“We have to reach out to others. We have to support other struggles. It all connects.”
Kathy Masaoka is a Japanese American community leader whose activism and advocacy work began in the 1970s. She is the co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year.
Kathy Masaoka was born outside the Japanese American internment camps, but the after-effects of the executive order have shaped her entire life and perspective.
In 1941, in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation and incarceration of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. Nearly three-quarters of the people who were sent to the camps were United States citizens, their right to due process violated. Kathy’s mother, who’d been sent to the Gila River camp in Arizona, had seen her father, Kathy’s grandfather, taken away by the FBI.
Though never explicitly stated by her parents, Kathy and her sister understood that they needed to do their best to be “white” and fit into the norms of American society. She was even sent to Immaculate Heart High School in Los Feliz — at the time an almost all-white Catholic high school — because her mother, she suspected, had aspirations for her to be accepted as “100% American.”
Of course, that never sat right with Kathy, who tried and failed to reconcile her Japanese and American identities, even going as far to move to Japan for a few years. After struggling with her identity her entire childhood, Kathy found answers in activism during her time at the University of California, Berkeley, which had just birthed its Asian American studies program amidst the energy of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Post-college, Kathy arrived in Los Angeles and dove into activist work on issues ranging from youth, workers, civil rights and housing in Little Tokyo. Then, in 1980, she joined a group of Nikkei, or Japanese Americans, who came together from all across the United States to create a national network with chapters in San Francisco, San Jose and New York. They called themselves the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), and they wanted an apology and monetary reparations for what the United States government had done to Japanese Americans during World War II.
The group worked with the Japanese American Citizens League, the National Council for Japanese American Redress and the Nikkei members of Congress to win passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Obtaining redress did two things for the Japanese American community: First and foremost, it gave the community the confidence and strength to continue to speak out. Second, it taught them the importance of solidarity. “During the redress campaign, we realized that we couldn’t win it alone. We have to reach out to others,” Kathy said. “We have to support other struggles. It all connects.”
Kathy is now co-chair of NCCR, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. One of her priorities is to support Nikkei Progressives, a multi-generational community organization created for the younger Japanese American generation. She also takes time to support Vigilant Love Coalition, a grassroots movement founded together by Muslim American and Japanese American activists to fight Islamophobia. Kathy draws parallels between the two communities. “We understood the fear and the way the Muslim community would be looked at after 9/11 happened. It was what our families felt after Pearl Harbor. We began to think about the long-term effect. What would they start doing? And it kinda did happen. We saw people and children who wanted to hide their Muslim identity.”
For Kathy, it is not about making a stand for one particular group. It’s about supporting all groups who are being discriminated against. “It’s not a matter of one struggle, and we’re done,” Kathy said. “It’s kind of a lifetime of having to stand up and speak out.”