Bert Nakano, 75; Worked for WWII Internees’ Reparations

Times Staff Writer

Bert Nakano, a Hawaii native whose bitter years of internment in World War II relocation camps became the wellspring for his role in the campaign to win redress and reparations for thousands of Japanese Americans, has died. He was 75.

Nakano died Saturday at a Torrance nursing home of respiratory failure related to Parkinson’s disease, his son, Erich, said this week.

Nakano was a founding member and principal spokesman for the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, a leading organization in the movement that won a measure of justice for more than 60,000 survivors of the World War II camps in 1988, when the federal government formally apologized for the internments and offered redress payments totaling $1.5 billion.


A retired airline worker and travel agent, Nakano was a reluctant spokesman for the cause who began to speak out only when he realized that the voices of ordinary Japanese Americans who had suffered in the camps needed to be heard.

When he told how the internment broke his hard-working family -- causing the premature death of one parent and the spiral into alcoholism of the other -- he ended with an adamant call for restitution.

“To people who would oppose reparations, I’d say, ‘Give me back my three years, my mother’s health, my father’s business, my brother’s ambition to become a doctor ... and they can keep their money,” he said in 1985. “Can anyone return those things to us?”

He not only spoke out himself but persuaded other aging camp survivors to testify before Congress. He coached those who feared public speaking and helped arrange for translation services at redress hearings to enable more people to participate.

“He was very grass roots,” said Evelyn Yoshimura, a community organizer for the Little Tokyo Service Center. “He could speak to the seniors and put them at ease and encourage them to submit their testimony, but he also was involved in very high-level meetings with Congress people and other national organizations. He was really a complete leader.”

Nakano was 14 and living in Hawaii with his family when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Shortly after the devastating assault, Nakano’s father, a successful contractor, was arrested, as were hundreds of other Japanese and Japanese Americans. The arrest occurred so suddenly that the family at first did not know where the father was. Nakano and his family were eventually reunited with his father in Jerome, Ark., the location of one of 10 Western camps hastily constructed to hold the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who fell under Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942.

The Nakanos eventually wound up at a special segregation center at Tule Lake in Northern California, where those who refused to renounce Japan awaited repatriation. Nakano’s immigrant father was among the internees who would not forswear allegiance to Japan; barred by law from becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, he could not imagine renouncing Japan and being stateless.

He and Nakano’s older brother, a straight-A student who had been planning to become a doctor, were sent to yet another camp, in Crystal City, Texas, while Nakano remained at Tule Lake with his pregnant mother. After giving birth, she fell ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized for several months, leaving Nakano to care for his newborn sister.

When the war ended, his brother renounced his citizenship and went to Japan. The rest of the family returned to Hawaii, where his father found carpentry work and tried to rebuild their lives.

Within a year of their release, however, Nakano’s mother died. Nakano blamed her death on the primitive conditions in the camps, where rain turned the grounds to mud and wintry air seeped through the walls of their barracks. His father was so unhappy that he eventually quit his job and moved back to Japan, where he died an alcoholic.

After getting out of the camps, most Japanese Americans wanted merely to “go into American society and try to disappear,” Nakano told The Times some years ago. Many felt shame, even though they had committed no crime.

Nakano, however, “always felt a lot of anger and bitterness,” said his son. “He was always searching for answers to why it happened, searching for some meaning to life and how he should feel about himself.”

His search took him to Japan to study Zen Buddhism for a year, but the culture shock was too great and he returned to the U.S. By then he was married and had a family to support. He worked for Pan Am airlines for 20 years, until it went out of business. He later worked as a travel agent.

In the 1970s, Nakano joined a fight against redevelopment in Little Tokyo that was causing many longtime residents to be evicted. Gradually he was drawn into discussions with other activists about the injustices of the war years, and in 1980 helped to found the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations.

He also belonged to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and was active in Democratic politics. But he was most persuasive talking to people like himself -- older, working-class Nisei, who had spent much of their lives quietly trying to recover from the years of deprivation and degradation in the camps.

“He had a passion for redress and justice, but he was a regular guy, and that came through,” said Alan Nishio, who was chairman of the coalition when Nakano was its spokesman. “He helped bring them in, the truck drivers and gardeners, and he inspired them. He said, ‘We have to tell our stories; we can’t rely on other people to do these things.’ That’s when he was most powerful.”

When President Reagan signed the bill offering a formal apology and a $20,000 payment to each of the 65,000 surviving internees, it was “a huge moment” for Nakano, his son said.

“It sealed a sense that his life made a difference,” he said. “It kind of gave him his answers.”

In addition to his son, Nakano is survived by his wife of 53 years, Lillian; two grandchildren; four brothers; and two sisters.

The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Montebello Sozenji Temple, 3020 W. Beverly Blvd., Montebello. Memorial donations may be sent to Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, 231 E. 3rd St., Suite G104, Los Angeles, CA 90013.