Norman Mineta, the first Asian American mayor of a major city and first Asian American Cabinet secretary broke racial barriers throughout his career. His family confirmed that he died Tuesday, at 90 years old. Mineta was born in San Jose, and would later become mayor. A first-generation Japanese American, Mineta was detained at age 10 in a Japanese American incarceration camp in Wyoming.
“My family was told by the military authorities that internment was for our own protection, but the machine guns and searchlights in the guard towers surrounding … our internment camp … faced inward,” Mineta wrote in a 1983 essay for the New York Times.
His experience being imprisoned fueled his dedication to public service. He devoted his life to ensuring the injustices of the incarceration camps would never be forgotten.
During his time in the House, Mineta spearheaded and secured an official apology and compensation for Japanese Americans who were also similarly detained. Mineta can be credited for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided reparations of $20,000 to survivors of the camp. The law, signed by President Reagan, also ensured a national apology as well.
“We were robbed,” Mineta said. “Just as if agents of the government had crept into our homes at night and taken our liberty, our rights and our property. There is no statute of limitations on our shame, our damaged honor or our violated rights.”
Mineta cites a Japanese phrase Shikata ga nai to explain how he worked through the contradictions of working for the same institution that interned him.
“In Japanese there’s a phrase Shikata ga nai which means, things happen over which you have no control, try to make the best of it. And the second one is gaman, meaning ‘to endure,’” Mineta said. “I was raised in a family that thought of the glass as half full, not half empty. You try to make the most of a bad situation.”
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