Martha Nakagawa, community journalist and activist, dies

Martha Nakagawa. Mario Gershom Reyes/Rafu Shimpo

Martha Miiko Nakagawa, a long-time community journalist, researcher and advocate, passed away on the morning of July 28 at Los Angeles General Medical Center. She was 56.

She was suffering from late-stage metastatic breast cancer, according to Marie Morohoshi, one of the friends who comforted Nakagawa in her final days.

Nakagawa, whose father was incarcerated at Tule Lake during World War II, was born in 1967 and grew up in Gardena with her childhood friend Morohoshi, whose father was also incarcerated at Tule Lake. They attended the Japanese language school at Gardena Buddhist Church, where they also cultivated deeper learnings in chado (the way of tea) and ikebana or kado (the way of flowers).

Nakagawa attended Stanford University, where she received a bachelor of arts in Asian studies with a minor in Japanese in 1989. Her activism blossomed while she was there when she was arrested during a campus wide protest demanding a more robust Asian American Studies program.

She also spent a summer abroad at International Christian University, a non-denominational private university located in Mitaka, Tokyo, commonly known as ICU and established in 1949 as the first liberal arts college in Japan.

After her father, Lawrence Akio Nakagawa, passed away in the late 1990s, she returned to Gardena to tend to her mother, Sugako, until she passed away in 2021 at the age of 90.

Morohoshi said of Nakagawa’s final days, “Martha had a regular mammogram check-up just 2.5 years ago where she tested negative. As it turns out, Martha had a fast-growing type of breast cancer that metastasized.

“Even in her final moments in dealing with metastatic breast cancer, Martha’s mind was sharp and clear as a whistle. She responded to every question with exactness and she even had her oncology team laughing with her dry sarcasm just two days before she chose to transition out of her body.

“Willful and clear until she took her last breath, a warrior to the very end.”

Nakagawa was a journalist for more than 30 years, working for Asian Week, Pacific Citizen and The Rafu Shimpo and contributing to other community publications, including Nikkei West, Hawaii Herald, Nichi Bei Times, Hokubei Mainichi and Nichi Bei Weekly.

Nakagawa was a frequent contributor to The Rafu Shimpo and, along with photo editor Mario Gershom Reyes, chronicled some of the most important events in the Nikkei community, including the Manzanar and Tule Lake pilgrimages and the lives of historic figures such as Art Shibayama, Rose Ochi, Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig, Cedrick Shimo, Bill Nishimura, Frank Emi and Yosh Kuromiya.

Often paving her own way, Nakagawa covered numerous events, including protests by Tsuru for Solidarity at Fort Sill in Oklahoma in 2019 and the fight for Latin American redress at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS).

“So many important issues, so many stories would be untold without the courageous work of Martha Nakagawa,” said Rafu Senior Editor Gwen Muranaka. “Her sudden passing is shocking but her legacy is in her historic work and her commitment to social justice and community journalism. We offer our deepest sympathies to family and friends.”

Nakagawa was a coordinator for UCLA Asian American Studies Center’s Eiji Suyama Endowment Project, which aims to preserve the history of Japanese American resistance during World War II, including the draft resisters, No-Nos, renunciants, and other Nikkei dissidents. She also helped to archive the papers of the late activists and researchers Jack Herzig and Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga.

Nakagawa was a supporter of Tsuru for Solidarity, a non-violent, direct-action project of Japanese American social justice advocates working to end detention sites and support front-line immigrant and refugee communities that are being targeted by U.S. immigration policies, standing on the moral authority of Japanese Americans who endured the wartime concentration camps.

“Martha represented the best of community journalism, with her tenacious reporting and commitment to social justice,” said Nichi Bei News Editor-in-Chief Kenji G. Taguma. “We are proud to have featured her writings over the years, and her contributions to the community are irreplaceable.”

Nakagawa had a deep appreciation for the role of the Nikkei press in documenting the collective Japanese American experience.

“Journalism is history in a hurry, so if we don’t document our history, our history gets lost,” she said in a 2021 interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Nakagawa particularly brought out the little-known stories of resistance in the camps, who had long faced community ostracism for their principled stands.

“Personally, my family and I will always be appreciative of her efforts to shed light on the Nisei draft resisters in particular, including my father Noboru,” said Taguma. “As the National JACL was debating the apology and recognition to the resisters for their 2000 National Convention in Monterey, Calif., it was Martha’s reporting and role as assistant editor of the JACL’s Pacific Citizen newspaper that was critical to the evolving movement, providing a forum for open discussion among the JACL’s membership.

“But as she shed light on their story of reasoned protest after years of community ostracism, she was verbally attacked by JACL members opposed to the resolution, some who called for her firing.”

A celebration of life will be held on Sunday, Aug. 27, at 11 a.m. at Fukui Mortuary, 707 E. Temple St., Los Angeles. The service will be livestreamed on the Nichi Bei Foundation YouTube channel. To access the livestream, visit:

The Nichi Bei News contributed to this report.

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