The Honorable Norman Mineta
Norman Mineta is well-known and admired for his many notable achievements, among them being the first person to serve as a cabinet member under both a Democratic and a Republican president – U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush. When he was elected to office in San Jose, he was the first Japanese American mayor of a large U.S. city. Later, he became the first Japanese American elected to Congress in the lower 48 states. These accomplishments and others will be included in his discussion when he visits the University of Washington in Seattle on November 10 at Kane Hall.
In this special interview, we will see another, more personal side of Mr. Mineta. The interviewer extended an invitation for him to discuss some favorite memories of his visits to Seattle, describe how politics has defined his life, and share his advice on how people can better serve their communities. He graciously accepted. Following are excerpts from their conversation, which we hope you will find both informative and enlightening.
Interview by Randy Tada, Board Member, North American Post
All photos courtesy of Norman Mineta
“…the problem is that decisions are being made about us and for us by people who don’t even know anything about us.”
What are some of the most memorable recollections of your many visits to Seattle?
I always related to Seattle because, as a kid, I remembered that there was a Jackson Street in the Seattle Japantown area. In San Jose, Japantown (Nihonmachi) had a Jackson Street as well, so I thought that there must be a Jackson Street in every Nihonmachi regardless of where they were located. I soon found out that that wasn’t the case. In any event, the fact that Seattle had a Jackson Street made me sort of relate to it and feel more comfortable. When I was younger, I really didn’t think much about it, but in 1971, I came and spoke to the Seattle Japanese Americans Citizen League (JACL). My wife and I had just come back from Tokyo. Trying to get back to San Jose, change clothes, re-pack suitcases, and all that, and then get back up to Seattle was quite a chore. But Tomio (Moriguchi, former CEO of Uwajimaya, Inc.) was such a gracious host. He took my son, David, who was about ten years old at the time, maybe not even ten, under his wing and showed him around town. He showed David a lot of things that were enjoyable to him. That was just a great trip to Seattle for the celebration of the Seattle JACL.
I have always enjoyed coming up to the Seattle area and have been there a number of times. On one trip, I met Diane Adachi at the University of Washington; she showed me around and helped me become familiar with the school. I eventually met the chairman of the Board of Regents and he invited me to speak at one of their annual commencements at the end of the school year.
When I was in the Army reserve, I used to go to Fort Lawton to do my two weeks of reserve duty. I remember it was on Magnolia Bluff, a beautiful residential area near Fort Lawton. We used to walk from Fort Lawton down to the Government Locks in Ballard.
I don’t know if the restaurant is still there, but there is a great seafood restaurant that has a great view of Seattle. The restaurant food is outstanding as well. Salty’s on Alki Beach, that’s it. I have been there a number of times. Great food and great view. I remember I always enjoyed going there.
On top of that, I was in the insurance business. One of the companies I represented was Safeco Insurance Company, so I used to visit Seattle and Safeco about twice a year.
What are your impressions about the Japanese American community in Seattle?
Well, there must be something in the air. JACL got started up there. James Sakamoto founded the JACL in Seattle back in 1929. I think it was called the Seattle Progressive Citizens League at that time or something similar to that. Somebody else had formed a similar group in the Sacramento area. Eventually, the Seattle people and the Sacramento people decided to work together and they formed the Japanese American Citizens League. The JACL is now national. Being the only national Japanese American association and the JACL’s interest in civil rights, that combination really makes it a very, very important organization. I am not sure how many chapters there are now, possibly close to 100. In San Jose, I think we have one of the largest chapters, in terms of membership, in the country.
Would you tell us a little about some of the local politicians you have been associated with?
When I was in the Congress, one of my close friends was Mike Lowry (Washington Governor 1993–1997). Of course, Tom Foley (representing Washington’s Fifth Congressional District for 30 years) was also a close friend. He was from Spokane and was the Speaker of the House of Representatives (1989–1995).
The interesting thing about Mike Lowry was that he was also in the House of Representatives (representing the Seventh Congressional District 1978–1989) and introduced the first redress bill. I think he came in 1978. So, here’s this guy from Seattle and the first bill he dropped in was the redress bill. So, I hooked up with him and asked him, “How did you come to introduce this bill?” He said, “Well, Seattle JACL and Cherry Kinoshita are really big on this redress effort.” So, the two of them started really early and went on their own to promote this bill. And, Cherry, you know, was a very dynamic person. When Mike was running for Congress, she talked to him a lot about evacuation and internment. The bill took 10 years to get passed.
In conjunction with that bill, we used to always talk about the three-term limitation. If we had a three-term limitation, I’m not sure that redress would have passed. We were lucky, though, to have the presence of three senior, long-time representatives on our side. Guys like Senator Daniel Inouye (U.S. Senator from Hawaii, 1963–2012), Senator Spark Matsunaga (U.S. Senator from Hawaii, 1977–1990), and Congressman Bob Matsui (U.S. House of Representative for California’s Fifth Congressional District, 1979–2005). Bob Matsui was elected in the same class as Mike Lowry; he was a very, very effective spokesperson on behalf of redress legislation.
Another politician that you are closely associated with is Alan Simpson (former Republican Senator from Wyoming). People are always surprised to learn that he is a good friend of yours. Do you still find time to see and talk with him?
Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. We usually go on two short vacations together every year. We are still on the phone five or six times a month. Whenever he calls, about the first minute or so is nothing but expletives about the president. As a Republican, he can’t stand Trump. I always say, “You can tell when this president is lying because his lips are moving.”
Alan is much older than me. He was born in September of ‘31 and I was born in November of ‘31. You know, it’s sort of funny. When George H.W. Bush told Alan he wanted him to be his eulogist; Alan asked him, “When do you want me to do this?” Bush responded emphatically, “What do you mean, when do you want me to do this? When I’m dead!” Simpson replied, “Oh, okay.” One time, George H.W. Bush invited my wife and me, and Alan and his wife, Ann, to Kennebunkport. When we arrived, Alan told him, “I’m tired of waiting, so I packed up my harp and put it into storage.” He’s a fun, fun guy.
One time we were having dinner and this guy comes up to us at the dinner table and says, “Senator Simpson, you’re a conservative Republican and Mineta is a liberal Democrat. Now, tell me, what’s the biggest difference between the two of you?” Alan thought a bit and said, “I wear size 17 D shoes and he wears 8 ½ D.” This guy looked at Alan as if to say, “Now what kind of screwy answer is that to the serious question that I was asking?” The guy walks away, mumbling. And, I said, “Look at that man, he’s walking away mumbling! Look at that man. Look at that poor man. Look at what you’ve done to him!” He does that sort of thing all of the time. Really a fun guy in that way.
How did you initially meet Alan Simpson?
We met when the Boy Scouts from Cody, Wyoming, came into the camp at Heart Mountain for a scouting jamboree. That’s when we met. We were twelve years old in 1943 and we just became good friends. You do the woodworking contests and knot-tying contests, start a fire without a match, and that sort of thing. Then, we’d pair up with the kids from the Cody Boy Scout troop and we would put up our pup tents. In Wyoming, it rains a lot, but you never know when. So we put up a tent. We also had to protect them, so we always built a big moat around the tent. Alan said that he knew a kid from his troop, down the hill from us in a tent, who was really a bully. He really didn’t like him. Alan said, “Would you mind if we took the water from the moat around our tent and directed it downward toward that tent?” I told him, “No skin off of my nose,” and we proceeded to do just that. It was a great moat, designed for water to exit toward that tent. As luck would have it, it started to rain. The moat worked perfectly and the water drained off and went toward that tent. Eventually, the tent pegs pulled out and that tent came down. Alan started laughing hysterically. After a few minutes, I told him, “Would you please shut up so that we can get some rest?” After that, we became just the best of friends and we’ve maintained that friendship to this day.
In 1974, I got elected to the House of Representatives, and in 1978, he got elected to the U.S. Senate, so our friendship was reunited. If was as if we reverted back to 1943, living in that pup tent. My wife, Deni, and Ann, Alan’s wife, always maintain that when we get together, we always revert back to being twelve years old.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, how was your family impacted?
On December 7th, a lot of things happened quickly. By one or two o’clock that afternoon, the FBI had arrested a number of people of Japanese ancestry. They were really looking for people who were sympathetic to the Japanese and who might be supportive of their war efforts. At about 1:30 pm that afternoon, I remember hearing our next-door neighbor, Joyce Hirano, who was one of my classmates. We had a hedge between our two homes and there was a little cutout down below where Joyce or Irving (Joyce’s brother) and I could go between our homes. Joyce comes running in the backdoor yelling, “The police are taking Papa away! The police are taking Papa away!” So, my Dad runs out the front door and goes next door, but by that time, Mr. Hirano was already gone. So, my Dad asked Irving, who was about fifteen at the time, “Irving, who was it?” He responded, “I don’t know. Just guys in dark suits. They took Papa away.” And, Mrs. Hirano didn’t know either. She was an Issei (first-generation Japanese) and she didn’t really know anything about who those people were either. As it turned out, no one, including the family, ever found out. It probably took seven to nine months before they ever found out what had happened to Mr. Hirano. He had been arrested. He was the executive secretary of the Nihonjin Kai, a Japanese association. It was strictly a social organization. They put on the New Year’s celebrations in the community and things like that. So, on that day, they took Mr. Hirano away. They also took away the Japanese language teacher at the Buddhist church and they wouldn’t tell my father anything about where anyone was being relocated.
When they took Mr. Hirano away, my Dad called the city manager. The city manager responded, “Mr. Mineta, I don’t know what you are talking about. Why don’t you call the police chief?” So, he called the police chief and the police chief responded, “Nah, I don’t know anything about what you are talking about. Why don’t you call Sheriff Emig.” So, my Dad called Sheriff Emig and he said, “Well, it’s not my operation because I would know about it if it was. It’s the FBI; they are going out arresting people they think are sympathetic to the Japanese. I’ll call the FBI and have them give you a call.” Well, the FBI agent came to the house about 4:30 pm and he said that they were picking up people who were sympathetic to the Japanese and also people who were close to the government in Japan. The FBI guy also said, “We are picking up people who are community leaders.” My Dad thought of himself as a community leader. He thought it was strange that he wasn’t considered worthy enough to be picked up. So, after the FBI left, my Mother and Dad packed a suitcase, just in case the guy came back. The guy never came back. It was kind of funny, though, because when the FBI guy said that they were picking up community leaders, my Dad frequently told the story about how he felt kind of insulted that he wasn’t in the same league as the other community leaders who were being picked up.