sato, I have found myself reading more about various organizations in both past and present Asian American communities, and the many ways in which they protect their interests and support each other.  I still do not feel well-versed enough in political issues to attend a Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress meeting that Mr. Sato invited the three of us to visit, but I feel much more informed than I was before.

At the end of the interview, Mr. Sato asked, “Did I take up too much of your time?”  I could not believe what I was hearing.  I definitely felt that it was the other way around.  He was the one who had kindly welcomed us into his home, talked about his life, and patiently explained anything we did not understand.  He was the one helping and teaching us.  I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Sato.  His dedication to protecting the rights and voices of the community that he cares about is truly inspiring.  “Organize community and get busy,” he advised. “That’s the only way we solve the problems.  We have all these huge problems to solve, so I hope you guys can do it.”  I hope so, too, Mr. Sato.

One Comment on “Wilbur Sato”

  1. […] out Jaymie Takeshita’s interview with Mr. Wilbur Sato. Great questions, great responses, and a lot of insight. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe […]

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