When Norman Yoshio Mineta was 11, he and his family were forced from their California home at government gunpoint and interned behind machine-gun towers and barbed wire.
Mineta was dressed in his Cub Scout uniform. He was carrying his baseball, bat and glove, but before he boarded the evacuation train in 1942, an alert U.S. Army MP confiscated the bat as a potential lethal weapon.
For the first four months, the Mineta family's prison was the Santa Anita Racetrack just north of Los Angeles, which had been transformed into an "assembly center" for more than 10,000 Japanese Americans. It was actually a concentration camp, under the original definition of that term. There were no death squads, crematoriums or slave laborers, and nobody starved. But on the West Coast in those days, if you had one-sixteenth Japanese blood you were transportable to such a place as a public enemy. In Hitler's Germany the same year, it took twice as much Jewish blood to so qualify.
"The barbed-wire fence was very high," remembers Mineta. "And about every 200 or 300 feet there were sentry towers with machine-gun mounts and searchlights." At night the searchlight beams would sweep back and forth through the camp. "I used to pull the blanket over my head to try to go to sleep. But even in the darkness under that army blanket, I would see that searchlight in my mind going back and forth, back and forth. . . . You could feel it. Even with your eyes closed."
Last month Mineta was sworn in as secretary of commerce, the first Asian American in history to hold a Cabinet post. (His predecessor, William Daley, was tapped to run Al Gore's presidential campaign.) The onetime 11-year-old enemy of the people now oversees a department of 40,000 people with a budget of $5 billion, and is 10th in line of succession to the presidency. He is the secretary of private enterprise when the private sector has never been more dynamic; a highly respected, tech-savvy former 10-term congressman from San Jose who, as Vice President Gore said before swearing him in, "was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley was cool."
But somewhere in some corner of Norm Mineta's quiet, outwardly tranquil soul, the searchlight of internment is obviously still sweeping, back and forth, back and forth. Even a Cabinet post can't blanket it completely.
The 120,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II--the vast majority of them native-born American citizens--"were judged disloyal by their government. . . . That was what hurt." Mineta says. Americans "couldn't make a distinction between people piloting the Zeroes that bombed Pearl Harbor and those Americans who by an accident of birth were Japanese Americans. . . . General [John] DeWitt [who led the internment] said, 'A Jap is a Jap.' "
A congressional investigating committee in the 1980s would belatedly attribute the internment to a failure of political leadership, to wartime hysteria and to a deep-seated heritage of anti-Asian prejudice on the West Coast.
"But we carried the yoke of that 'disloyalty' on our necks for nearly half a century," Mineta says. And that, despite the extraordinary World War II valor and patriotism of Japanese American soldiers, who volunteered from within the camps to fight for the government that imprisoned them.
The yoke was finally lifted in 1988, with an official government apology and payment of $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee. The original sponsor of the bill and its chief lobbyist during a 10-year struggle for approval: Norman Y. Mineta.
His legislative agenda in those days included major projects in economic development, science and technology, trade, transportation, the environment and the budget, and he played a key role in settling the semiconductor chip dispute with Japan.
But to understand why HR 422, the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, remains his proudest achievement you had to attend his swearing-in July 21 as secretary of commerce. Hundreds of Japanese Americans packed the audience, speaking with pride and excitement of flying in for the occasion on less than 24 hours' notice from Seattle, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or New York. Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono led a delegation all the way from Hawaii, bringing Mineta a lei of orchids.
"There is no question that all of us are proud to be Americans," he told the crowd in a voice heavy with emotion. "We are also proud of our ethnic background, regardless of where our forebears have come from. I am particularly proud of being an American of Japanese ancestry. . . . There is a great quote from Thomas Jefferson: 'I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.' "
A World Apart
The more you learn about the internment of Japanese Americans, the greater and more profound the injustice against them appears. Even before Pearl Harbor, immigrants from Japan had for decades been denied the right to become citizens, forbidden to buy land and discriminated against in jobs, education and housing. Envious of their thrift and industry, resentful Californians stole their property, firebombed their businesses, beat them and occasionally lynched them.
There was nothing systematic about the violence. It was just sporadic in many areas. But the yellow-peril rhetoric was embraced even by such establishment voices as the Los Angeles Times, and for some reason national arbiters of civil rights in places like Washington, New York and Boston never seemed to notice.
The 1942 internment was just the climax to all that. But as Mineta notes, "One of the amazing things about this story is that, although this happened to 120,000 people, they did not, by and large, emerge from the experience with rancor or bitterness. The overwhelming majority just moved on with their lives."
Part of the reason, he believes, is cultural: "There's a . . . mind-set [in Japanese culture] . . . that's sort of fatalistic. It says if you can't do anything about something bad, just make it as painless as possible. . . . I guess that's what we all tried to do."
But though few in the community succumbed to bitterness, he says, "there was a very strong desire to see that something like this never, ever happened to anyone else."
Mineta is quick to point out that he and his family were far more fortunate than many Japanese Americans, partly because of their relative prosperity and partly because of where they lived.
His father, the second son of a vegetable farmer from Shizuoka prefecture south of Tokyo, came to the United States in 1902 to join an uncle working on a sugar farm outside Spreckels, Calif.
But he was 14 at the time and alone. Knowing neither English nor geography, he "ended up getting off the boat in Seattle, 1,100 miles from where he should have been." Undeterred, he worked his way down the coast for 18 months, laboring in orchards and timber camps until he reached Spreckels, about 80 miles south of San Francisco. Whereupon his uncle, insisting he learn English, enrolled the teenager in first grade with a class of 6-year-olds.
"My father said that was the most humiliating thing that ever happened to him," Mineta says.
The student learned English quickly, however, and soon was sharecropping sugar beets with the help of a new wife, the younger sister of a friend in Japan, who came over to join him as a "picture bride." Gravely ill and weakened by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, he was forced to give up farming and turned to work as a correspondent for a Japanese paper in San Francisco, as a court interpreter and eventually as an insurance agent.
"In those days, virtually all insurance companies put a surcharge on the premiums of 'Orientals,' as we were then called," Mineta remembers. "For example, if you could buy life insurance for $10 per thousand, I would be charged $12 per thousand" because the lifestyle of Asian Americans--not to say, the hazards of West Coast bigotry--was believed to shorten their lives.
A company called West Coast Life, however, was establishing itself by selling policies without the surcharge. "This made them very popular, and my father was their first agent on the West Coast."
By the outbreak of World War II, therefore, the Minetas were prosperous enough to have sent a daughter to college during the Great Depression and to spend yearly family vacations at Lake Tahoe. In an arrangement possibly unique to Santa Clara County, they were also able to own their own home.
"People [of Japanese ancestry] in Santa Clara fared much better than in other counties," Mineta recalls, "because of an attorney named J.B. Peckham," who helped them circumvent the alien land laws. Those laws forbade anyone ineligible for citizenship to buy land, a provision that effectively applied only to Japanese immigrants.
But Peckham, "a very honest, very warm" Caucasian, would buy land for such issei--Japanese born--clients in his own name, accept payments from them on the mortgage, then transfer title to them when their eldest nisei child, a U.S. citizen by birth, turned 21.
"He never cheated anyone," Mineta remembers, "but if you had looked at the county land records you would have thought him the richest man in California because so much was in his name."
Partially due to people like Peckham, Mineta says, relations between whites and Japanese in Santa Clara County were unusually good, even though families like the Minetas were effectively segregated in a section of San Jose known as "Japantown." "But the whole world changed on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941."
The family had just returned from San Jose's Japanese Methodist Church when they learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"That was one of only three times I saw my dad cry," Mineta remembers. "He couldn't understand how the land of his birth could attack the land of his heart."
The telephone was soon ringing off the hook as issei and nisei alike called in alarm to wonder what war would mean for the community. A next-door neighbor was promptly whisked off by police; his family wouldn't hear from him for five months. When Mineta's father called the police chief to learn why, he was told the police were "just picking up the leaders of the Japanese community."
"My father was rather insulted. . . . He assumed he was one of the leaders."
As December faded into January and Japan's army swept through Southeast Asia, seemingly unstoppable, resentment against West Coast Japanese Americans increased. They were fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes. There was talk of imprisoning them all or exchanging technical aliens--like Mineta's parents, to whom citizenship was denied by law--for Americans held prisoner by the Japanese.
"I remember toward the end of January, Dad called all of us into the front room and said, 'I don't know what's going to happen to your mother and me. But just remember: All of you are U.S. citizens and this is your home. There is nothing anyone can do to take this away from you.'
"Well, of course, he couldn't see what was coming. Nobody could."
On Feb. 17, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 ordering all Japanese Americans off the West Coast. Soon after that, Mineta remembers, the Army "tacked up these big placards . . . saying 'ATTENTION ALL THOSE OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY--ALIEN AND NON-ALIEN.' Already they were starting the psychological warfare. . . . When was the last time you thumped your chest and said, 'I'm a proud non-alien of the USA'?"
Evacuees could take only what they could carry. Most were forced to sell their belongings for almost nothing. The evacuation was so timed that Japanese American farmers, hoping for the best, had planted their spring crops. Those who then seized their land reaped a highly profitable harvest.
Unlike most evacuees, the Minetas didn't lose their home. Through lawyer Peckham they were able to rent it to a college professor at San Jose State University. "But my father had a new 1941 Packard Clipper that had cost about $1,000. He had to sell it for $300."
From the assembly center at Santa Anita, the Minetas were shipped to the Heart Mountain relocation camp on a dusty, wind-swept plain outside Cody, Wyo. The barracks were hastily thrown-together tar-paper shacks, through which the wind whistled unceasingly, depositing inches of silt on floors, beds and windowsills. In the winter, the mercury plunged to near zero. The internees had no warm clothes.
"I think Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward must have made millions," Mineta remembers. "We ordered frantically from the mail-order catalogues."
The internees fought for a sense of normality in the camps, establishing schools and newspapers and other aspects of community life.
"At one point we had a Boy Scout jamboree in the camp and we invited the Boy Scouts from the nearby towns like Cody and Powell," Mineta remembers. "At first they didn't want to come to 'the Jap camp,' but their scoutmaster pointed out that we were Scouts just like they were, took the same oaths, studied for the same merit badges. And so they agreed to come. And I somehow hooked up with this kid from Cody named Alan Simpson."
Simpson, who as Wyoming's Republican U.S. senator would later join Democrat Mineta in Washington, remembers the apprehension of the war years very well.
"There was all this empty sagebrush prairie out by the Heart Mountain railroad siding. Nothing there at all. And one day all these 40-year-old carpenters showed up--too old to be in the Army--and began throwing up these tar-paper shacks . . . row upon row upon row, literally in a matter of days. We learned there were going to be 11,000 Japanese prisoners in there. Well, hell, Cody only had about 3,000 people and Powell 2,500. We were at war. We knew if anything happened in that camp we'd be overwhelmed. So we were on guard."
Like most in the area, he says, the Scouts "had no idea they were mostly American citizens in there. After all, there was high barbed wire around the place and machine-gun towers. And the guns were all pointed toward the inside. We thought they were the enemy."
But when his scoutmaster led them through the gates, Simpson says, "we saw the camp was just like Cody--mostly elderly people and kids. The young men were all away in the U.S. Army. And the Scouts in there were just like us. They told the same goofy stories, read the same comic books. Played the same dumb tricks on each other. . . .
"When I met Norm he had this pesky look of curiosity. He was a pesky kid like me. And soon we were tying knots together and playing pesky tricks on all the other Scouts. You know, the spirited colt makes the best horse."
Unlike most Japanese Americans, the Minetas were interned only about 18 months.
"In April 1943," Mineta remembers, "my father volunteered to teach the Japanese language at an Army training program at the University of Chicago. Even though he was issei, he felt a need to contribute to the war effort. He asked that Mother and I be allowed to accompany him. The Army said no." Six months later the Army relented. The Minetas moved to Evanston, Ill., and stayed three years.
By that time, the war was over. The Army reopened the West Coast to the Japanese and the family returned to San Jose. They reclaimed their house, but Mineta's father found it difficult to restart his business.
"He had lots of applications for fire and auto insurance, but none of the companies he used to deal with would write the business," Mineta remembers. "There was still a lot of resentment against the Japanese, and homes were being sporadically firebombed."
Finally, one company agreed to break the deadlock, Mineta says, but others remained reluctant. "If there was an auto accident, the companies were certain a California jury would decide any case against a Japanese American. They didn't want the risk."
Meanwhile, San Jose's Japantown was determined to see that nothing like the internment would ever happen again. A very successful issei farmer named I.K. Ishimatsu had the "conviction that part of the reason the internment happened was that we had no inroads into the political structure: Nobody to speak up on our behalf. So he went around collecting two or three dollars from all the Japanese American families and every year used it to send two nisei to the Republicans' Lincoln Day dinner and two to the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner thrown by the Democrats. One year, I was the beneficiary of those tickets."
By that time Mineta had graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in business administration and had served in the Army in Korea. Soon he was using the contacts from those dinners to become the first Asian American on the San Jose city council, the first to be mayor of a major city.
"We had written each other for several years, but I lost touch with him while he was in the Army," Simpson remembers. "When he was elected mayor of San Jose, I read about it in the paper and dropped him a line. 'Hey, Norm,' I said. 'Remember that fat kid from Cody?' "
Rising Above Bitterness
Mineta's confirmation as secretary of commerce may have set some sort of record for speed from an opposition Senate. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), heaping praise on Mineta, sped the nomination through to unanimous approval in two days. The only reservation expressed was Sen. Dianne Feinstein's regret that President Clinton hadn't chosen Mineta earlier.
The thing about Mineta, Simpson says, is that "he really does love this country. He came through all that with the camps by just rising above any kind of resentment or bitterness. He's like Nelson Mandela that way. There's some sadness, certainly, and there's regret. . . . But you look at the way he's handled it and how hard he's worked since and you say, 'There's a person of depth.' "
Recently, Simpson said, he invited Mineta up to Harvard, where he was teaching. "There were some Asian American activists, bright kids, good kids, all agitated about this or that, and they wanted his advice.
"And they were just bowled over by what he told them. He said, 'You can demonstrate and agitate and confront people with a lot of vitriol all you want. It'll get some headlines and it'll make you feel real good, because you'll be the center of what's happening. It will be all about you. But you'll also turn people off, and many of those people will be the ones you need to help you accomplish something.
" 'If you really want to get your message across, there's really no shortcut. It takes reasoning and negotiation and persistence and a whole lot of patience. You have to try to meet people halfway.' "
Because of his gift for such consensus building, Simpson says, Norman Mineta "is going to be a great secretary of commerce. He'll accomplish important things in the next few months. . . . He won't be just holding press conferences and babbling into the ether."
When the government closed the Heart Mountain relocation camp in 1945, it opened much of the land to homesteading and farming. The internees had built and left behind an extensive irrigation system, and today--thanks largely to them--the once-barren Bighorn Basin blooms with crops like alfalfa and barley.
One day, according to the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, farmhands plowing a corner of the former camp ran into a large rock inscribed with Japanese characters. They dug it up and had the inscription translated.
"A mountain peak at my shoulder," it read, "one thousand barracks under an autumn moon."