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Clifford Uyeda and Ben Kuroki: Nisei Conservatives in the 1960s

One extraordinary trend in recent years is the eclipse of Japanese Americans within the Republican Party. Alan Nakanishi, the sole Japanese American Republican in the California Assembly, left office in 2008. Beth Fukumoto of Hawaii, who was House Minority Leader from 2014 to 2017, quit the Republican Party after being unseated from her position, and denounced the intolerance of “party leaders” for dissent within the party (most notably her opposition to Donald Trump’s treatment of women and minorities). In 2018 Fukumoto ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat. Although Bob Sakata, an elderly Japanese American farmer from Colorado, was invited to address the Republican National Convention in August 2012, there were no Japanese American delegates. This trend is exemplified by Francis Fukuyama, a famed neoconservative intellectual of the 1990s. Fukuyama publicly supported Barack Obama in 2008, and subsequently announced that he was withdrawing his Republican voter registration. In 2017, he declared that while as a political scientist he was intrigued by the phenomenon of Donald Trump, as a citizen he found Trump appalling.

It must be stressed that this was not always the case. Rather, throughout the long 20th Century, Japanese Americans remained active in the Grand Old Party. In Hawai’i numerous Nisei built their careers through it. Tasaku Oka, who in 1930 became one of the first two ethnic Japanese in the Hawai’i Territorial Legislature, was a Republican. So was Wilfred Tsukiyama, elected to the Territorial Senate in 1946, who became the first Chief Justice of the Hawai’i Supreme Court in 1959. In 1986, Patricia Saiki began the first of two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In prewar California, where the state Democratic Party was long dominated by the anti-Asian newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, there was also a heavy Republican bent, especially among the cadre of educated and upwardly mobile Nisei professionals. Clarence Arai, a founder of the Japanese American Citizens League, ran for the Washington State legislature on the Republican ticket in 1933. Saburo Kido, who became the JACL’s wartime president, was chair of the Nisei Republicans who supported Alfred Landon’s unsuccessful presidential candidacy in 1936. Straw polls (admittedly unscientific) conducted by some Nisei newspapers in 1936 and 1940 showed a decided preference for Republicans among their readers.

In the years after World War II, however, Democrats became more prominent among Japanese Americans, despite the stain of Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066. Nisei in Hawaii (many of them 442nd Veterans) forged alliances with labor unions, and they provided a transformed Democratic Party with a mass electoral base—their march to power crested with the election of Daniel Inouye as US Senator in 1962. On the mainland, where Japanese Americans sought official assistance to recover from wartime confinement and impoverishment, Nisei community leadership began to tilt more to the Left. The JACL, in particular, found Democrats generally more sympathetic to its civil rights agenda.

Nevertheless, some outstanding figures, such as attorney John Aiso and lawyer/activist Minoru Yasui, continued to endorse Republicans. The GOP, in turn, selected various candidates from the community, first for positions on city councils and school boards, then more. In 1961, Seiji Horiuchi of Colorado became the first mainland Nisei elected to a state legislature. Twelve years later, drawing on heavy community support, Paul Bannai became California’s first Japanese American Assemblyman. In 1976, S.I. Hayakawa of California became the first—and so far only—mainland Japanese American elected to the U.S. senate. However, he had generally remained aloof from Japanese communities, and many Nisei criticized his outspoken opposition to Redress.

Ronald Reagan speaks for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in Los Angeles in 1964. Photo credit: Reagan Presidential Library

It was during the 1960s that a rightward movement became visible among Republicans, a shift symbolized by Barry Goldwater’s Presidential candidacy in 1964 and by the election of Goldwater’s supporter Ronald Reagan as California governor two years later. While some Nisei were alienated by the conservative drift in the GOP, two legendary figures in the Japanese community reaffirmed their Republican allegiance and expressed conservative positions during these years. The first one was Clifford Iwao Uyeda. Born in Olympia, Washington, Uyeda grew up in Tacoma. He attended University of Wisconsin, then enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans. (Uyeda intended to transfer to Boston University’s Medical School, but his offer of admission there was rescinded after Pearl Harbor, and he thus remained at Tulane for his medical education). After interning in Boston and serving as a medical officer during the Korean War, he settled in San Francisco, and eventually rose to the position of chief pediatrician for the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group.

Harry Kitano (center), George Araki, President of Center for Japanese American Studies (left), and Clifford Uyeda, Vice President of Center for Japanese American Studies (right). Japanese American National Museum (Gift of Nancy K. Araki, 98.119.2)

In 1960-61, Uyeda undertook a larger community role, first as researcher for the Japanese American Research Project, then as president of the JACL’s San Francisco chapter. In the late 1960s, he would become a prominent champion of the founding of Asian American Studies. During the Civil Rights Movement, however, he took public positions in support of Republicans and against racial integration. In November 1961, he stated that Japanese Americans had overcome far greater discrimination than present day Negroes, but without sharing their “excessive crime rate,” and added that “the re-education of the minority groups themselves towards better citizenship” was more important than legislation in fostering equality.1 In June 1963, after Hokubei Mainichi editor Howard Imazeki stirred controversy by calling on African Americans to improve their own communities before asking for equal rights, Uyeda wrote to the newspaper in support. Given what he called “the sordid record of violence and crime” in Black communities, he questioned whether Blacks could be trusted to be good neighbors if they were admitted to outside areas.2 Later, in early 1967, he criticized the JACL’s then-President Jerry Enomoto, who had called for supporting human rights for other minorities. Uyeda complained that as he saw it, the crusade for human rights (and implicitly civil rights for African Americans) was a matter of minorities vengefully striking out with hate and resentment of the majority group, in the process “pushing for one’s own human dignity and rights by destroying the same for others.”3 The following month, the JACL’s National Leadership deplored the University of California’s proposal to abandon its free tuition policy, as it might limit Nikkei educational achievement. Uyeda wrote in support of Republican proposals for tuition charges, and criticized JACL leaders for interfering as Democrats in partisan battles. The tuition question, he insisted, could not be considered a civil rights matter of the kind that JACL was empowered to handle.4

The other prominent Nisei conservative was Ben Kuroki. Born in Gothenburg, Nebraska (different sources say 1917 and 1918) to Japanese immigrant parents, Kuroki grew up in nearby Hershey. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Kuroki enlisted in the U.S. Army. Though warned that Nisei would not be accepted for overseas service, Kuroki fought successfully, first to be shipped to England, then to attend gunnery school. He flew 30 missions as a turret gunner on B-24 Liberators. In recognition of his heroism, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1944, Kuroki was shipped back to the United States. When the Nisei Draft resister movement threatened to impede Nisei enlistment in the U.S. Army, Kuroki toured the WRA camps to promote military service. He requested transfer to the Pacific Theater, which was granted by special order of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Kuroki flew 28 missions in B-29 Superfortress bombers over Japanese-held territory.

After being discharged, Kuroki immediately launched his “59th Mission”: displaying a new kind of heroism, he undertook a lecture tour of the United States in which he denounced anti-Semitism and racial segregation, and called for fair housing and equal employment laws for Blacks and other minorities.

In 1946, Kuroki collaborated with journalist Ralph G. Martin on a biography, The Boy from Nebraska. The book enjoyed a large sale, particularly the special armed forces edition. Not only did it win Kuroki further fame and royalties, but it also helped inspire him to take up a career in journalism. With his new wife, Shige, he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska and enrolled in journalism school at University of Nebraska. Over the years that followed graduation, he purchased and edited a series of newspapers, including the York (Nebraska) Republican, the Blackfoot (Idaho) Daily Bulletin, and two Michigan newspapers, the Williamston Enterprise and the Meridian News.

In mid-July 1964, just days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the JACL held its semiannual convention in Detroit, and focused on civil rights. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins was the principal speaker, and the JACL presented awards to past defenders of equal rights for Japanese Americans. Ben Kuroki, himself a Michigan resident, received a scroll of appreciation. The appreciation soon dissolved. Many Nisei were shocked when Kuroki, the old advocate of civil rights, announced his support for Barry Goldwater, who had voted against the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, Kuroki put together a leaflet for distribution in California urging local Nisei to vote Republican. In the advertisement, he mentioned his scroll of appreciation from the JACL. The timing of the advertisement was especially unfortunate. During Fall 1964, the JACL was engaged in fighting Proposition 14, an (ultimately successful) initiative to void fair housing legislation that was backed by the California Republican Party and by the Goldwaterites. The JACL devoted massive resources to the “No on 14” campaign and even published a special issue of the Pacific Citizen devoted to persuading JACLers to oppose the initiative. While Ben Kuroki did not explicitly mention Proposition 14 in his Goldwater endorsement, the JACL leadership was outraged, and demanded that Kuroki remove all mention of his award from the leaflet. Kuroki, in turn, complained that the JACL leaders had breached their duty to be nonpartisan. “I thought the JACL was for Nisei getting involved in politics.”

In 1965, Kuroki sold his Michigan newspapers and moved to the West Coast, where he was hired by the Ventura County Star-Free Press. In February 1967, Kuroki was invited to address a meeting of the JACL Pacific Southwest District Council. Kuroki boasted of his Republican Party affiliation and reiterated his previous support for Goldwater. Even more, he harshly criticized interracial marriage. “We’re losing our Japanese heritage through intermarriage,” he stated, and expressed that Japanese American college students seemed to prefer dating “blondes” and “were getting a little bit too good for our own kind.”5 Although Kuroki did not speak in favor of legal bans on interracial marriage, his position seemed retrograde, especially when the JACL was preparing legal arguments for the U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which challenged miscegenation laws. His remarks shocked several listeners, provoking uneasy laughter.

After the 1960s, Clifford Uyeda and Ben Kuroki had very different subsequent career trajectories. Uyeda became renowned as a progressive community activist. In 1973, Uyeda became heavily involved in the movement to win a pardon for Iva Toguri D’Aquino, a Nisei who had worked in Japan during World War II and been convicted of treason as "Tokyo Rose." Uyeda likewise became an active supporter of the Japanese American redress movement, although he did not stand to benefit personally, as he had been spared confinement. In October 1978, in order to further redress, Uyeda won election as JACL National President, serving for two years. Uyeda was visible during the 1990s as an advocate for the wartime Nisei Draft Resisters, and lobbied for the JACL to release Deborah Lim’s 1990 report on JACL wartime actions and to apologize for them. He died on July 30, 2004.

Ben Kuroki continued working at the Star-Free Press until his retirement in 1984. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times published shortly after Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1987, Kuroki offered public praise for redress (for which he, like Uyeda, was ineligible). Kuroki nonetheless remained out of the public spotlight. It was only many years later, amid celebrations of World War II soldiers as “The Greatest Generation”, that Kuroki’s wartime exploits were newly rediscovered and celebrated, most notably in a 2005 documentary film, “Most Honorable Son.” He died in California in 2015.

President George W. Bush salutes Tech Sgt. Ben Kuroki on May 1, 2008. White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

 

Notes:

1. Clifford Uyeda, "Rhetorics over Racial Discrimination," Pacific Citizen, November 10, 1961.

2. Clifford Uyeda, “This is Our Voice,” Pacific Citizen, July 26, 1963.

3. Clifford Uyeda, "Human Rights," Pacific Citizen, January 6, 1967.

4. Clifford Uyeda, "Less Partisan?" Pacific Citizen, February 17, 1967.

5. Ellen Endo, “Intermarriage Blast Surprises PSW Clers,” Pacific Citizen, February 17, 1967

 

© 2018 Greg Robinson

Ben Kuroki Clifford Uyeda conservatives nisei