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by John Kawakami
Saturday, Oct. 04, 2003 at 9:26 PM
GRASSROOTS REDRESS HERO BERT NAKANO PASSES ON SEPT. 27 IN GARDENA
Bert Nakano, a leader in the movement to secure redress payments for
Japanese Americans, died on Sept. 27, 2003 at the age of 75. The national
spokesperson for the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, he was a
respected and vigorous advocate for civil and human rights.
Born June 12, 1928 in Honolulu, Hawaii where his father was a building
contractor, Bert grew up in Honolulu with his brothers Jitsuo, Bill, James
and Henry, and three sisters, Sumi, Tomi and Akemi, who was born during the
war years. Just prior to the war, two of his brothers and two sisters left
for Japan with their grandparents.
His youthful days of swimming, surfing, and golfing ended abruptly when
Japanese Imperial Army bombed Pearl Harbor and World War II began. The FBI
began a sweep of the first generation Issei and Bert's father was among the
first group to be arrested and shipped to a federal detention camp in New
Mexico. Soon after that, the FBI closed in on second generation Nisei and
finally in December 1942, about 1,200 Japanese Americans from Hawaii were
sent to the mainland concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Bert was then
14 years old.
From Jerome, his family was sent to the Tule Lake camp in California in
1944. He often spoke of the desolation of Tule Lake and how it brought him
closer to the native American Indians who once lived on that very spot and
faced continuous discrimination and oppression throughout their lives.
When the war ended in 1945, Bert's family returned to Hawaii. But their
financial and psychological losses were deep and soon after their return, his
mother died at the age of 45.
In 1949, Bert married Lillian Sugita and they left for Chicago where he
continued his education and eventually graduated from Roosevelt University in
history, his favorite subject.
For many years, Bert grappled with anger and bitterness from the Camp
experience, and rebelled against the feelings of shame many Japanese
Americans came to feel about their heritage after the War. In his searching
for answers, he joined his African American friends in rallies whenever
Malcolm X came to town—events that always left Bert inspired. He also
followed revolutionary changes in China and as an Asian American he felt a
personal sense of pride, as did many others of that time.
After college in 1964, Bert and Lillian, together with their six-year-old
son Erich, left for Japan to study Zen Buddhism. Shortly thereafter, the
family settled in California where he then devoted himself to his family. He
went to work at Pan American Air Lines where he was also a shop steward in
the Teamsters Local. Bert's greatest love was to travel and travel he did,
whenever he found free time to do so.
Erich began attending college and would prod Bert to "get off your butt and
start fighting for issues that you cared about." So in 1976, Bert joined the
Little Tokyo People's Rights Organization, a grassroots group opposing
excesses in the City’s redevelopment process.
In 1978, Bert joined the Ad Hoc Committee for Redress and helped found the
Los Angeles Community Coalition for Redress and Reparations which sought
restitution for the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the camps during
World War II. In 1980, the Los Angeles group joined other community-based
groups throughout the country to form the National Coalition for Redress and
Reparations (NCRR). Bert served as the national spokesperson for NCRR for
Over the years, Bert was always a tireless fighter seeking justice and
empowerment. In addition to NCRR and other activities in the Japanese
American community, he also was heavily involved with building bridges with
other communities through his involvement in the Rainbow Coalition, the
Reverend Jesse Jackson's historic presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988
attending the Democratic Convention as a Jackson Delegate.
In 1988, after a decade of organizing and advocacy, he finally saw the
historic victory of the Japanese America community as President Reagan signed
legislation delivering an apology and monetary reparations on behalf of the
U.S. government for the injustice of the concentration camps.
Though afflicted with Parkinson's Disease, Bert continued to attend NCRR
meetings until physically unable. He spent his final year surrounded by a
loving family, grandchildren and caring caregivers. He died early Saturday
morning, Sept. 27, from respiratory failure. He is survived by his
life-partner Lillian, son Erich and wife Sandra, and grandchildren Alina and
(Funeral services were held on Saturday, Oct. 4, 2003, at Sozenji Buddhist
Temple in Montebello. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be
made to NCRR and sent c/o 231 E. Third St., #G104, Los Angeles, CA 90013. To
send condolences to the family, address to Erich Nakano and send to address
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