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Obituary

OBITUARY | Norman Mineta, US Congressman, 1st Japanese American Cabinet Member

His remarkable life took him from growing up in an internment camp to Congress and two Cabinet posts, and restoring the reputation of Japanese Americans.

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Norman Mineta, former US Congressman, former US Transportation Secretary and Commerce Secretary. Mineta was the first Japanese American to serve as a member of any US President's Cabinet. (Sankei)

Mineta devoted his political life to restoring the reputation of Japanese- Americans. Congresswoman Doris Matsui (77), who was born in an internment camp, says Mineta fought “tirelessly to educate Americans about the terrible prejudice and injustice that led to Japanese American incarceration during World War II.”

Norman Mineta, a long-term United States Congressman who served as a Cabinet Secretary in both Democratic and Republican administrations, died of heart ailments on May 3 at his home in Maryland. He was 90.

A second-generation Japanese American, Mineta became the first Asian-American to become a Cabinet member when President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, named him Commerce Secretary. He later served as Transportation Secretary under President George W. Bush, a Republican, playing a critical role during the 9/11 terror attacks. 

The native of San Jose, California and his family were sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming in 1942. The detainment came after then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that resulted in the removal of Americans of Japanese ancestry from all along the West Coast of the United States, causing many to lose their homes and livelihoods.

Road to Politics

Following the war, Mineta received a degree from the University of California at Berkeley, before joining the United States Army and serving as an intelligence officer in Japan and South Korea. After his discharge, he was active in local politics in San Jose, first as a city councilman and then as mayor. 

Mineta then was elected to the US House of Representatives and served as a congressman for two decades from 1975 to 1995. He played a major role in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act that President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1988. That law was a formal admission that the internment of Japanese-Americans had been wrong and provided reparations. 

In 2000 he became the first Cabinet secretary of Asian-American heritage when he became Clinton’s Commerce Secretary. He stayed on after George W. Bush was elected president, serving as Transportation Secretary. 

An Acclaimed Life

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as soon as it was realized that coordinated suicide terror attacks were underway, Mineta was taken to the Emergency Command Center in a secret bunker underneath the White House. There he made the tough decision to order all commercial aircraft to land at the nearest available airport. Under his cool direction, 4,638 planes landed safely over the next two 2 hours and 20 minutes.

In 2001 the international airport in his hometown was renamed the Norman Y. Mineta International Airport. He retired as Transportation Secretary in July 2006. Soon after, in December 2006 President Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Not long after, Mineta told the Sankei Shimbun: “I’m proud to be both an American and someone of Japanese ancestry. I certainly don’t believe the two are incompatible.”

On May 3, former President Bush released a statement in which he said, “Norm lived a wonderful American story as someone who overcame hardship and prejudice.” 

Norman Mineta, former US Congressman and Secretary of Transportation. (Sankei)

A Remarkable Nisei

Norman Mineta was indeed a second-generation Japanese-American (nisei) whose life story reads like an extraordinary dream. 

A few months after being posted as a correspondent in the United States, in December 2006 I had the opportunity to meet Mineta. He welcomed me with a warm smile. He had stepped down from his exacting position as Transportation Secretary in July of that year and had just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from his former boss George W. Bush. I had heard President Bush celebrate his “extraordinary life.”

One thing from our discussion that really left an impression on me was the expression on his face as he seemed to recall with pleasure the time he spent in the internment camp as a boy. 

In 1942, the year after war broke out between the Empire of Japan and the United States, as the result of a presidential order people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were forced to relocate. He and his family were living in San Jose at the time. When they boarded the train, Norman was wearing his Cub Scout uniform and carrying his baseball bat and glove. “The military police confiscated the bat claiming it could be used as a weapon,” he recalls.

Camp Life, Future Friends

Mineta joined the boy scout troop organized at the internment camp. They held activities with local boy scouts. One of the local boys he pitched tents and tied knots with was Alan Simpson, who went on to become a long-serving United States Senator. 

They met again in Congress in Washington DC, after Mineta was elected to the House of Representatives. “We got help from the Senate side,” Mineta recalled when explaining how in passing the Civil Liberties Act, the US Government formally apologized for the wartime internments. I got the feeling he was describing a fantastic “American dream.”

But when the talk turned to his parents, both first-generation immigrants from Japan, his face betrayed great sadness at the suffering they had undergone.

“I only saw my father cry three times,” he recalled sorrowfully. The first was the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The second was on the train taking his family to the internment camp and away from home. The third was when his mother died while still only 56 because of the rough living conditions in the camp.

Former US Congressman and Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta.

Perseverance and Integrity

Once he entered politics after the war, Mineta steadily climbed the ladder, first serving as a city councilman and then mayor of San Jose, before moving on to the national scene after being elected to Congress. During all of this, he was always faithful to certain advice from his father: “First make a plan, then get on with it” and “Do your work with steady perseverance and integrity.”

Mineta devoted his political life to restoring the reputation of Japanese- Americans. Congresswoman Doris Matsui (77), who was born in an internment camp, says Mineta fought “tirelessly to educate Americans about the terrible prejudice and injustice that led to Japanese American incarceration during World War II.”

Making the Skies Safe on 9/11

Just after the simultaneous, coordinated attacks had taken place on September 11, 2001 Mineta directed the emergency landing of all commercial aircraft in US skies. At the time, he said: “The first time it happens, it’s an accident. The second time it occurs, it’s a trend. Three times means it’s a plan.” 

Mineta attributed his ability to make such a quick decision to his constant research concerning various aspects of air transport. Even more, he added, as well as the fact that “I was blessed with colleagues I could trust.”

I am sure that observing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the most serious international crisis since World War II and 9/11, would bring back dark memories for Mineta. His thoughts would be with the Ukrainians fighting for their homeland, even as they are driven from their homes, and separated from their families, including those with ties on both sides. 

I would have liked to ask Norman Mineta how the world should battle against a dictator who ruthlessly tramples on the principles of sovereignty and human rights. 

(Read the related articles in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Hiroo Watanabe, Washington Correspondent, The Sankei Shimbun