Honoree - Norman Y. Mineta
[Note: The following biography was prepared and presented by Board member and journalist Thuy Vu at the 14th Annual Asian Pacific Fund Gala.]
Each year, our board of directors selects an Asian leader to honor. This year’s honoree has been a pioneer in so many ways and in so many important positions that have influenced our communities and our country.
When you hear about Norman Yoshia Mineta, the word “first” often comes up.
Excluding Hawaii, he was the first Asian American to be elected mayor of a major city… San Jose.
And the first Asian American member of congress. And the first Asian American to be appointed a member of the U.S. Presidential cabinet
And you know what? He was even the student body president of San Jose High School, and he was probably the first Asian American there as well.
But this evening we want to talk more about Norm Mineta--the son of immigrants, the proud American who suffered the indignity of being labeled a non-citizen, the community advocate who rose to prominence as a national Asian American leader. This is his story.
Norm Mineta’s father, Kunisaku was the number two son who came to this country on a steamship from Japan in 1902.
He was a farm worker for many years. Eventually, he wrote home to ask for help in finding a wife.
Kane, a picture bride, arrived. And together they had five children: Albert, Aya, Etsu, Helen and the youngest—Norm. Yes, he’s the BABY of the family.
His father later , was a court interpreter and also worked as a writer for the community paper the Nichi Bei Times. Eventually he opened an insurance company, became a community leader and, in a very traditional way, was the disciplinarian in the family. When things got out of hand, Norm dreaded hearing his mother tell him “Wait until your father gets home!”
Despite this very traditional environment, Kunisaku encouraged the Mineta daughters to go to college at a time when that was rare. One attended UC Berkeley in 1943. Another graduated from San Jose State. One sister wanted to be a teacher, but was told no school district would ever hire a Japanese school teacher, so she switched to a business major.
They were living the American immigrant dream—his parents were able to start over…live a new life… raise a happy family.
Then came December 7, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. Norm’s peaceful home life fell apart.
His family was rounded up along with more than a hundred thousand other people of Japanese descent. They were all taken to internment camps.
Norm was 11. He remembers the trip with the excitement of an 11 year old boy going on a long train trip. He boarded the train for Heart Mountain, Wyoming wearing his cub scout uniform and carrying his most prized possessions—his baseball glove and bat.
“The MP’s took the bat away. They confiscated it on the basis it could be used as a lethal weapon. I went running to my dad, crying, saying the police took my bat away.”
Like other interned families, the Minetas had to give up everything. The insurance agency was shut down, the family savings accounts were confiscated and the money never returned.
“I’ve only seen my dad cry three times. Once on December 7th because he couldn’t understand why the land of his birth was now attacking the land of his heart.”
During his time at Heart Mountain, the local Boy Scouts would visit to try to make life a little better. And one of those Wyoming Boy Scouts was someone you’ve probably heard of—Alan Simpson. He would later figure notably in Norm’s life.
After leaving the camp, Norm came back to San Jose returning to school while his family tried to re-build their lives. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a business degree, he joined the army and served as an intelligence officer during the Korean war.
When he returned home, public service tugged at him.
A pivotal mentor for him was Kozo Ishimatsu, who believed it was crucial in the aftermath of the internment experience for Japanese Americans to be involved in politics. They pooled their money to buy one ticket to the republic and one ticket to the democratic fund raisers.
In 1971, Norm was elected mayor of San Jose… a remarkable achievement if you keep in mind the demographics at the time. Back then, Santa Clara county was 97 percent white. Asians weren’t even 3 percent of the population.
During his tenure, the city’s population exploded and housing development boomed. He’s gone on to hold many demanding and prestigious positions, but which one did he like the most?
“That’s like asking which of your children you liked the most because all those jobs are different… the one I really enjoyed the most was… being the mayor of San Jose.”
“It was just the beginning of Silicon Valley transitioning from an agricultural to semi-industrial to a high tech economic base. It was an exciting time.”
Under Mayor Mineta, San Jose built an infrastructure (roads, power, housing, schools) that would later support the dynamic growth of Silicon Valley.
It was no surprise that the next call was to the U. S. House of Representatives. His congressional leadership is anchored by at least three principles: innovated management of transportation policy, protecting the rights of Americans, and a steady commitment to the Asan community.
He was a leader in the development of the transportation portion of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, now something we take for granted. . .access for the disabled to all public facilities.
A year later, he was the main author of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act that established new “economically efficient and environmentally sound” transportation priorities.
He also took on more narrow issues that were brought to his attention. A Bay Area Asian lawyer had learned that U.S. law prohibited someone who was not yet an American citizen from being the captain of his own ship, obviously having a deep impact on Vietnamese fishermen. It took a congressman from Silicon Valley not one from gulf coast to sponsor legislation so these hard working immigrants could make a living and build their small businesses.
Then in 1988 came the most important step toward righting the record on internment. Several members of congress worked together to get the Civil Liberties Act passed. Congressman Mineta was a key player along with the late Robert Matsui of Sacramento.
And a boyhood encounter in Heart Mountain played a role as well.
Remember Alan Simpson, the Wyoming Boy Scout who visited the camp? He, of course, rose to become SENATOR Simpson… and was instrumental in getting the bill passed in the Senate.
The Civil Liberties Act brought a formal government apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII and paid monetary redress for property lost.
How does he reflect on the internment experience?
Part of that I think is cultural. In Japan, there are two phrases. One is this phrase that is “Shatakaganai”, “you can’t help it”. These are the circumstances, you just have to sort of bear it, make the most of it.
The other is “Gaman” and it’s more a sense of holding back. Gaman,it’s one where you sorta’ accept the circumstances you are under. So between “Shatakaganai” and “Gaman,” people sorta’ said, “it’s OK, I’m going to tough it out. I’m going to tough it out and make the best of it.
“No matter how many generations you may be a US citizen, you’re still treated as a foreigner. So this is something that is common to a lot of us, so we have to just look out for each other.”
Congressman Mineta co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus… and was its first chairman. The Asian caucus borrowed from the model set by African Americans and Latinos, creating a national platform for their issues.
In 2000, President Clinton appointed him Secretary of Commerce. He was the first Asian American to serve in a presidential cabinet.
President Bush then tapped him for Secretary of Transportation, a position he held longer than any other transportation secretary.
It was during this time that the September 11th attacks happened… and Secretary Mineta experienced what he calls the longest and toughest day of his life.
“Dick Clarke briefed me for about five minutes and he said you’ve got to be in the PEOC…I said what’s the PEOC? “Well, that’s the presidential emergency operations center.” And I said I have no idea where that is and there was this secret service agent and he said I’ll take you down there.”
There was no manual, no precedent to refer to. With ten planes unaccounted for in the air, and the threat of more possible attacks looming, he ordered the landing of all 46-hundred airplanes in the air. Miraculously, they all came down safely in roughly two hours.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Secretary Mineta oversaw the installation of security measures in our vast transportation system. He guided the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, an agency with more than 65,000 employees, and the largest mobilization of a new federal agency since World War II. He did this while taking a courageous stance against racial profiling. This was not new for him, as he had spoken out years before on racial profiling of Arab Americans during the first Gulf War.
Norm Mineta still describes himself as just a boy from San Jose, but clearly a boy who traveled down roads he never imagined as an 11-year old boarding that train to Heart Mountain. He’s been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in this country, yet remains incredibly humble.
“I always shake my head and think “what’s a little kid like you from San Jose doing in a place like this?”… And I know I’m very fortunate to have gone to places and done things and I can only thank those who gave me encouragement.
Out of the many demanding and prestigious jobs he has held over the decades, he says it was being called “Mr. Mayor” that he cherishes most, that it was an intense learning time, learning how to work with the City Council, staff, and the public generally. And he says he wants to be remembered as someone who has served others well.
Norm is currently Vice Chairman of Global Communications for Hill & Knowlton.
He is married to Danealia (Deni) and we’ve heard from very reliable sources that a part of their lives revolves around these two:
Mochi and Taiko. I wonder if they bark in Japanese?
He is a proud father and grandfather. In addition to son Stuart who is a commercial airline pilot and stepsons Robert and Mark Brantner… his youngest son, David, was appointed this year as a White House Deputy Director working on the important issue of substance abuse.
Secretary Mineta’s father passed away before he could see his son run for Congress. But if he were to come home today, we think he would be bursting with pride over his youngest son’s accomplishments.
With a lifetime of such rich experiences, we asked Norm Mineta why he had no plans to write his memoirs. He said that that was like “patting yourself on the back.”
So since he won’t do it himself, we’re very pleased to give our honoree a BIG pat on the back from the community that admires and appreciates his contributions. Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Yoshio Mineta.