OBITUARY | Norman Mineta, U.S. Congressman, 1st Japanese-American cabinet member

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Mineta devoted his political life to restoring the reputation of Japanese-Americans. Congresswoman Doris Matsui (77), born in an internment camp, says Mineta fought “tirelessly to educate Americans about the terrible prejudice and injustice that led to the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II”.

Norman Mineta, a longtime U.S. congressman who served as cabinet secretary in both Democratic and Republican administrations, died of heart disease on May 3 at his home in Maryland. He was 90 years old.

A second-generation Japanese-American, Mineta became the first Asian-American to serve as a cabinet minister when President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, appointed him Secretary of Commerce. He later served as Transportation Secretary under President George W. Bush, a Republican, playing a vital role during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The San Jose, California native and his family were sent to Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming in 1942. The detention came after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that resulted in the removal Americans of Japanese ancestry from all along the West Coast of the United States, causing many people to lose their homes and livelihoods.

Road to politics

After the war, Mineta earned a degree from the University of California, Berkeley, before joining the United States Army and serving as an intelligence officer in Japan and South Korea. After his release, he was active in local politics in San Jose, first as a city councilman and later as mayor.

Mineta was later elected to the United States House of Representatives and served as a member of Congress for two decades from 1975 to 1995. He played a major role in passing the Civil Liberties Act that President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1988. This law was a formal acknowledgment that the internment of Japanese Americans had been wrong and provided reparations.

In 2000, he became the first Asian-American Cabinet Secretary when he became Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce. He remained after George W. Bush was elected president, serving as Secretary of Transportation.

An acclaimed life

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as soon as it became apparent that coordinated suicide terrorist attacks were underway, Mineta was taken to the emergency command center in a secret bunker under the White House. There he made the difficult decision to order all commercial aircraft to land at the nearest available airport. Under his cool leadership, 4,638 planes landed safely over the next two 2 hours and 20 minutes.

In 2001, the international airport in his hometown was renamed the Norman Y. Mineta International Airport. He retired as Secretary of Transportation in July 2006. Shortly thereafter, in December 2006, President Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Shortly after, Mineta told the Sankei Shimbun“I am proud to be both an American and a person of Japanese descent. I certainly don’t think the two are incompatible.

On May 3, former President Bush released a statement in which he said, “Norm lived a wonderful American history as a person who overcame hardship and prejudice.”

Norman Mineta, former US Congressman and Secretary of Transportation. (Sankei)

A Remarkable Nisei

Norman Mineta was indeed a second-generation Japanese-American (nisei) whose life story reads like an extraordinary dream.

A few months after being assigned as a correspondent in the United States, in December 2006, I had the opportunity to meet Mineta. He greeted me with a warm smile. He had resigned from his demanding position as transportation secretary in July of that year and had just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from his former boss George W. Bush. I had heard President Bush celebrate his “extraordinary life”.

One thing from our discussion that really stood out to me was the expression on his face as he seemed to fondly recall his time in the internment camp as a child.

In 1942, a year after the outbreak of war between the Empire of Japan and the United States, following a presidential decree, people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast were forced to relocate. He and his family were living in San Jose at the time. When they boarded the train, Norman was wearing his Cub Scout uniform and carrying his baseball bat and mitt. “The military police confiscated the bat claiming it could be used as a weapon,” he recalls.

Camp life, future friends

Mineta joined the organized scout troop at the internment camp. They organized activities with local scouts. One of the local boys he pitched tents and tied knots with was Alan Simpson, who became a longtime U.S. senator.

They met again in Congress in Washington DC, after Mineta was elected to the House of Representatives. “We got help from the Senate side,” Mineta recalled when explaining how, by passing the Civil Liberties Act, the US government formally apologized for wartime internments. I had the impression that he was describing a fantastic “American dream”.

But when the conversation turned to her parents, both first-generation immigrants from Japan, her face betrayed great sadness at the suffering they had suffered.

“I only saw my father cry three times,” he recalls sadly. The first was the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The second was on the train taking his family to the internment camp and away from home. The third was when her mother died when she was only 56 due to harsh living conditions in the camp.

Former US Congressman and Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta.

Perseverance and Integrity

Once entering politics after the war, Mineta gradually rose through the ranks, first as a city councilman and then mayor of San Jose, before moving onto the national stage after being elected to Congress. Throughout this time, he has always been true to some of his father’s advice: “Make a plan first, then follow through with it” and “Do your job with consistent perseverance and integrity.”

Mineta devoted his political life to restoring the reputation of Japanese-Americans. Congresswoman Doris Matsui (77), born in an internment camp, says Mineta fought “tirelessly to educate Americans about the terrible prejudice and injustice that led to the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II”.

Securing the Skies on 9/11

Immediately after the simultaneous and coordinated attacks of September 11, 2001, Mineta led the emergency landing of all commercial aircraft in American skies. At the time, he said: “The first time it happens is an accident. The second time it happens, it’s a trend. Three times means it’s a plan.

Mineta attributed his ability to make such a quick decision to his constant research into various aspects of air travel. More so, he added, as well as the fact that “I was lucky to have colleagues I could trust”.

I’m sure watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the most serious international crisis since World War II and 9/11, would bring back dark memories for Mineta. His thoughts would be with Ukrainians who are fighting for their homeland, even as they are driven from their homes and separated from their families, including those with ties to both sides.

I would have liked to ask Norman Mineta how the world should fight against a dictator who ruthlessly tramples the principles of sovereignty and human rights.

(Read related articles in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Hiroo Watanabe, Washington Correspondent, The Sankei Shimbun

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