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WWII Memorial Fight Continues

July 8, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ To the surprise and anger of opponents, the name and statements of a controversial Japanese American leader have already been cast in stone on a national monument being built to recognize Japanese Americans who fought in World War II or were interned at desolate camps.

During a slide presentation Saturday, board members of the private foundation building the monument in Washington got to see pictures of the work in progress, including one that showed a concrete panel inscribed with the words of Mike Masaoka, who served as field secretary for the Japanese American Citizens League.

``I just found out today. I’m kind of blown away,″ said Rita Takahashi, a San Francisco State professor of social work and one of a handful of board members who have been leading a grassroots fight to keep Masaoka’s name and creed off the monument.

Masaoka, who died in 1991, has been criticized because during the war he advocated complete cooperation with the government, fought against redress and even suggested a suicide battalion of Japanese Americans.

But Masaoka also is seen as a hero for his postwar accomplishments. He fought successfully for the 1952 Walter-McCarran Act that allowed immigrant Japanese to become naturalized citizens, worked to win $1.2 billion in reparations for camp survivors and helped found the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

For Takahashi and other opponents, however, the inscription of Masaoka’s words is another example of the disrespect they feel they’ve been getting from a board they argue does not embody or reflect the opinions of today’s Japanese American population.

Masaoka is among seven individuals whose quotations will appear on the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism, which is scheduled to be dedicated Nov. 9. The monument will honor the 33,000 Japanese Americans who fought during the war, the 800 who died, and tell the story of the120,000 forced from their homes into inland camps.

In February, the foundation’s board voted 27-6 with one abstention to include Masaoka’s quotation: ``I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation. I believe in her institutions, ideals and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future.″

Critics say the creed does not capture the rebellious spirit of some Japanese Americans who lived through the war, and that Masaoko is a reminder to many of decades worth of pain and anger, and not worthy of the acclaim.

``He didn’t oppose the expulsion of Japanese Americans on the West Coast,″ Yerichi ``Kelly″ Kuwagama, a WWII sergeant, said during a break in Saturday’s daylong meeting. ``He told them they should go peacefully.″

Takahashi and others said they will keep up a letter-writing campaign to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and do whatever it takes to get Masaoko and his remarks removed.

Masaoka is the brother-in-law of Norm Mineta, a foundation member who was recently nominated by President Clinton to become the nation’s 33rd Commerce Secretary and first Asian-American cabinet member. Mineta, who was interned with his family for four years during the war and went on to serve 20 years in Congress, did not speak with reporters Saturday.

Masaoka’s backers note how widely respected and influential Masaoko was in political circles.

``Not only for what he did during World War II but after,″ said board chairman and retired Rear Adm. Melvin H. Chiogioji. ``The guns were facing us. And people were put in camps. They’re blaming him and none of it is his doing.″

Chiogioji said the inscription plans were revised at least 11 times before the final version was approved by the board and the National Park Service.

He also noted that it was Masaoka, ironically, who first lobbied Congress for the memorial.

``It wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,″ Chiogioji said.

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