Mineta legacy: Film on Japanese American icon makes its debut

Norman Y. Mineta, Courtesy Mineta Legacy Project

A documentary highlighting the life and career of Norman Yoshio Mineta, the legislator who achieved many firsts for Asians in American politics, will have its world premiere at the Center for Asian American Media’s annual festival Thursday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Co-producer and director Dianne Fukami stated via e-mail that she and co-producer Debra Nakatomi made the documentary, “An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy,” because he is “an icon among the Asian American community, especially among the Japanese Americans. As a 10-year old boy, Mineta and his family were forcibly removed from their San Jose home and incarcerated because of their Japanese ancestry. Decades later he became the first Asian American mayor of a major American city, and went on to serve more than 20 years in Congress. And to top it off, he served in two presidential cabinets … How amazing of an American story is that?”

Fukami and Nakatomi tried for more than seven years to persuade him to participate in a documentary, she revealed. “A modest and humble man, he declined for many years. But finally near the end of 2013, he consented. We’ve been working on the project since 2014.”

“We loved working with Norm and his wife Deni,” Fukami exclaimed. “They are authentic, wonderful people.”

Fukami knew Mineta played a major role in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and she came to understand “the impact of the wartime incarceration on Norm and our Nisei … I think it shaped who he’s become: a man … who wants to make sure that kind of violation doesn’t happen to another group of people.”

Credits Nikkei Lawmakers
“I’m honored and very flattered to be the subject of this documentary,” Mineta said via telephone from his Maryland home. “In terms of my own accomplishments, I’ve been able to do these things because I stand on the shoulders of giants, people like (U.S. Sens.) Dan Inouye and Spark Matsunaga and Congresswoman Patsy Mink, who were in office a long time before I came to Congress.”

Mineta, 86, was born in 1931 in San Jose to Kunisaku and Kane Mineta. His father, who came to the United States in 1902 at age 14, started as a laborer, and worked his way up to become a successful insurance agent in San Jose.

After Japan’s attack on U.S. military posts at Pearl Harbor, the Mineta family — Norman, his parents, a brother, and three sisters — were sent along with thousands of Nikkei to Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, Calif., in the spring of 1942. Several months later, the family wound up at Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming.

“The impact of Pearl Harbor on me was not that great, but I saw the impact on my father and other Issei,” Mineta remembered. “I only saw my father cry three times; once was on Dec. 7, 1941; he couldn’t understand why the land of his birth attacked the land of his heart. He really got to love the United States.”

The second time was May 29, 1942, when Mineta’s family was on the train leaving San Jose and going to Santa Anita,” he continued. “Not only was my father leaving his beloved San Jose, but he had lost his insurance business.”

“The third time I saw my father cry was in June 1956 when my mother passed away,” Mineta said. “They had been married for over 50 years.”

FRIENDS ACROSS THE AISLE — Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) with boyhood friend Norman Mineta at the 2015 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. courtesy Mineta Legacy Project

While incarcerated as a young boy at Heart Mountain, Mineta met fellow Boy Scout Alan Simpson, a frequent visitor to the Heart Mountain Boy Scouts with his own troop. Simpson, who would become a U.S. Senator from Wyoming decades later, and Mineta became lifelong friends.

Months after the war ended, the family returned to San Jose in 1946, with Mineta’s father resuming his insurance business.

Graduating from San Jose High School in 1949, Mineta earned a business degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Following graduation, he served as an Army Intelligence officer during the Korean War, from 1953-56. “I interrogated Korean and Chinese prisoners of war in Nihongo,” Mineta recalled.

After completing military service, he returned to San Jose and joined his father’s insurance business. “It’s something that I cherished,” he stated. “My father was my friend and mentor.”

With support from prominent Issei farmer I.K. Ishimatsu, who felt that the Nikkei community needed its own political leaders, Mineta was appointed to fill a vacant San Jose City Council seat in 1967. In 1969 he was elected to that same city council seat. In 1971, he was elected mayor of San Jose, becoming the first Japanese American and first Asian American to serve as mayor of a major American city.

“I was very proud of being mayor of San Jose from 1971-74,” Mineta exclaimed. “San Jose was growing from an agricultural community to becoming Silicon Valley. The population grew from 320,000 to 580,000 in less than four years. I wanted to make sure that our city grew gracefully … Today San Jose has a population of about 1.2 million.”

Mineta was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from California in 1974. He sponsored or co-sponsored countless bills including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 and the Intermodal Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. In 1994 he co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and served as its first chair.

The San Jose congressman, along with Calif. Rep. Robert Matsui and Hawai‘i Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, played a leadership role, working with community advocates and lobbying congressional colleagues to win passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. “It took 10 years to get that law passed,” he commented. “So I was very proud of my role.”

The bill awarded reparations and an apology to the tens of thousands of surviving Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in American concentration camps or whose civil liberties by the United States government during World War II.

Following 21 years in Congress, Mineta resigned to join Lockheed Martin as a vice president. He was later appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as Secretary of Commerce, the first Asian American and first Nikkei to serve on a presidential Cabinet.

President George W. Bush in 2000 appointed Mineta as Secretary of Transportation. In 2001 when terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11, Mineta ordered the grounding of all civilian aircraft over U.S. air space. “At that point we had 6,438 airplanes in the air, and they were all down on the ground in two hours and 20 minutes, safely and without incident.”

WARTIME INCARCERATION — Mineta family members and friends at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming during World War II. Norman is in front row in the white shirt. courtesy Mineta Family

Many people called for a travel ban on Middle Easterners and Muslims, Mineta recalled. “During a meeting … at the White House, President George W. Bush said, ‘I don’t want to happen today what Norm went through in 1942.’ You could’ve knocked me off my Cabinet chair when he said that.”

Immediately afterward, Mineta ordered all airlines not to engage in ethnic or racial profiling against Middle Eastern or Muslim passengers.

Works at Consulting
In 2006, Mineta resigned after more than five years as Secretary of Transportation. He now heads Mineta & Associates, LLC, and works out of his home in Edgewater, Md., one hour from Washington, D.C. He consults clients on transportation and hi-tech matters.

Mineta experienced health problems in 2017 — he had neck and back operations and underwent therapy — and he couldn’t travel until March 2018, he confided. “Now I have more travel lined up for June and November.”

In 2002, the San Jose Airport was renamed the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. In 2006, Bush awarded Mineta the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At the CAAMFest’s opening night, the city of San Francisco will present Mineta an honorary award, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, for his contributions and service to the community.

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