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Lillian Nakano dies at 86; sought redress for interned Japanese Americans


Lillian Nakano, a soft-spoken native of Hawaii who became a leader in the grass-roots effort that won reparations and an apology for Japanese Americans incarcerated by the federal government during World War II, died Saturday in Torrance, Calif. She was 86.

The cause was complications of colon cancer surgery, said her son, Erich.

A master of the shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument used in kabuki, Nakano never pictured herself as an agitator for a cause, but she became a forceful organizer for the movement begun by a handful of activists in Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

Working with her husband, Bert, she helped mobilize Japanese Americans, particularly second-generation, or nisei, women, to support the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, one of the key groups that pushed the government to atone for its wartime actions.

"They were two down-home people who had regular jobs but could really touch the hearts and souls of everyday Japanese Americans who had experienced the camps," said Alan Nishio, a founder and co-chair of the coalition. "Bert captured the anger and Lillian the quiet resolution of fighting for justice."

While her husband was the coalition’s spokesman, Nakano preferred to remain behind the scenes, helping to organize community meetings and prepare speakers who testified at congressional hearings on redress in 1981.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that cited "racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a lack of political leadership" for the mass incarcerations. It extended an apology and payments totaling $1.5 billion to more than 60,000 camp survivors.

For Nakano, the most crucial early battles took place on a sidewalk in Little Tokyo.

Every weekend in the months leading up to the hearings, she and other volunteers set up a table in the heart of Los Angeles’ Japanese American community to drum up support from passersby.

"It was very hard," Nakano recalled in a 2009 interview for the Densho oral history project. "They’d say, ‘Oh no, don’t start this. We don’t want to get hassled again by the government. We had enough of that.’ And they would be just totally hostile. But we just kept at it.

"We just wanted niseis to talk it out. And you know what? The more they did, the more angry they got. And pretty soon (they were saying) there’s nothing to be ashamed of, we don’t have to be embarrassed, we don’t have to be intimidated."

Former internees were often the most antagonistic, but Nakano "was never confrontational," said Jim Matsuoka, who often worked the sidewalk with her. "People were always willing to talk to her. She did it in such a way that you were inclined to want to agree with her."

Nakano especially wanted women to get involved.

"She was the one who encouraged me to step up, raise my hand, talk," said June Kizu, recalling how Nakano would ask her opinion on various issues, then prod her to follow up. "Ultimately I agreed to become co-chair of NCRR. That was a big deal. I had never spoken in front of a crowd. She was the one who would call me at home and say, ‘You can do it.’"

Nakano was born in Honolulu on April 30, 1928. She was the oldest of five children of Hawaii-born Saburo and Shizuno Sugita. Her father ran a successful bakery.

His prominence in the local Japanese American community made him a government target after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Within days he was rounded up in an FBI sweep and incarcerated on Sand Island in Honolulu Harbor.

More than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most American citizens, were held in internment camps under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, signed two months after the United States entered the war.

In 1943 Nakano, her mother and siblings were sent to the Jerome, Ark., camp, where they were reunited with her father. The next year they were moved to a camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo., where they remained for the rest of the war.

Nakano met her future husband in Jerome. After marrying in 1949, they lived in Minneapolis and Chicago before settling in Gardena in the mid-1960s.

Her husband died in 2003. Besides their son, she is survived by three sisters and two grandchildren.

Nakano was 8 when she began to study the shamisen, a three-string lute introduced in Japan at least 500 years ago. She resumed rigorous training after the war and in 1955 was certified as a shamisen master.

Although her repertoire was mostly classical, in later years she performed at the Berlin Jazz Festival and other venues with her nephew, pianist and composer Glenn Horiuchi. She won a Durfee Foundation Master Musician Fellowship in 2001.

In the 1980s, her performances were largely confined to events associated with the redress movement.

"She always said her teacher is probably turning over in her grave," her son said.

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