A nationwide movement for justice

REMEMBERING PAST ACTIVISM ­— Marlene Tonai recalls Sox Kitashima as the “heart and soul” of San Francisco’s redress movement.
photo by Tomo Hirai/
Nichi Bei Weekly

In celebration of the publication of “NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations,” members of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, along with activists from the Redress Movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, held a series of book parties in the Bay Area Oct. 27 and Oct. 28.

During the Oct. 27 event at J-Sei in Emeryville, Calif., Miya Sommers of the Nikkei Resisters led a panel discussion with current and former National Coalition for Redress and Reparations members Kathy Masaoka, Richard Katsuda, Bill Sato, and Marlene Tonai representing Redress Movement activists from both Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Originally founded as the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations in 1980, the nationwide coalition of Japanese Americans was a grassroots campaign to pursue an official apology with monetary compensation from the U.S. government for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“We had five principles of unity. The first one was that redress … must include monetary compensation,” Katsuda said. “We felt it was important to give redress and reparations some teeth.”

Sato likened redress to the aftermath of a car accident. “When we would talk with people, we would say, if you get into an auto accident and you’re injured, would you be happy if they just said, ‘I’m sorry’ and shake your hand? No, your insurance company demands damages, right?” the former San Francisco NCRR member and retired educator said.

As the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians began in 1981, Tonai said that NCRR was skeptical of the hearings backed by the Japanese American Citizens League and congressional leaders. “I think our response to that was, ‘Well duh, of course the wrongdoing had been done, so why do we have to study it?’” the San Francisco NCRR member said. “We really felt like the urgency of making some payments and getting this going, because people were dying every day. At the same time, it was becoming a reality that this commission was going to happen.”

With the hearings happening either way, however, Tonai said that NCRR hoped to gather people to testify in order to create a broader, more educational and grassroots campaign.

“We went to every church, every JACL chapter, every organization we could think of, and we did presentations,” Tonai said. The NCRR said it hosted small gatherings to get survivors to talk about the experience. “Once people really started to open up about their personal story, … it was like a dam that just burst. People just really did have a lot to say, and it was clear that everybody’s experience was different and unique and affected them in different ways.”

San Francisco’s hearing at Golden Gate University was packed all three days, with more than 120 people testifying. Tonai said the commission added a fourth evening hearing at Christ United Presbyterian Church in San Francisco’s Japantown for those who could not attend the day-time hearings.

“I just wanted to add that, in San Francisco, it would be remiss for me to talk about lobbying without talking about Sox Kitashima, who was really the heart and soul of our NCRR chapter up here. She did so much,” Tonai said. Kitashima wrote thousands of letters in support of redress throughout the campaign, Tonai said.

“I think our attitude was, we will support and work with all groups and efforts that lead us toward redress, whatever that may be,” Masaoka, a Los Angeles native and founding member of NCRR, said. “We thought that the legislative route would be the fastest, and JACL had that same strategy, so we had to work together.”
Masaoka said the experience of working with the JACL varied depending on the chapter. Some, she said, were great to work with, as they “got people to come out and testify, but in general, to us, they seemed to really rely on the lobbyists in Washington, D.C.” to work with congressional leaders.

“Yeah, we need them, but they’re not gonna move unless the people at the grassroots speak up it, and not just JA, but all different people across the country to support,” she said.

NCRR took more than 140 people to lobby in Washington in 1987, and did so without any prior lobbying experience. “And we were criticized by the JACL, that we were going to mess everything up,” Masaoka said.

Nationally, Tonai said there were more similarities between the various chapters than differences. “We were all in the same organization, so we all upheld the same principles. I think our approach and grassroots and organizing works were pretty much the same, so I don’t think there was really a difference to people’s receptivity here as opposed to Southern California,” she said.

Masaoka said the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations rebranded in the 1990s to become the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, fighting ongoing issues with redress and reparations and other causes, such as the anti-apartheid movement and advocacy for former so-called “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

The panel closed with traci kato-kiriyama reading some poetry included in the NCRR book, as well her own upcoming book.

Today, in Los Angeles, younger groups such as Nikkei Progressives and Vigilant Love, led by kato-kiriyama, look to NCRR for guidance. “One of the questions when something big … happens is, I wonder what NCRR is gonna do, I wonder what NCRR is planning,” kato-kiriyama said, while acknowledging their group should start taking leadership as well. “At the same time, I felt like I was hearing some urgings from NCRR saying … that they can’t always be the ones doing it first and initiating and planning everything. So we decided to not just lean on NCRR to tell us what to do, but we started to organize with more folks in multiple communities to bring us all together.”

Similarly, the Bay Area-based Nikkei Resisters, featuring former NCRR members, began following the election of President Donald Trump. Joyce Nakamura, a founding member of Nikkei Resisters, acknowledged the group’s connection to NCRR. “Yeah, there is a connection that way. The people who are involved with NCRR in San Francisco and San Jose formed Nikkei Resisters. And then, for myself, I used to be a founding member of Nihonmachi Outreach Committee when I lived in San Jose, so there’s that kind of tie too as well,” she said.

The NCRR book is a testament to these leaders’ grassroots activism, not only to acknowledge their contributions, but also to inform future generations such as Nikkei Progressives and Nikkei Resisters.

“The book for us, it really was … a labor of love,” Katsuda said. “We wanted to make the book kinda complicated. We wanted to be able to focus on students and let them know what happened, but we also wanted to be a celebration in the community also, people being able to look at it and go, ‘yeah this is what we did.’”

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