He was new to Congress and wanted an antitrust subcommittee seat, but a colleague took one look at Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.) and said, in the friendliest way, "I'd think you'd want something dealing with immigration so you can bring in all your friends from over there."
For Matsui, it was one more annoying reminder that, even in the late 1970s, citizens of Japanese descent, despite one of the most remarkable records of any ethnic group in U.S. history, would have to wait many more years to be accepted as full-fledged Americans.
Forty years ago this week, as the war ended in the Pacific, Japanese Americans were surveying the personal and economic devastation wrought by their years in relocation camps.
The Nisei -- the second generation that included Matsui's parents, American-born children of Japanese immigrants -- had been forced to forfeit their jobs and property in the anti-Japanese hysteria.
In mid-1942, more than 110,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent -- 64 percent of them U.S. citizens -- were taken from their homes to 10 camps in remote and often barren regions of the West and South. There they slept in military-style barracks and ate in military-style mess halls, using communal toilets and showers.
Internees were paid $16 a month for manual labor, $19 a month for professional work. The monotony of crowded camp life led to fights, strikes and riots as the internment wore on.
All of the camps were closed by December 1945 except the one in Tulelake, Calif., which closed in 1946.
By 1950, Japanese Americans' median per-capita income of $1,839 was close to the American median of $1,917.
More than 30 years later, Japanese Americans have pulled far ahead, with a per capita income of $9,068 compared with the $7,298 American median and a median family income of $27,354 compared with $19,917.
Yet community leaders, as proud as they are of that accomplishment, remain dissatisfied, convinced that the racial discrimination that brought wartime internment for them, but not for German Americans, continues to exclude them from the upper reaches of corporate and political power.
"When you get between the rock and the hard place, things do not seem to have changed at all," said John Saito, Los Angeles regional director of the 28,000-member Japanese-American Citizens League. "We have never been accepted as Americans."
Some scholars of the Japanese-American experience suggest that the traits that allowed them to rebound so quickly after the war -- loyalty, courtesy and devotion to duty -- have been a drag on their climb to the top, preventing the most talented from asserting themselves at critical moments in their careers.
"Few are in the highest leadership positions, and many are overqualified for the jobs they hold," said UCLA sociologist Harry H.L. Kitano. "It may only be a matter of time before some break out of these middleman jobs, but the structural and cultural restraints may prove difficult to overcome."
Statistics help reveal the unusual Japanese contribution to American talent and social stability, particularly since World War II. In 1940, 4 percent of ethnic Japanese males were classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as professionals, and by 1960, the figure had risen to 15 percent.
In 1980, an extraordinary 33.5 percent of Japanese-American males held professional or managerial positions -- as doctors, engineers, pharmacists, dentists and business executives. The national median in 1980 was 23.6 percent.
Kitano notes that among other immigrants, the first generation born in the new land is often the most torn by cultural conflict and "has shown the highest degree of delinquency and mental illness." But Japanese Americans have been notably absent from mental health clinics and scarce in crime statistics.
According to the FBI, arrest rates for ethnic Japanese in 1940 were 347 per 100,000 Japanese-American population, compared with a national rate of 462 per 100,000 population. In 1950, the ethnic Japanese rate was 202 per 100,000 compared with 524; in 1960, 187 compared with 1,951, and in 1970, 656 compared with 3,079.
The wartime confinement made Japanese Americans, if anything, even more patriotic, law-abiding and accommodating than before the war.
They encouraged their children to excel in school and salute the flag, and they generally refrained from talking about the camps.
"My mother never spoke about it," said Robin Toma, a 24-year-old UCLA law student.
He said he had no inkling of what his mother and grandparents had endured until he read about the camps in a high school history text.
Paradoxically, the effort to remove Japanese Americans from American life during the war greatly accelerated their assimilation. The internment prompted many young Japanese-American men to volunteer for wartime duty in Europe and prove their patriotism. Not only did the predominantly ethnic Japanese 442nd Combat Team and 100th Battalion become the most decorated units in U.S. military history, with 9,000 casualties and 600 dead out of 33,000 soldiers, but the returning veterans gained a self-confidence that brought rewards in civilian life.
In addition, about 35,000 internees were cleared during the war for "resettlement" outside the allegedly threatened communities of the West.
Large new communities of Japanese Americans grew up in places such as Chicago, Cleveland and Minneapolis where they had never been.
In new homes and old, they buried themselves in work, rebuilding farms or renewing businesses to restore their finances -- and to forget.
The late Edison Uno, dean of students at the University of San Francisco, once compared postwar Japanese Americans to rape victims: not only violated but burdened with an irrational guilt that they might have somehow been responsible for the crime.
"There were many psychological scars left," said Paul Oda, 72, who built a career as a high-quality cabinet finisher after returning from the Army. He recalled that his wartime wedding was during a short leave to see his fiancee at the camp at Manzanar in California; the camp director's son took them to a honeymoon in Reno, Nev., since no ethnic Japanese could leave without a Caucasian escort.
Citing a Japanese tradition that reverberates with heroes such as Musashi, a 16th-century swordsman who persevered despite repeated setbacks, Oda observed, "It is the tendency of the Japanese to pull themselves up by their bootstraps."
After the war, Japanese Americans often turned self-improvement into a group project, making a virtue of the few openings available to them in predominantly white America. They invested in one another's businesses, formed their own community service groups and created their own "old-boy network."
In Hawaii, the 37 percent ethnic Japanese population immediately after the war produced a political revolution and transferred control of the once Republican-dominated islands to decorated war veterans such as Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Democrat like most of his fellow Japanese Americans in Hawaii.
Because it was heavily multiracial, Hawaii escaped the worst of the pre-war anti-Japanese laws, and the vast majority of its ethnic Japanese citizens were not interned. To this day, Japanese Americans like Saito, raised on the mainland United States, notice a more light-hearted attitude among relatives raised in Hawaii, including his wife, Carol.
"They grew up as a majority, and their mental health is better than ours," Saito said.
The tradition of togetherness and the agonizing effort not to offend had an impact on the mainland, too. Matsui recalled the crucial financial support he received at the beginning of his political career from Sacramento's small Japanese-American community.
"They said, 'We really have to help Bob,' " Matsui said. Posters sprouting on the immaculate lawns of these model citizens impressed their white neighbors, bringing more votes for the young candidate.
But as the Japanese community grew and prospered, it changed. Kitano said the Japanese-American basketball teams that used to welcome even the worst players to promote an old-country feeling of belonging began to look for talent and championships, the American way.
Social custom and in some cases law forbade interracial marriage before World War II, and Los Angeles County records show only 23 percent of Japanese Americans marrying outside their ethnic group as late as 1959. By 1979, this figure had shot up to 61 percent. Japanese Americans today are more likely to choose a mixed marriage than any other U.S. ethnic group, with the exception of American Indians.
"Some people say that in two to three generations, you won't be able to find anyone who is 100 percent Japanese-American," said John Tateishi, of the Japanese-American Citizens League headquarters in San Francisco.
Today only a small percentage of Japanese Americans speak Japanese, and they are often put off by the odd habits of the recent Japanese immigrants they encounter.
"We like to have a democratic discussion out on the table," said Oda, who serves as an elder at the downtown Union Church of Los Angeles, where the congregation is predominantly ethnic Japanese Protestants, both American-born and Japanese-born. But the recent immigrant "wants to try to get a consensus, through lots of little meetings . . . . It often undermines the decisions that we have made."
But that distinctly American fondness for confrontation has also produced a rebirth of interest in the wartime camps, and the continuing campaign to win an official government apology and $20,000 for every Japanese American who was interned.
The man at a party who asked Saito if he was "Japanese or Chinese" and the the boy who screamed at Toma and his parents, in a restaurant parking lot in Torrance, Calif., "Get out of here, Japs," do not receive the same diffident reactions they once did. Toma is working this summer with the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, a group fighting for remembrance of the camps. The effort has galvanized many Sansei (third-generation) and Yonsei (fourth-generation) Japanese Americans who never saw Manzanar.
Some researchers, like Darrel Montero of Arizona State University, suggest that, as ethnic Japanese blend into the American scene, they also will "begin to mirror the lower achievement patterns of American society in general."
Tateishi does not believe it. Japanese Americans have never had a firmer fix on who they are and why they have come so far, he said, and are no longer so bent on burying themselves in American culture.
"They will always look back at that heritage with some pride," he said.