By Bruce Rutledge
Photos by Elaine Ikoma Ko For The North American Post
The nation paid tribute to Norman Mineta at a memorial service in Washington, D.C. on June 11. Two other memorials were held at the San Jose Civic Auditorium on June 16 and in Los Angeles at the Japanese American National Museum on June 25.
Friends, family, professional acquaintances and admirers gathered at the National United Methodist Church in the capital city to honor a man known for breaking racial barriers in politics, working both sides of the aisle, and promoting the cause of reparations for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.
Tomio Moriguchi and Elaine Ikoma Ko flew from Seattle to attend the public memorial in D.C. (See her trip report, NAP, June 24.) It was a chance for them to pay tribute to their friend and ally and revisit the National Japanese American Memorial, which Tomio and Norm fought for and helped complete more than two decades ago. We spoke with Tomio about his memories of his friend, Norm.
Tomio recalled opening the newspaper one day and seeing an article about Mineta being elected mayor of San Jose. It was 1971, and Mineta was the first Japanese American elected to run a major US city.
Tomio happened to have a conference to attend in San Jose around that time, so he decided to visit the mayor’s office. Mineta’s staff seemed a little surprised that this man from Seattle walked in expecting to meet the mayor. They told Tomio that he should write Mineta a letter.
“So I did,” Tomio said. “And he responded. That’s how we became friends.”
Tomio later invited Norm to speak at the 50th anniversary of the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Norm accepted and the two remained close ever since. According to the chapter’s newsletters, that event was its “Jubilee Banquet,” held at the Olympic Hotel in September 1971, when 430 attended.
Mineta would visit Seattle periodically to raise funds for various causes dear to the Japanese American community.
“We would have events for him at Bush Garden,” Tomio recalled.
Even after Mineta became Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration (2000) and then Secretary of Transportation in the George W. Bush administration (2001), he’d ring Tomio whenever he came to town.
“He’d call me and say, ‘I got a meeting at Boeing… let’s go to a Japanese restaurant,” Tomio said. “His colleagues at Boeing would take him to Italian restaurants, but he’d tell me, ‘I want Japanese food!’”
They’d often head to the marina in Magnolia, where there used to be a Japanese restaurant near Palisade Restaurant. They’d dine and look out at the water and the Seattle skyline.
Tomio recalled Norm’s key role in the redress movement. Other Japanese Americans in Congress were not convinced that individual payments were the way to go. Former Washington Governor and Congressman Mike Lowry helped persuade Norm to back individual redress, Tomio said.
Tomio and Norm worked closely on the board of the National Japanese American Memorial in Washington, D.C. Tomio would often meet Norm in the congressional dining hall for breakfast or lunch when he was there.
“I remember telling him, come on, you have to be the chair!” But Norm declined. Tomio thinks he was just too busy to take on anything more. “I mean, he was advisor to everything! However, he had his wonderful staff who were very helpful and opened many high-level needed connections to the project.”
The National Japanese American Memorial, which was completed and open to the public in 2001, sits just north of the Capitol at the intersection of New Jersey Avenue and D Street NW (map). It includes a Zen garden motif, a bronze sculpture of a crane entangled in barbed wire and several inscriptions, including a quote from Mineta on the left wall of the monument:
“May this memorial be a tribute to the indomitable spirit of a citizenry in World War II who remained steadfast in their faith in our democratic system.” It is attributed to “Norman Mineta, US Congressman, Internee, Heart Mountain.”
The path to completing that monument was an arduous one. The group backing the monument wanted to hire a Japanese American architect to run the project, but officials in D.C. told them they had to find an architect who had experience with the many restrictions and regulations surrounding monument construction in the capital.
Davis Buckley, a D.C. architect with experience designing and planning monuments in the city, wrote to Mineta in 1992 offering help. He and his team eventually took over the project. Although the finished project was a success, there was some grumbling among the ranks with the choice.
“I’ll be frank,” Tomio said. “At the end of the day, I think it was a good design for that site. But it was disappointing to see a trend of going with the old boy’s network in design and construction work, leaving out the new players.”
The Seattle community held a special tribute for Norm in November 2019 at University of Washington’s Kane Hall featuring a screening of the documentary film, “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story (2018).”
The last time Tomio and Norm dined together was that same weekend at Hurry Curry in South Lake Union. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke and the first casualty was reported in Washington State a couple of months later, Norm called Tomio.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
Later, Tomio and his wife Jenny flew to San Jose for an event and what would turn out to be their last encounter with Norm.
“The amazing thing was that he remembered Jenny’s name,” Tomio said. “Jenny was always impressed by that.”
Mineta’s legacy in US history is manifold. He presided over the city of San Jose and guided its exponential growth with a deft hand first as mayor and later as congressman. Today that metropolis is the largest in northern California and has more than doubled its population to about one million residents since Mineta was mayor in the early 1970s. Its airport is named after the former congressman.
But Mineta never took credit for the city’s steady growth, Tomio stressed.
“I don’t think he credit(ed) himself for facilitating (growth), but he didn’t fight it. I give him credit because a lot of people didn’t want all that growth. He publicly stated that he didn’t want to fight it.”
Mineta, of course, played a key role in the 9/11 tragedy as then President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Transportation. Mineta was one of two who made the decision to ground all US aircraft after the planes flew into the World Trade Center towers.
After Mineta’s death, the US Embassy in Tokyo dedicated a room in his honor. The Norman Yoshio Mineta Room is in the Chief of Mission’s residence.
But perhaps his most lasting legacy was his reputation as a fair-minded man who worked hard for his community, be it the people of San Jose, the US at large, or his Japanese American community.
“He was very accommodating,” Tomio said. “You never heard Norm say a bad word about anyone.”