Alan Nishio, community leader and activist, dies

Alan Nishio speaks at a podium

REMEMBERING MANZANAR — Alan Nishio addresses the crowd during the 48th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 29, 2017, at the Manzanar National Historic Site. photo by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee

LOS ANGELES — Alan Nishio, a longtime community leader, activist, mentor and university administrator, passed away on Dec. 27, 2023 after a 17-year bout with a rare form of cancer, the Manzanar Committee stated. He was 79.

“We all knew that Alan’s time was limited and over this past year many of us were able to either visit with him and later Zoom with him,” disclosed Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, formerly National Coalition for Redress/Reparations. “As always, he was willing to share his thoughts, observations, memories and advice about life and about dying. …. What will stay with me most is his fearlessness and his faith in all of us to carry on.”

Nishio was born on Aug. 9, 1945, in the Manzanar concentration camp, one of more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated in American concentration camps and other confinement sites during World War II. His activism and leadership work go back to the days of the Free Speech Movement in the late 1960s at the University of California, Berkeley, where he helped form the Asian Americans for Political Action.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science at UC Berkeley in 1966, Nishio returned to Los Angeles, where he earned his master’s degree in public policy administration at the University of Southern California two years later, before heading across town to help found the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, serving as its director for more than two years.

In the 1970s, Nishio worked with the Japanese American Citizens League and with Japanese American Community Services – Asian Involvement, which provided “Serve The People” programs in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. That work eventually led Nishio and fellow activists to form the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization, which fought to protect long-time residents and small businesses during the late 1970s redevelopment of Little Tokyo, when large Japanese corporations and local politicians attempted to gobble up a large portion of Little Tokyo without regard to the interests and needs of the community.

The lessons learned by the LTPRO activists gave them the knowledge, experience and inspiration that helped lead to the founding of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR; now Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), one of the organizations that led the fight for redress.

Redress Activist
One of NCRR’s co-founders, Nishio served as its Southern California co-chair from 1980 to 1990, and was a pivotal figure in the successful fight for redress.

Current NCRR Co-Chair Kay Ochi recalled Nishio’s “vital” leadership in the 1980s.

“For the nascent NCRR, his well-honed administrative skills, his intellect and his strength of conviction about the injustices of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans came together and were a force in NCRR and for the Redress Movement,” remembered Ochi. “He made it clear to the other redress organizations and the larger community that NCRR represented the community, and ‘the people’ were a force to be reckoned with. He was a skillful speaker and represented the people well.”

Ochi also appreciated Nishio’s role “to uplift the role of the women” in NCRR. “In the ‘80s, the road to gender equality was not always easy, but he encouraged me and others to take leadership roles including speaking at public events.”

NCRR Co-Chair Richard Katsuda said the overall respect for Nishio allowed him to build various campaigns, “…whether for Japanese American redress and reparations or to save Little Tokyo during the redevelopment days of the ‘70s or to rebuild Little Tokyo through his stalwart leadership with Little Tokyo Service Center throughout his later years.

“He was the one who was always on top of things and made sure everything moved smoothly and efficiently in NCRR,” Katsuda remembered. “Alan was peerless in his ability to bring all kinds of people together to fight for justice and dignity for Japanese Americans.”

NCRR founding member Miya Iwataki remembered Nishio as “a thinker, leader and teacher to the end.”

University, Community Leader
According to the Manzanar Committee, in 1972 Nishio became an administrator at California State University, Long Beach, where he retired in 2007 as associate vice president, Student Services.

Nishio has also played an important role with the Little Tokyo Service Center since its earliest years, having served on its Board since 1984. He also served two terms as LTSC’s board president. He also served as chair of the LTSC board of governors.

“Alan … was the (LTSC) board chair for over 20 years and helped to guide the organization through many aspects of its growth,” remembered former LTSC Executive Director Bill Watanabe. “Alan was the perfect Board leader because he listened to people and knew how to create consensus amongst various viewpoints.”

Nishio also worked directly with Japanese American college students, helping nurture their growth as future community leaders. He also served as an advisor to Kizuna, a Little Tokyo organization that focuses on Japanese American youth and developing future community leaders.

“Alan Nishio played a pivotal role in my development as an activist, especially while I was an undergraduate at UCLA, and a member of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union in the 1980s,” said Gann Matsuda of the Manzanar Committee. “Alan taught us the importance of supporting, protecting and defending our community. He taught us the importance of grass-roots organizing.”

“Alan stood out as one of my mentors because he was always looking beyond the immediate goals or needs of the community,” added Matsuda. “He made it a point to nurture younger activists until the end. We have Alan to thank for helping to develop so many of our current and future community leaders.”

Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey lamented the loss of a giant in the Japanese American community.

“Alan will be remembered as a tireless community activist, principled, kind, and selfless,” he said. “Alan spoke often about how our legacy is one of activism, of defending our democracy. He also schooled us about how we had to fight for our future, and not in some dreamy, idealistic way. He was totally grounded.”

“Alan drew lessons from his decades of organizing in a way few other activists could,” he added. “He was able to break down what needed to be done with clarity and sometimes with humor. Alan was a visionary activist because he looked to the future with wisdom that was rooted in his progressive world view and deep love and commitment to our community.”

Nishio is survived by his wife, Yvonne, his daughters, Mia and Angela, and six grandchildren.

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