March 28, 2024

Heart and Home Column by Josh Ishimatsu


Lessons from my Grandpa, Part II

This month’s column is Part 2 of last month’s column, about how my grandfather “discovered and made” (his words, not mine) high-profile/famous San Jose public figure, Norm Mineta, and how Grandpa’s lessons in power-building and organizing still apply today. 

As in Part 1, the bolded headings are my grandfather’s lessons on building power as best as I can capture them. The italicized sub-headings under each bolded lesson are my contemporary additions – my nuance, commentary, or counter-argument.  And a couple of disclaimers: (1) while my grandfather’s work was firmly located in the Japanese American community, I intend that my re-telling of his lessons be more broadly applicable and (2) I am sure that I have made mistakes in how I have remembered some of his stories/lessons and in how I have tried to reconstruct some of these fractured memories – that is, these are good faith retellings and I have almost surely gotten some things wrong.

Lesson #2: We need our own leaders

When our family returned to San Jose after the end of World War II, my Grandpa diagnosed that one reason why Japanese Americans were put in camps (and Italian Americans and German Americans were not) was that the Japanese American (JA) community did not have political power and did not have our own political representation.  So, he set out to recruit people to become the public leaders for the Japanese American community.

For various reasons, my grandfather believed that he – a first-generation immigrant, who spoke accented English and who had never finished high school – could not be one of these public leaders.  Instead, he believed that the public leaders for the JA community needed to have wide appeal.  As described in last month’s column, into this belief stepped young Norm Mineta, the 1948 San Jose High School student body president and across-the-street neighbor in San Jose Japantown.  Norm was smart, well-spoken, wholesome (an actual Eagle Scout), ambitious yet humble – with demonstrated success winning an election with a diverse electorate (albeit high school students).  My Grandpa thought that this kid could be the one for the JA community.  And so, he set out to make Norm Mineta the one.

Leadership should come from many places, all at once

There’s something sad in that my Grandpa could not imagine himself as a public leader to the extent that he had to recruit a high school kid.  Perhaps it was savvy and realistic – Japanese Americans were (still are) a small minority and any JA politician would need diverse support.  Norm Mineta was somebody who seemed to have wide appeal because he so neatly fit the picture of a post-war, Leave-It-to-Beaver idealized politician – male, middle-class, smart without being too nerdy, athletic without being too jocky – his only detriment was that he was not white. 

Seventy-five years later our models of who we choose as our public leaders have not significantly changed.  A little less white, a little more diverse in terms of gender and sexuality (but for the more singular executive seats of power – Mayor, Governor, President – we still favor those who are white, cis-male, married to a woman).  We want people who fit a certain mold – good-looking but not too good-looking; educated and accomplished without appearing too elite.  We want people whom we believe are better than us but who aren’t so obvious about it that they make us feel bad about them being better than us.  Because of our lack of belief in ourselves, we surrender formal, public seats of power to a certain type of person/professional politician.

There is something wrong with this.

I believe we need models of leadership that draw leaders from everywhere – especially impacted communities – and allow for multiple leaders at the same time.  Elected officials are not the only or even the most important leaders in our communities AND elected officials still are important and still have power.  Therefore, we need to do a better job of valuing ourselves, valuing the people who already are leaders in our communities, and promoting elected leaders who are truly of us and continue to be connected to us.  We need our own leaders (i.e., my grandfather’s lesson) AND we can do better/more than replicating past models of leadership (my add).

Lesson #3: There is untapped power in the community

Concurrent to “discovering” Norm Mineta, my Grandpa was knocking on doors throughout Japantown, talking to his neighbors about the need for the San Jose JA community to be more visible and more powerful.  One way to increase visibility, as my Grandpa pitched to his neighbors, was to show up at local political fundraising dinners and events.  Back then, said my grandfather, everybody in Japantown was poor.  Even those who had been wealthy before the War had lost almost everything when sent to the camps.  Nobody, according to my Grandpa, had the money to buy a seat at the table at these fundraising events.  But, collectively, by knocking on doors and asking people for small contributions, they were able to pull together enough money to buy a couple of seats, at first, and eventually whole tables.  Far more people than those who could attend the events contributed money.  So, in filling those seats, my grandfather said it was important that it be with everyday people with Japanese faces.  It wasn’t enough that the community be seen as a potential source of fundraising (though this was one of his explicit goals), it also had to be that politicians and party bigwigs saw actual community members and looked them in the eye.   My grandfather thought that forcing the people in power to see the everyday humanity of the JA community would prevent the next Internment from happening.

Power should come from the community

For me, representation and visibility are good starting points.  AND, our goals for continued progress have to be loftier – have to be about the ongoing structural, social, cultural, political, and economic changes that put power and resources into the hands of everyday people.  It is not enough that our communities have increased visibility and representation.  We have to see ourselves as leaders (the contemporary iteration of lesson #2, above) and we have to work in ways that recognize community power and seek to increase it.  Power should come from the community and should be in the hands of the community.

Lesson #4: Relationships are the key to power

Another benefit of the attendance at the political fundraising dinners was that this was a way to meet people with power.  And, according to my grandfather, making friends with people in power was key to getting more power.  As an example, my Grandpa said that he used to go drinking with John McEnery (former San Jose mayor Tom McEnery’s father), somebody he met and targeted through the political dinner circuit.  As a kid, I didn’t get too much detail on these stories besides my Grandpa saying “Those Irish boys could drink” and that John McEnery had been a big wheel in California Democratic politics and had been helpful to get Norm Mineta internships and appointments in City Hall when Norm was just starting out – that this relationship that my grandfather had cultivated was instrumental in Norm getting his first exposure to public service and to building his resume and experience. 

But my grandfather’s lesson isn’t just about schmoozing power brokers.  One of the things he would draft me to do – especially around New Year’s (a big holiday in the JA community) or after he returned from a trip to Japan – would be to make the rounds with him to deliver gifts and for me to carry heavy boxes for him (around New Year’s, this would be crates of fruit – usually tangerines or grapefruit).  I came to understand that these deliveries were largely to the same people that he had recruited to door knock with him, that had gone to the political fundraising dinners with him.  These were his friends – other community elders, long retired – with whom my grandfather was still keeping in contact, to whom he was still showing appreciation.

 Relationships are the key to community

Relationships should be transformational, not transactional.  This is a tenet that I deeply believe.  And yet, after a certain age and once I was done with schooling, almost all of my most important relationships have been formed through, at, or somehow because of work – arguably putting a transactional tint on the majority of my important, active relationships.  But we make community where we can.  And, as I have tried to argue above, community should be the end and the means of power.

Lesson #5: Power favors the bold

This is a corollary to Lesson #1 from last month’s column.  Lesson #1 was about having a bold imagination.  This lesson is about acting boldly (i.e., decisively and assertively).  If you are a first-mover, other people will follow.

One thing I learned from direct observation of my Grandpa is that if you are confidently assertive and step forward with command presence, people will accommodate you without even realizing it.  In restaurants, for example, my grandfather would walk to the front of the line and be like, “I’m here, where’s my table.”  And the host/hostess would move to seat us.  And sometimes the people in line would say things (from stuff like “Hey, there’s a line here” to racist comments like “How come this restaurant is treating foreigners better than us locals?”).  And my grandfather would keep moving forward like he didn’t hear anything (and maybe he didn’t? he was pretty old and his hearing wasn’t always the best) and before we knew it, we were at a table, eating dinner.  This was how he was in the world.

In last month’s column, I described how my grandfather was a big shit-talker and how his attitude, presence, and confidence were extraordinary.  I don’t think I can exaggerate this, especially given the time/cultural context in which he existed.  In Japan, there is a proverb that goes, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” which is generally interpreted to be about the social enforcement of conformity in Japan.  My grandfather was a nail that stood proudly up.  I guess the more apropos American/Western proverb for him/this lesson would be, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” which is still insufficient because the proverb is about making noise.  Where my grandfather (and this lesson) was more about taking action than about making noise.

Group cohesion is more important than individual boldness

Here, I want to invoke adrienne marie brown about movements needing to act at the speed of trust.  Sure, bold action is important, but we jeopardize creating community (our most important goal) if we don’t act in ways that bring other people along with us.  In building power, we should not be too far out in front of the communities we aim to empower.

In Japanese, there is a word, enryo, which generally translates to the act of holding back or being socially reticent.  It is generally explained as an act of politeness (e.g., not taking the last cookie when others still might also want a cookie).  But it is more than only this.  Enryo is also about how social cohesion sometimes demands individual sacrifice, and how the advancement of the group is more important than the advancement of any one individual member.  Translated into the lessons of this column, it is about how community empowerment is more important than any one person’s exercise of power. 

This valuing of group cohesion is a close cousin to the proverb about the nail that sticks up.  From an American/Western viewpoint, we identify with the nail and we fear the hammer.  But what about the nail whose job it is to hold together a house?  If we identify with the house and assume that the house’s function is to keep people sheltered and safe, if we have a nail that is sticking up, of course, it should be hammered down – this becomes an act of repair, not of social conformity.  The nail’s whole role, purpose, function, vision, and mission is to hold the house together.  It’s not a question of whether a nail should be allowed to stand out (unless its role is to hold a picture on the wall), it’s more about the maintenance and well-being of the house and who the house serves.  Not that I’m advocating hitting nonconformists on the head with a hammer!  It’s just that I want housing for all.

Until next time…