Redress Movement Leader Bert Nakano Dies

Community leaders praise the NCRR leader for his
role in gaining reparations for Japanese Americans.

NikkeiWest Contributor

LOS ANGELES—Bert Nakano, a leader in the movement to win reparations for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in America’s concentration camps during World War II, died on Sept. 27, 2003, of respiratory failure after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 75.

During the 1980s, Nakano, in his role as national spokesperson for the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, traveled across the nation organizing supporters and advocating for reparations to be awarded to Nikkei former internees.

His cross-country efforts won support from civil rights groups and other concerned citizens who recognized the injustice perpetrated by the U.S. government against Japanese Americans. He and other NCRR members frequently traveled to Washington to lobby members of Congress to pass a redress bill.

Finally in 1988, after a decade of tireless campaigning, Nakano saw the historic victory of the Japanese American community as President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, that provided an apology and monetary reparations on behalf of the U.S. government for the injustice of the concentration camps.

Rep. Matsui Praises Nakano

“With the passing of Bert Nakano, the Asian American community has lost an extraordinary leader,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Matsui in a statement released from Washington, D.C. “I had the honor to work closely with Bert on the legislation that finally became law in 1988. The formal apology and redress won from the federal government could in no way have been achieved without Bert’s tireless efforts.”

Nakano was “a driving force” in giving Nikkei concentration camp survivors the confidence and courage to share their stories in congressional hearings, the congressman from Sacramento declared. “Because of his encouragement and support, (the survivors) could share their deeply personal experiences. The testimony of these courageous Japanese Americans was a significant step for our nation to truly appreciate and learn how this tragic time in American history devastated the lives of so many.”

Pointing to Nakano’s continued fight for justice and civil rights through numerous grassroots and political organizations, Matsui noted, “Bert touched countless lives and inspired people from all walks of life. His loss will be deeply felt in the hearts of those who had the privilege of knowing and working with him. I am so grateful to have known and worked closely with Bert.”

Toast to Nakano

Bob Bratt, the first Office of Redress Administration director after Congress passed the reparations bill, told the Nikkei West via telephone from Maryland, “Bert was absolutely, of all the folks I remember from the redress days, one of my fondest memories. He was always warm and outgoing, and very inquisitive about what was going on in the (redress) program. He was really insightful and very helpful in getting redress moved. He really cared. He was one of the people everyone relied upon.”

Bratt, who revealed that he had hoisted a can of Sapporo beer in a silent toast to Nakano, recalled fondly, “No matter what function we attended, Bert was always ready to shoot the (breeze). I’ll always remember Bert showing up with a couple of beers in his hands … ready to share the latest about problems in the redress program. He was a great guy.”

Big Gap in JA Community

Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig, a researcher who uncovered evidence pointing to wrongdoing by the U.S. Department of Justice during World War II and played an important role in the success of the redress campaign, and her husband Jack, e-mailed from their home in Virginia, “Bert Nakano’s passing leaves a big gap in the Japanese American community. He always had the world in his heart and fought for the disenfranchised.”

The Herzigs described Nakano as a “respected and vigorous advocate” for civil and human rights who “spoke out loudly and clearly for redress for Japanese American survivors of the wartime camps, and not only encouraged but inspired others to do so.”

Born in Hawaii

Born June 12, 1928 in Honolulu, Hawaii, where his father was a building

contractor, Nakano grew up in Honolulu with his brothers Jitsuo, Bill, James

and Henry, and three sisters, Sumi, Tomi and Akemi, who was born in camp.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to bring the U.S. into World War II, the FBI rounded up Issei community leaders. Nakano’s father was among the first group to be arrested and detained at a camp in New Mexico. Soon, the FBI closed in on the Nisei, until finally in December 1942, about 1,200 Japanese Americans from Hawaii were sent to a concentration camp at Jerome, Arkansas. Nakano was then 14 years old.

From Jerome, his family was sent to the Tule Lake camp in California in 1944. When the war ended in 1945, the Nakanos returned to Hawaii. But their financial and psychological losses were deep and soon after their return, Nakano’s mother died at the age of 45.

In 1949, Nakano married Lillian Sugita and they left for Chicago, where he

continued his education and graduated from Roosevelt University.

Bert and Lillian Nakano, who, with their six-year-old son Erich, left for Japan in 1964 to study Zen Buddhism, eventually resettled in Southern California and Nakano went to work at Pan American Airlines, where he was also a shop steward in the union.

For years, Nakano was bitter about the camp experience, and rebelled against the feelings of shame many Japanese Americans felt about their heritage after the war.

In 1976, prodded by college student Erich to get involved in issues about which he had strong opinions, Nakano joined the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization, a grassroots group opposing the City’s redevelopment plans that threatened the existence of low-to-moderate-income Nikkei residents and small family-owned businesses.

Helped Found Redress Coalition

In 1978, Nakano joined the Ad Hoc Committee for Redress and helped found the

Los Angeles Community Coalition for Redress and Reparations, which sought

restitution for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. In 1980, the Los Angeles group joined other community-based groups throughout the country to form the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. Nakano served as NCRR’s national spokesperson for nine years as the organization worked closely with Nikkei legislators, veterans’ groups and the Japanese American Citizens League and others to obtain justice.

Alan Nishio of NCRR, one of many Sansei activists involved in the early days of the campaign to bring justice to the former internees, told the Nikkei West after Nakano’s funeral Saturday, “Bert was very instrumental in … showing that the redress movement was not an issue just for Sansei activists, but an issue for the entire community. He was instrumental in showing that the Nisei had to step forward and take leadership and control of the movement.”

Nakano’s most important role in the redress campaign, Nishio noted, was in “showing to many in our community that the redress struggle was not just for the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) and the professionals, the lawyers and lobbyists. He saw that if we were going to win redress, it was important for gardeners, truck drivers, housekeepers and many others to get involved in this campaign.”

Cooperative Attitude

John Tateishi, national director of the JACL, offered his personal thoughts in a telephone interview from San Francisco: “I was really sorry to learn of Bert’s passing. He was a really good guy, someone who really cared about the Japanese community. He was an activist who didn’t just talk, but really did things to try to help people. There aren’t enough people like Bert around.”

Tateishi worked with Nakano during the redress campaign in the 1980s, when he was the JACL’s redress director and Nakano was NCRR’s national spokesperson. “It was through him, and because of him, that there was this cooperative attitude between the two organizations,” Tateishi said.

Unbreakable Arrows

NCRR Co-Chair Kay Ochi, remembered Nakano as “such a charming guy, and a very handsome guy, too. He was an inspiring, wonderful, down-to-earth person … and a very powerful spokesperson.”

Ochi recalled that Nakano compared the fight for redress to himself and his four brothers. “He said if you have only one arrow, you can break it so easily with your bare hands. But if you have five arrows or five brothers—he likened it to five strong organizations of committed people--you can put them together and never break them.”

Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima of San Francisco, who often worked with Nakano on the NCRR redress campaign, commented in a phone conversation, “We were shocked to hear that Bert passed away. He worked so hard in the campaign and really helped the Japanese American community a lot. We lost a well-respected man.”

Jesse Jackson Delegate

Also involved in reaching out to other communities through the Rainbow Coalition, Nakano joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s historic presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, and attended the Democratic Convention as a Jackson delegate.

Nakano spent his final year surrounded by a loving family, grandchildren and caring caregivers. Survivors include his wife Lillian; son Erich and wife Sandra; and grandchildren Alina and Gabriel.

Funeral services for Nakano were held Oct. 4 at Sozenji Buddhist Temple in Montebello. The family requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to NCRR and sent to 231 E. Third St., #G104, Los Angeles, CA 90013.

Takeshi Nakayama writes from Walnut, Calif. He was a staff writer for the Rafu Shimpo.