Mourning the passing of Martha Nakagawa

Martha Nakagawa. Mario Gershom Reyes/Rafu Shimpo

I find it hard to acknowledge the death of my good friend, Martha Nakagawa. I’m sure that many of you know the name because she was a reporter who wrote for many Japanese American newspapers and periodicals. At the risk of sounding trite, I will say that it seems like a bright, shining light has gone dark, and our community is much the poorer for it.

She was an old friend that I admired for her work and for her steadfast commitment to the truth and an honest recounting of the things that have happened to our community. She was everywhere with her recording device and camera, and because she had such a depth of knowledge and understanding of Japanese American history, she was able to write important, meaningful stories that informed the public about many issues and events. I will always picture her as that, smart, fun and energetic being that seemed to be present at so many events. She looked so youthful she did not seem to age, and so it was quite a shock to know that she is gone.

I can’t remember when I first met her, but one of the things that bonded us was that we were good friends with Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga. Aiko was also a remarkable person. Without her, the legislation which granted us redress, the coram nobis law cases, and the William Hohri class action lawsuit may not have been as successful as they were. The Hohri case did not win, but it was certainly a prod for passage of the legislation.

Aiko was brilliant, and her research was immense. Martha helped in getting her papers organized at UCLA, and she worked for the Suyama Project at UCLA. All of us were very engaged with issues concerning protest, resistance, rebellion and other acts of dissent within the camps. She was especially concerned and helpful to old resisters and protesters, becoming their friend and advocate. She maintained close relationships with people like Bill Nishimura who was a protester, and sent to Tule Lake. We were always running into each other at gatherings of the draft resisters and on pilgrimages.

Martha’s father, first incarcerated in Topaz, was a “no-no” who was sent to Leupp in Dalton Wells, Utah, a special concentration camp for “troublemakers.” Perhaps this personal history had a big impact on her. Her political activism was apparent while a student at Stanford University, where she participated in student protests. She was certainly on track to becoming a chronicler of the story of Tule Lake, the segregation camp that to me is the basic story of the U.S. government’s most abusive treatment of Japanese Americans and of the acute divide within our community. She had a big heart, and was so generous. With her bilingual skills, she helped many navigate the complexities of health and governmental bureaucracies.

I remember gatherings in Los Angeles with Aiko and Jack (Herzig), resisters and many others who formed a loose group of talkers who had a lot to say during those exciting years of fighting for redress. And we fought for community recognition of the many complexities and stories which revealed dark sides of the camp experience. Martha was always there, and we all formed a bond of understanding. We maintained a close connection through e-mail messages, and she always said that it is too bad that we didn’t live closer so that we could get together more often.

One gutsy thing that Martha did was to champion my sister Emiko and my documentary, “Rabbit In the Moon.” As assistant editor of the Pacific Citizen, she featured pictures and an article on the front page when the documentary won a national Emmy in 1999 for “Outstanding Historical Programming.” For that I understand that she incurred the wrath of Japanese American Citizens League leadership. She was not cowed.

In post-World War II America, the JACL saw to it that anyone associated with Tule Lake and draft resistance was made to feel that they were the “bad and disloyal” who spoiled the image of the super patriots projected by that organization. Many suffered ostracism and contempt for years. Martha saw to it that their stories were not forgotten. One of our allies is Donald Hata, firebrand and retired professor, who says that Martha and his motto has been:

“Don’t let the piss-ants get you down!”

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, Calif. is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *