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Norman Mineta: An American Story - New documentary captures JA experience through life of two time Cabinet secretary

Norman Mineta spent his early years in a barrack, much like the one on display at the Japanese American National Museum. A new documentary on the former U.S. transportation secretary is now streaming on PBS.org. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

"I don’t like the word H-A-T-E. I don’t use it,” says Norman Mineta.

Even if it’s a matter of a dislike for carrots, the former transportation secretary says “hate” isn’t a part of his vocabulary, and that informs who he is and the issues he has championed.

“I’ve always been a half-full kind of person, more optimistic about things and how they happen, but you know I was only 10 years old at the time of the evacuation, so it wasn’t real hard impact on me. But I saw the impact on people like my parents and the Issei generation,” Mineta said.

The journey of a young Nisei from San Jose who would serve in the Cabinets of two presidents embodies the American Dream. Dianne Fukami’s “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story,” offers a portrait of Mineta as a life lived in the midst of defining moments in American and Japanese American history.

During an interview at the Japanese American National Museum, where he serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees, Mineta, 87, said he was initially reluctant and didn’t want to appear to be “patting myself on the back.”

“I’ve always been reluctant to have anything done. But talking to (co-producers) Dianne and Debra (Nakatomi), they pointed out that I would have no access to or control of the content of the film.”

Mineta family members and friends at Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World WarII. Norman is in front row in the white shirt. (Courtesy of the Mineta family)

The 56-minute film traces his beginnings as the son of insurance salesman Kunisaku Mineta and picture bride Kane Watanabe, and the years spent in Heart Mountain, Wyo., his ascendancy in politics, rising from councilman to mayor of San Jose to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Bush and Clinton administrations.

Through his life, viewers experience the tragedy of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II, and Mineta’s role in winning redress for that injustice through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Mineta’s neighbor, an executive secretary with a local prefectural association, was arrested by the FBI. In parallels to 2019, Mineta filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case heard last month on the citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

“The whole idea of the Census is to get an accurate count of the population but with this question in there, there will be many Hispanic families who will be reluctant to respond to the Census because they may have people in their own households who are not citizens and they [the government]will use that to come to their doors,” Mineta explained.

“That’s how the FBI used Census material before World War II to be able to arrest Japanese on Dec. 7.”

Like all things these days, it seems Donald Trump has had an impact.

In the notes that accompany the film, Fukami says that they had difficulty gaining funding, but the election of Trump in 2016 and grants from Dr. Paul and Hisako Terasaki and Sachiko Kuno provided much needed momentum.

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) with boyhood friend Norman Mineta at the 2015 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. (Courtesy of the Mineta Legacy Project)

The film portrays a leader who was defined by a sense of comity and bipartisanship increasingly at odds with where the country is today. Mineta says he considers himself an optimist, but admits that is challenging in today’s hyper-partisan climate.

“(Republican Sen.) Alan Simpson and I talk about how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? It’s not very hopeful,” Mineta reflected.

Serving as secretary of transportation during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Mineta grounded all flights and guided the creation of the TSA (Transportation Security Admnistration), which oversees security at the nation’s airports.

Notably, the Bush Administration did not scapegoat Muslim Americans in the wake of the attack.

“After what I experienced in 1942 and you think about it as an adult you say that can’t happen again, yet on 9/11 as secretary of transportation I found I was facing that again. They said don’t let Muslims fly, keep them off airplanes.”

Filmmakers interviewed former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who speak with admiration for their Cabinet secretary. Mineta revealed that Bush nicknamed him “Footsteps,” because he felt others should follow Mineta’s example.

Mineta considered Trump, who is well-known for bestowing derisive nicknames.

“I dunno, with this president it might be Norm the Worm,” he said.

The film also reveals candid glimpses into Mineta’s personal life. Filmmakers interviewed his first wife, May Hinoki Mineta, who speaks of some of her difficulties adjusting to her husband’s political ambitions.

Today, Mineta resides in Annapolis, Md. with his wife Deni. It is the second marriage for both.

“Deni had two sons and I had two sons. We have four sons and 11 grandchildren. So we bring all the kids together without their parents for a week. So I ask, ‘Do you want pizza or ice cream at midnight?’ … Then the parents come in for four or five days and they all go home. Afterwards my son said, ‘We’re still trying to undo all the damage you guys did.’ I said, ‘That’s our job, spoil the grandchildren.’”

“Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story” is now streaming on PBS.org. For more information, visit minetalegacyproject.com.

 

*This article was originally published in The Rafu Shimpo on May 17, 2019.

 

© 2019 Gwen Muranaka, © 2019 The Rafu Shimpo

documentary internment legacy norman mineta politics WWII