At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on April 22, 2019, Secretary Norman Mineta was interviewed on stage and Rylan Sekiguchi shared SPICE’s soon-to-be-released set of free lesson plans, “What Does It Mean to Be an American?” Special guests included Louis Cannon, senior White House correspondent for The Washington Post during the Ronald Reagan administration and biographer of President Ronald Reagan; Joanne Drake, Chief of Staff and Official Spokesperson in the Office of Ronald Reagan; Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II; and teachers and students. Partnering with the Reagan Library on this special event were Facing History and Ourselves, The Mineta Legacy Project, and the Japanese American National Museum.
“Could you tell us about the flag that you wear on your lapel just above your Medal of Freedom?” This was one of the questions that was asked to Secretary Norman Mineta during a recent interview at the Reagan Library. Mineta—after a pause—replied that he wears the U.S. flag pin because some people still treat him like a foreigner, even as an American-born citizen. During the interview, Mineta touched upon different aspects of his life, including being incarcerated by his own country as a 10-year-old boy in 1942, serving in the U.S. Army, and participating at the highest levels of U.S. government. Following the interview with Mineta, Rylan Sekiguchi gave an overview of several forthcoming lessons from SPICE that will use key themes from Mineta’s life to explore the central question, “What does it mean to be an American?”
Megan Gately, Associate Director of Education at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, conducted the interview. Her opening question, regarding Mineta’s family, prompted Mineta to note, “I very carefully chose the family that I was born into”—a response that drew laughter from the audience. This was the most lighthearted moment of the interview. He then recounted a familiar American family narrative—that of his father, who immigrated to the United States seeking a better life. Mineta’s father emigrated from Japan in the early 20th century as a 14-year-old who boarded a ship in Yokohama, Japan, not knowing anything about the United States. He initially worked in farm labor camps in the Pacific Northwest and worked his way south to California.
Mineta continued by describing the shocking news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During an emotional segment of the interview, Mineta shared that his father “couldn’t understand why the country of his birth was attacking the country of his heart… He came to love this country very, very much.” He described the resulting confusion and chaos in the Japanese American community, and how placards suddenly appeared on his neighborhood’s utility poles after Executive Order 9066 was issued on February 19, 1942. He recalled reading the placards that stated “All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated” but being puzzled by the term “non-alien.” His older brother had to explain to him that it meant “citizen.” Reflecting on that memory, Mineta emphatically stated, “That is why today I cherish the word ‘citizen,’ because the United States government—my own government—wasn’t willing to describe me as a citizen.”
Mineta and his family were initially incarcerated at the Santa Anita Race Track in Southern California and then in an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. While in camp, his Boy Scout troop leader sent an invitation to troops outside of camp to invite them to join the Japanese American scouts in the camps. The initial replies were “no” because those on the outside thought that the camp was a POW camp with its barbed wire fences, guard towers, and machine guns. Eventually a Boy Scout troop from the town of Cody visited the internment camp. This is where Mineta met fellow Boy Scout Alan Simpson, who later became a U.S. Senator while Mineta was a U.S. Congressman. Simpson and Mineta have remained lifelong friends since then.
After World War II, Mineta served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He first entered elected office in 1971 when he won the mayoral race in San Jose, California. After serving a four-year term, he successfully ran for Congress. He won re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives ten times before returning to the private sector in 1995. Later, he joined the cabinets of two presidents: first, in 2000, as Secretary of Commerce during Bill Clinton’s final six months in office; then, in 2001, as Secretary of Transportation for George W. Bush.
Gately’s final question to Mineta focused on leadership, and Mineta directed a segment of his reply to the students in the audience. “There are two things that you own that no one else owns,” he remarked. “One is your name and the other is integrity. Do everything you can to protect your name and integrity. Because if you don’t have integrity, you don’t have anything that people can trust you about in terms of any future dealings… As you go through life, don’t take shortcuts.”
This reply led to a smooth transition to Sekiguchi, who shared an overview of the free online lessons that are being developed for high school and college students. The lessons, explained Sekiguchi, consist of six independent learning modules that each examines a key theme from Secretary Norman Mineta’s life and career: immigration, civil liberties and equity, civic engagement, justice and reconciliation, leadership, and U.S.–Japan relations. The lessons have been developed in consultation with Mineta and the Mineta Legacy Project team, including Dianne Fukami, Debra Nakatomi, and Amy Watanabe. Fukami and Nakatomi are the producers of the documentary film, Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, which will air on PBS on May 20, 2019. The event ended with a book signing of Andrea Warren’s biography, Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II.