Family photo of the author, Josh Ishimatsu
February 15, 2024

Heart and Home Column by Joshua Ishimatsu


Lessons from my Grandpa, Part I

I have been thinking a lot lately about building power, building community, and building community power.  And into this jumble of thoughts, I read the news that there was an unveiling of a Norm Mineta statue at the San Jose Airport, which got me thinking about my Grandpa and all the lessons I learned from him.

The connection to Norm Mineta is that my Grandpa claims to have discovered and “made” Norm Mineta.

In many, many ways, my grandfather was an extraordinary person.  He was alive in three different centuries.  He had five kids, 16 grandchildren.  He was a successful farmer, and an occasionally successful entrepreneur/small-time-developer/hustler.  He was considered a leader in his community.  He knew the power of the mythology of the American Dream and told his story to take advantage of it.  He would tell people that he came to this country with nothing and, look at him now, he was rich and powerful.

And, if you couldn’t tell from his version of the American Dream story, he was a world-class shit-talker.  On one of the fishing trips he took me and a cousin on, he made a really big cast and, with his bobber floating in the middle of the pond, he rested his fishing pole against a log, rolled up his sleeve, flexed, pointed at his bicep, and said, “Look at that boys, 80 years old and I still got it.”  I think my cousin and I were ten years old.  On another trip (Houston), after dinner at a Japanese restaurant where my grandfather had been drinking and flirting shamelessly with the waitress, back at the hotel room, he said, “I could have had her come back to San Jose with me just like that,” and snapped his fingers.  My cousin (the same cousin from the fishing trips) and I – at that point, both of us awkward, introverted, studious, good-boy middle schoolers – were embarrassed and ashamed and didn’t know what to say.

Because my Grandpa was such a shit-talker, I didn’t always know how to process his claims that he “made” Norm Mineta.  But I understood there was at least some truth to it, because, on another trip with the same cousin, we visited DC and we got a tour of the Capitol Building from Norm Mineta and Don Edwards, we ate lunch with Norm Mineta and Don Edwards in the Congressional Dining room, and we got our picture taken with Tip O’Neal, Norm Mineta, and Don Edwards (see photo evidence, inset).  Norm talked to my cousin and me like we were real people – he asked about my cousin and my parents, and he said that he remembered them from when they were kids and had lived across the street from him in San Jose Japantown.  The congressman said that our Grandpa was his most important mentor and that he had been lucky to have had him looking after him for his whole life.

And I want some sense of this gratitude and appreciation to infuse my writing in this column.  So far, I’ve portrayed my Grandpa as a politico and a shit-talking hustler.  Not exactly the most flattering portrayal.  And while these were aspects of who he was, he was much, much more.  My extended family used to be super close.  Most of my extended family used to live in San Jose and the South Bay (most of us still live in the greater Bay Area) and, every Saturday, my grandfather would cook big pots of chicken gohan and chicken okazu and my extended family would gather for lunch.  Not everybody came for every Saturday, but there always were at least a good dozen or so people.  Now, without Grandpa as the one pulling us together, my extended family is more like a typical American extended family, we only see each other 2-3 times a year.  I mourn the fact that my kids have not grown up with this same sense of connectedness to a larger family.

And beyond the lunches every Saturday and the trips I alluded to, I spent an abnormal amount of time with my grandfather (and his television).  I grew up in a household without a television.  My mother – a proudly self-proclaimed radical socialist, feminist, and Luddite (I am already planning a “Lessons from my mom” column for the near future) – is morally and politically opposed to television.  She said (and will still say) that television is the true opiate of the masses, it is streaming a sewer line of degrading and objectifying images of women, a grotesque celebration of consumerism and violence and oppression, a tool for corporate/technological domination of the world.  She would have none of that in her house.  But I, in one of my more modest instantiations of pre-teen and teenage rebellion, was obsessed with television.  And, as a free-range, Gen-X, latchkey kid with a workaholic single mom, who lived about a 40-minute walk from his grandfather’s house, I was often at Grandpa’s house, sitting in front of the boob tube (in my head, I hear the words “boob tube” in my mother’s voice, with an angry, disapproving tone).  In the summers, before I was old enough to have summer jobs, I was at his house every day, often for the whole day.  In these times, when he wasn’t out and about for business or community meetings or napping on the couch in front of the TV (a daily activity for him), I was a semi-captive audience for my Grandpa’s stories, shit-talking, and life lessons.  And, because of who he was, most of his life lessons were about power, politics, and relationships. 

In this column and next month’s column, I’ve tried to condense some of his lessons about building political power (written in bolded text) and tried to describe his lessons in ways that are true to how he would have seen them.  In italicized sub-headings, I’ve demarked where I’ve added some of my additional thoughts about the larger, bolded lesson – often to add a more contemporary nuance/twist and sometimes to give middle-aged me a chance to have a little bit of argument with my Grandpa’s ghost.  And because I’ve already spent so much time and too many inches of this column on setting the context, I only have one lesson in this column (but it’s a big, foundational lesson), with more lessons to be in next month’s column (Part II).

 Lesson #1: More is possible than what “most people” think

This is a lesson that cuts both ways, good and bad.

When Executive Order 9066 – the official federal action that ordered the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II – came down, most Japanese Americans stayed put despite the order to evacuate California, Oregon, and Washington.  They were loyal Americans, the order would only apply to disloyal Americans.  America was a fair country, this couldn’t possibly happen in America. 

Most people stayed in place because of inertia, because of denial, because of misplaced faith in their country or their neighbors.  But, as he would have told you himself, my grandfather was not “most people.”  My grandfather told me that he knew right away what would happen because America is a racist country (and this is from somebody who also would often talk very patriotically about America) and that he was “not going to raise our family behind barbed wire.”  So, four interconnected, extended families – the Ishimatsus, the Izus, the Mitomes, the Bans – piled into a caravan of cars and trucks and left everything else behind to move to Utah, where they spent WWII moving from town to town, working as migrant farmworkers.

After WWII, one of my grandfather’s insights about the internment was that it happened (in part) because Japanese Americans didn’t have the political power to push back against it.  In 1948, Norm Mineta was elected student body president of San Jose High School.  When he learned of this, my Grandpa said that, right then and there, he decided that he was going to do everything in his power to make Norm “the one” for the Japanese American community, that he could become the JA community’s public leader, our champion.

In the other lessons (i.e., in next month’s column), I’ll talk more specifically about how Grandpa set about his efforts to elevate Norm Mineta.  But right here, I want to pause and let sink in what an extraordinary, monumental, and weird decision it is to go all in – to pin the hopes and dreams of a community – on some random high school kid.  To lift this kid as high as he could go, maybe even, as my Grandpa claimed was part of his vision at the time, President of the United States.

To put more context around this, 1948 was a time when Japanese immigrants in California still could not own property (not overturned until the 1952 US Supreme Court case Sei Fuji v. California held that alien land laws violated the equal protection clause) when Japanese immigrants were still barred from applying to become US Citizens (not until the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act eliminated race as a basis for naturalization and overturned the 1926 US Supreme Court Case, Oyama v. California). 

Most people (all people?) rewrite history and their personal histories through the prism of their understanding of the present.  Most people – even most Asian Americans – see Asian Americans through the prism of the Model Minority Myth and do not understand the historical depths of legally sanctioned and enforced racial discrimination against Asian Americans. 

But put yourself in my grandfather’s shoes.  In 1948, only a small handful of years after being allowed to return to California, not legally able to own real property, not allowed to vote, not allowed to even apply to become a citizen, having lost everything (though he claimed that they hadn’t had very much to lose), scrambling to remake yourself in a country that had rejected you.  In the midst of this, he hatched a cockamamie plan to make Norm Mineta, high school student, into Norm Mineta, revered politician, with an airport and a freeway named after him.  Most people would have told him he was crazy, that it would never happen.

This is one of the foundational lessons I learned from my Grandpa – look beyond what most people think is possible.

 More A better world is possible than what most people think

When pundits talk negatively about the political possibilities of reparations for Black Americans,  I think about my grandfather’s lesson about how more is possible.  For me, this is a natural association with Norm Mineta because, if not for Norm, there would have been no reparations for Japanese Americans.

“If not for” is a tricky phrase.  With close calls and when structures holding us together are fragile, there are many separate actions, many individual people, many events and circumstances that, if not for them a specific outcome would not have happened.  Humans like simple causal narratives and we especially like it when the story features a bold and noble heroic figure/leader.  But the reality of how and why things happen is almost always messier and stranger than the stories we tell.  And are almost always due to the efforts of more people than are highlighted in the stories we tell.

“If not for Norm Mineta, there would have been no reparations for Japanese Americans” is, I believe, a true statement.  AND, if not for (what was then) a younger generation of young Asian American activists in the 1960s and 1970s (many of whom went on to form the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles, where I worked for over a decade) reparations for Japanese Americans also never would have been possible.  And these young activists heard all kinds of criticism from the older, more respectable segments of the community: “They weren’t even alive during the Internment.  They’re making waves and being disrespectful and for what?  They aren’t being realistic.  What they want is too expensive.  It will never happen.”

These are parallel narratives to how people talk about reparations for Black Americans and the advocates who are pushing for reparations.  So, naturally, it leads me to think about the lesson: more is possible than what most people think.

And if I can sit with this lesson and the thought of reparations and if I can keep the “more is possible” part of the lesson centered and I can quiet the more cynical, grizzled voices in my head, I start to dream about our sense of justice after we’ve done some repairs.  The next level of “more is possible” after the fix-up is about the remodeling of this house we all share.  It is about justice in terms of a kinder, more connected, and more loving world.  It is about the belief that this better world is possible.  It is about being connected by this belief.

I don’t know what my Grandpa would think about this level of dreaming and me pushing his lesson to this place.  But does it matter?  Isn’t it the job of subsequent generations to push it further than those who came before us?

At any rate, my implementation of this lesson from my Grandpa is that I try to insert a sense of optimism and possibility – a sense of this better world – into the spaces I inhabit.  For those who know me, I doubt many would describe me as a chirpy, bubbly optimist.  I’m generally pretty quiet and reserved.  But I try, not always successfully, to hold to this vision of a better world and work towards it with quiet confidence.

To be continued in the next column…