Alan Nishio: More Than 40 Years of Activism, Leadership and Mentorship

The following is an expanded version of a story about 2017 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award recipient Alan Nishio that will appear in the printed program for the 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 29, 2017.


Alan Nishio
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy Alan Nishio

LOS ANGELES — When one thinks of the most effective activists within the Japanese American community, of its best leaders and its top mentors, Alan Nishio has to be among the names atop the list.

For his more than 40 years of service to the community, Nishio has been named as the recipient of the Manzanar Committee’s 2017 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award.

The award, named after the late chair of the Manzanar Committee who was one of the founders of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and was the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site, will be presented at the 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on Saturday, April 29, 2017, at the Manzanar National Historic Site.

The 71-year-old native of the Venice/Mar Vista area of Los Angeles was born on August 9, 1945 at the Manzanar concentration camp, one of the 11,070 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated there during World War II—more than 110,000 were incarcerated in ten American concentration camps and other confinement sites, usually for more than three years.

Nishio’s activism got its start during the Free Speech Movement in the late 1960’s at the University of California, Berkeley, where he helped form the Asian Americans for Political Action.

“I met Alan back in April of 1969 when I went to the Disneyland Hotel to picket Senator Sam Hayakawa, who was being honored by the JACL,” said Jim Matsuoka of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR; formerly the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations). “I thought it would be just a few of us, but I was astounded by the two large rings of picketers carrying signs with bananas and a whole line of our own security standing by with folded arms. We even had legal observers.”

“I was told that this was the work of Alan Nishio and Miya Iwataki, who were connected to a community type program at USC,” added Matsuoka. “I took the time to go and meet them. Alan invited me to join the Asian Americans for Political Action, a group opposed to the war in Vietnam. Thus began a long association with Alan.”

After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at UC Berkeley in 1966, Nishio returned to Los Angeles, where he earned his Master of Arts degree in Public Policy Administration at the University of Southern California two years later, before heading across town to help found the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, serving as its Director for more than two years.

“Alan left USC and went to UCLA and built the Asian American Studies program into an empire,” Matsuoka recalled. “The Studies program at UCLA was a major foundation for the Asian American movement in Southern California. He developed Studies Central, which helped to connect community based groups to student groups on campus.”

By that time, Matsuoka was working at UCLA’s Hi Potential Program, a recruitment and retention program aimed at students from underrepresented groups.

“[Alan] left UCLA to spend time in Japan,” said Matsuoka. “Meanwhile, I had left the Hi Potential Program at UCLA to go to [California State University, Long Beach], first to teach with Asian American Studies and then to switch over to the Educational Opportunity Program as an Associate Director. Cal State Long Beach was looking for someone to bring together all of the many minority based programs and consolidate them under one roof. We needed a talented person like Alan who could do this.”

“I knew Alan was returning from Japan, so I prevailed upon him to apply for the position and he was selected as the new director for the Student Development Programs,” added Matsuoka. “I hoped he would replicate his wonderful job at UCLA.”

Matsuoka got his wish, as Nishio became an administrator at CSULB in 1972, and by the time he retired in 2007, he had advanced to the position of Associate Vice President, Student Services.

During his long tenure at CSULB, Nishio also worked with the Japanese American Citizens League for a relatively short time. But it was his involvement with Japanese American Community Services – Asian Involvement (JACS-AI), which provided “Serve The People” programs in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, that took him down the path towards becoming one of the pivotal figures in the fight for redress and reparations.

The work of community activists who were part of JACS-AI led to the formation of the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO), which, in the mid-to-late 1970’s, fought to protect the rights and interests of residents and small business owners who were being forced out of their homes and businesses by large Japanese corporations and local politicians who wanted to takeover large swaths of Little Tokyo without regard for existing residents or business owners.

The lessons learned and experienced gained in fighting the corporations and local politicians led and inspired LTPRO activists to move forward in the redress struggle, but from a grass-roots perspective, which was vastly different from the much more conservative, top-down approach favored by the Japanese American Citizens League.

“In the community, he provided leadership for LTPRO, which led to his work with redress with [the Los Angeles Community Coalition for Redress/Reparations] and NCRR,” said Matsuoka.

From NCRR’s earliest days, Nishio, who served as Southern California Co-Chair from 1980 to 1990, set an example, in terms of his commitment and leadership, not to mention his efforts to develop new activists and community leaders, which would be a common theme for him throughout his more than 40 years of activism and community involvement.

“My first impression of Alan Nishio was formed by witnessing his testimony at the 1981 Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings in Los Angeles,” said Kay Ochi, long-time NCRR member who currently serves as Co-Chair. “I was a complete newcomer to the Little Tokyo community and was blown away by the intensity and importance of what I heard that day.”

“Alan was a strong speaker and presented a very impressive statement,” added Ochi. “With the addition of the other NCRR testifiers and organizers, I knew that I would join NCRR that very day. In 1981, this group was demanding monetary reparations for our parents’ wartime incarceration. How bold. What leadership! Who were these people?”

Nishio’s leadership was critical to NCRR’s grass-roots efforts during the successful fight for redress and reparations, especially down the final stretch.

“Alan kept NCRR on track during that final push for the legislation in the late 1980’s which was not an easy thing to do while trying to be as democratic as possible and giving room to all the viewpoints,” said NCRR Co-Chair and long-time community activist Kathy Masaoka.

“Alan continued to show his leadership from the daily grass-roots organizing of the redress campaign in the community to the 1987 NCRR lobbying trip to Washington D.C.,” said Ochi.

As stated earlier, throughout his decades of activism and community involvement, Nishio worked to develop future activists and community leaders, and during his tenure as Co-Chair, he was doing just that within NCRR.

“In 1990, he encouraged me to run for Co-Chair,” Ochi recalled. “Though reluctant, I ran with the promise that he would continue to help out. My 36-year journey with NCRR was edified by his example, and that of the other leaders of NCRR, of how one needs to speak out and work hard for social justice, not just Japanese Americans, but for all who are disenfranchised. I owe him a lot.”

“He was certainly one of the primary forces in leading the group and setting a tone where all viewpoints were welcomed and considered,” said Glen Kitayama, former NCRR member, now an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles. “When I first met Alan, I only knew him as the Chair of NCRR and had no idea that he was a high ranking administrator at CSULB. I also had no idea of the extended organizing experience that he had already accumulated by the time that I met him.”

“I didn’t know any of this because he, and other leaders in NCRR, believed that the process of ‘serve the people’ was more important than individual egos or even victory,” added Kitayama. “To me, this is profound because most of us know how easy it is to just get things done quickly when you already ‘know’ what you’re doing. You may get things done more efficiently by doing it yourself, but you don’t really build a movement or change people’s lives.”

As if leading NCRR, on top of his work at CSULB, wasn’t enough, Nishio also dedicated himself to working with the Little Tokyo Service Center from its earliest days.

“Alan has served on Little Tokyo Service Center’s Board of Directors since 1984 and served as the board president for 18 years, helping to lead the non-profit from a relatively small organization with a modest budget to a major service and community development organization in Little Tokyo, the broader Japanese American community and beyond,” the LTSC said, in a statement. “Currently, Alan is leading the effort to revitalize the LTSC Board of Governors as its chair.”

“Without his progressive vision, extensive knowledge of organizational theory and his understanding of our mission, LTSC would not be in the position it is today,” LTSC Executive Director Dean Matsubayashi said. “We are so thankful to Alan for his life-long contributions, not only to LTSC, but for his deep commitment to our entire community.”

“As LTSC’s Board chair for about ten years while I was at LTSC, he was always very knowledgeable and supportive of LTSC’s Child Development programs as he was involved in starting early childhood education programs back in the day,” said community activist Jenni Kuida, who served as LTSC’s Director of Children and Family Services from 2005 to 2016.

Nishio also helped inspire Kuida to get involved and become a community activist.

“Alan was one of the first people that I met when I got involved with the 50th Anniversary of the Japanese American Internment events and the Future of the Nikkei Community conference [in Little Tokyo in 1992],” she noted. “Alan was, and is, always approachable and supportive of young people and always with great perspective.”

Kizuna’s Executive Director Craig Ishii is another of a multitude of younger activists who Nishio has supported and mentored, inspiring them, not just to become community activists and strong leaders, but simply to become better people.

“I frequently tell people, ‘when I grow up, I want to be like Alan,’” he said. “Although I say it in a light-hearted way, it’s a truthful statement. Alan is responsible for the involvement of myself and many of my peers around me.”

Nishio currently serves as an advisor to Kizuna, a community organization created by younger Japanese Americans that focuses on Japanese American youth and developing future community leaders.

“I first met him when I was still a student at UCLA and involved in the Nikkei Community Internship program,” Ishii noted. “Meeting people like Alan, and the members of his cohort back then, was sort of like meeting a celebrity: the [former] chair of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, the man who was part of the human chain at the Sun Building during redevelopment [in the 1970’s]. But what’s even better is that he, along with his cohort, were all about the education, empowerment, and engagement of the next generation—at the time, us. I credit my involvement to them. I was not on a track where I would work for a non-profit, let alone, build and grow a brand new fledging non-profit. But I would say that he changed my path forever.”

Ishii’s words about Nishio are profound for yours truly and a bunch of my peers, as he served in a very similar role in our lives while we were members of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union in the 1980’s. Indeed, Nishio, along with other NCRR members, served as mentors, teaching us about our community and its issues, and inspiring us to become activists and to serve our community.

“I’ll always remember one afternoon where Alan was being interviewed,” Ishii recalled. “He was talking about life and community work. He told the interviewer, ‘at the end of the day, people aren’t going to be remembered for what job they held, or how much money they made, but instead, by how good of a person they were, and how much they’ve done for others.’ That’s really stuck with me ever since. Alan has done quite a bit, I just hope I can do the same one day.”

As noted in this story, Nishio’s 40-plus year record of service is beyond exemplary—it is beyond just about any adjective one might think of.

“Alan Nishio’s activism is contagious,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “His dedication and advocacy for the Japanese American community is widely known. His impact on a wide range of issues from the redress movement, as one of the principal founders of NCRR, to Asian American Studies, and the fight for affordable housing and to preserve Little Tokyo, is indelible.”

“Even though Alan has received numerous awards and recognition, his impact on issues, organizations and as a role model for young activists is worthy of yet one more,” added Embrey. “The Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award is meant to recognize individuals who display uncommon courage, determination and dedication, no matter the odds. Alan has fought for civil rights and equality for decades, never seeking the limelight, never worrying about personal gain. He just focused on what needed to be done.”

“While he has always counseled younger activists that the fight for social justice is a marathon, Alan’s activism and fighting spirit has always had an intensity and determination of a sprinter. For that, we are especially grateful, given the challenges we face today and we couldn’t be more proud to honor him at this year’s Pilgrimage.”

Nishio’s activism, contributions, mentorship and service to our community have had a far-reaching impact and on multiple generations. Indeed, it’s also safe to say that his work will continue to have an immeasurable impact for generations to come.

Quite the legacy…


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