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Where EAST meets the Northwest

Norman Mineta. (Photo courtesy of the Mineta Legacy Project)

 

MINETA’S MANY FIRSTS. Norman Mineta achieved many firsts as an Asian American of Japanese descent in politics. A new documentary, Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, follows the history of the Mineta family and the hardships they endured, including incarceration during World War II, blatant and systemic racism, and more. The show airs May 20 on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Pictured is Norman Mineta (center, wearing white shirt) with family members and friends at the prison camp at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II. (Photo courtesy of the Mineta family)

This image from 1914 shows Norman’s parents, Kane Watanabe Mineta (left) and Kunisaku Mineta. (Photo courtesy of the Mineta family)

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #09 (May 6, 2019), pages 12 & 15.

Norman Mineta’s legacy: An American story

Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story

Airs Monday, May 20

at 10:00pm on

Oregon Public Broadcasting

By Maileen Hamto
The Asian Reporter

Norman Mineta achieved many firsts as an Asian American of Japanese descent in politics. He was the first Asian American elected as mayor of a large U.S. city. He was the first Asian American elected to congress from the lower 48 states. The crowning achievement of his long, illustrious career in politics was becoming the first person to serve as a cabinet member under both a Democratic and a Republican president.

During a time of deep ideological divides in the country’s sociopolitical consciousness, Mineta’s legacy of service and advocacy for civil rights bears important lessons. A new documentary, Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, follows the arc of the Mineta family history through incarceration during World War II to the 1980s fight for redress in an effort to illustrate past and ongoing struggles for justice, especially among new Americans.

Produced by the Mineta Legacy Project and directed by San Francisco Bay area native Dianne Fukami, the one-hour documentary captures highlights of Mineta’s life of public service and focus on social justice. The project drew the support of more than 30 community groups and philanthropists who are committed to honoring Mineta’s exemplary life and career anchored in patriotism, community engagement, and public service.

In the current political climate, it’s difficult to imagine a lifelong Democrat serving on the cabinet of a widely popular Democratic president, then being appointed as a chief advisor to a Republican White House. Yet that’s one of Mineta’s primary accomplishments. During his time in office, Mineta successfully built support behind the Japanese-American redress campaign, increased funding for mass transit projects, advanced the American Disabilities Act, and strongly advocated for marriage equality.

Content warning: The documentary features interviews with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as testament to Mineta’s track record of bipartisanship. One cannot avoid politicizing a very political story, especially in light of current sentiments about working across the aisle. Folks, there was indeed a time when it was possible — even advisable — to work successfully with people with divergent political perspectives. Both the Clinton and Bush presidencies weren’t that long ago, and Mineta served in both White Houses.

The film follows the role of U.S. immigration policy in the lives of American newcomers and ensuing generations. In the early 1900s, the growing communities of Japanese immigrants along the west coast were subjected to racist policies such as alien land laws that limited their ability to own property as well as anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriages. The inhospitable social climate cast immigrants as competition for jobs, property, and women among entitled white men. Despite this, industrious young newcomers like Mineta’s father, Kunisaku, persevered. Ten years after arriving to the U.S., the elder Mineta brought his "picture bride," Kane Watanabe, to California. The couple married and started raising a family. Through Kunisaku’s flourishing insurance business, the Minetas led a middle-class lifestyle in San Jose, California until war broke out in 1941.

Executive Order 9066 changed everything for tens of thousands of Americans. One of the darkest periods of American history witnessed the forced removal of Americans of Japanese descent from the Pacific coast. Families were rounded up and sent to live in horse stalls, in prison camps across desert landscapes, and far-flung rural towns. In 1942, Mineta was only 11 years old when his family joined more than 120,000 Japanese Issei and Nisei, who were relocated to 10 internment camps throughout the country.

The story of Japanese incarceration — along with other crimes of institutionalized and government-sanctioned racism in America — must never be forgotten. Through archival photos and interviews with historians and survivors of the camps, the film captures sorrow from betrayal. Hard lessons from blatant and systemic racism dispensed valuable lessons for the young Mineta. Coming of age in the prison camp situated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, Mineta never abandoned his roots nor forgot the shame and humiliation he and his family endured during the war.

"Work hard, gain power, become involved" were central to Mineta’s approach to public engagement and service. He led the way to secure an apology from the U.S. government and redress for Japanese Americans. On September 11, 2001, as U.S. Secretary of Transportation, he played an instrumental role in ensuring that what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II did not happen to Muslim Americans.

Throughout his political career, Mineta won re-election 10 times. He was the most prominent Asian-American legislator of his day, inspiring up-and-coming activists and community organizers to rise as public servants to represent the fastest-growing segment of American society. Perhaps more importantly, his true legacy is staying faithful to his history and identity as the son of immigrants. Mineta never wavered from his commitment to justice and love for his people.

Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story airs on Oregon Public Broadcasting on Monday, May 20 at 10:00pm with a replay on May 22 at 3:00am. To learn more, visit <www.opb.org>.

Editor’s note: Another feature released this year is a new book, Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II, by author Andrea Warren.

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