APA Spotlight: Richard Katsuda, Kay Ochi, and Kathy Masaoka, Co-Chairs, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR)

APA Spotlight is a weekly interview of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) community leaders. It is a spotlight on individuals who have dedicated their careers to issues surrounding the APIA community with the goal of bringing much deserved recognition to their work and cause(s).

The Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) is an all volunteer, grassroots, community organization based in Los Angeles. The group formed in 1980 to seek individual monetary reparations for Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from the west coast and incarcerated in America’s concentration camps during World War II.

Formerly known as the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, NCRR worked throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s on the historic redress movement and is a founding member of the Campaign for Justice (CFJ). The CFJ organized in 1996 to seek equal reparations for Japanese Latin Americans (JLA) who were forcibly removed from their homes and businesses in Latin America and placed in the Crystal City, Texas camp during WWII.

Richard Katsuda grew up in Oxnard, California, as a son of farmers. He went to college at Stanford, where he tried everything from electrical engineering to philosophy (without studying too much). He took a course from Edison Uno, who is often called the father of the redress movement, which got Richard to think in intellectual terms about the concept of redress for Japanese Americans. But his involvement with the Tule Lake Committee, which organizes pilgrimages to the former WWII concentration camp, clinched it for him in getting him emotionally tied to the redress movement.

Richard got involved with the Japanese American community of San Jose, where he was a founding member of NCRR and the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee. He was the Executive Director of Yu-Ai Kai, which is a senior service center for Japanese Americans. Having moved to Los Angeles in late 1983, Richard has continued his work with NCRR. He has been a teacher at Central High School, which is a continuation high school of the Los Angeles Unified School District, since 1986.

Kay Ochi, a third generation Japanese American, has been an active member of NCRR since 1981 and worked on the community’s campaign for redress and reparations for over 20 years. Her involvement included numerous trips to Washington D.C. to lobby Congressional members for redress legislation. After the Congress passed legislation in 1988 authorizing a governmental apology and reparations for surviving former internees, Ochi continued to travel to Washington DC with former internees to advocate for the broadest interpretation of the redress bill.

On behalf of NCRR, she currently presents workshops at teacher conferences and to community groups about the wartime incarceration, the civil rights issues involved, and the importance of staying involved. “If more citizens had protested the mass removal of Japanese Americans, the outcome may have been very different for our community.”

Formerly the college advisor at Fairfax H.S. in Los Angeles, Ochi retired after 32 years in the field of education and now resides in San Diego. “The government’s unwarranted and unconstitutional actions traumatized our community for decades. I was so deeply moved when I heard the heart-wrenching testimonies of our Nisei at the 1981 federal commission hearings about the hardships of the camps, I decided to join NCRR and get involved in the campaign for redress.”

Kathy Masaoka has been a part of the National Coalition for Redress & Reparations, now the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, which helped to lead a grassroots campaign to win redress for Japanese Americans. She was co-chair of NCRR during the late 80’s helping to lead outreach and grassroots efforts as the legislation moved from committee to the House to the Senate and finally passage. In 1989, she was able to represent NCRR in Japan as part of a delegation to support the rights of Korean and other minorities in Japan who were opposing discrimination and the fingerprinting law. In the late 90’s, again she was able to represent NCRR in a delegation of workers from New Otani (a hotel in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles) who joined with the Hanaoka Support Committee in Japan against Kajima. Kajima had enslaved Chinese laborers during WWII in the Hanaoka mines and the survivors were seeking reparations. Currently, she works with the Education Committee conducting workshops on the film, Stand Up for Justice and the NCRR 9/11 Committee working to build a relationship of support with the Muslim and South Asian communities.

She has been a continuation high school teacher in the LAUSD and has two grown kids.

What is the mission statement of your life?

Richard: To serve people, especially the underdog or those disenfranchised, while trying to be connective tissue between individuals or organizations. This mission has allowed me to work with issei, first-generation Japanese American pioneers, and with continuation high school students who are too often told that they are bad or won’t amount to anything. It has been quite challenging, but overall, it’s been very fulfilling for me

Kay: Honestly? When I was young, my mission statement was “To never be poor again!” My parents worked hard but there was never enough money. It was embarrassing to wear broken eyeglasses as a kid. Then there was my mother’s dire warning to get a good job so that I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else. So, a good job and job/economic security became paramount concerns. A college education made that possible.

In the second half of my life, my mission statement would have a lot to do with gratitude, being grateful to all who have helped me get where I am today. Also, that gratitude includes a lot of paying it forward . . . that is, helping others, whether it be my former students, my family, my community, or fighting for justice through redress.

Kathy: To constantly learn and evolve and contribute to a more just, humane and harmonious world where all living things (animals, people etc) are respected.

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

Richard: When I got involved with the Tule Lake Committee, spending a weekend in close quarters talking to former inmates about their experiences created an incredible bond with them and an intense desire to redress the suffering and rights violations they had endured.

Kay: When my marriage ended I was only 30 years old. I knew that there was a lot more to life that I needed to explore. I soon became involved with the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), and l attended the federal “hearings” in downtown Los Angeles that had to do with the Japanese American wartime incarceration. My mom and dad were incarcerated at Poston, Arizona for three years- as were all of my relatives and family friends. The hearings absolutely changed my life and inspired my passion to fight for them. After witnessing the heartbreaking testimonies of first generation and second generation Japanese Americans about the terrible impact of the forced exclusion and camps, I joined a dynamite group of activists, the National Coalition for

Redress/Reparations (NCRR) and learned about community activism from the best. That was 30 years ago. The rest is history. Check it out at ncrr-la.org.

Kathy: Being at the right place and the right time. I was fortunate to come of age during the late 60’s and be at UC Berkeley when Asian American Studies first started and the Vietnam War was raging. Both influenced who I was and my future involvement in the community. My roots are also in Boyle Heights which was a truly multi-ethnic, as well as working class, community in the 50’s and early 60’s. Everyone shared their foods and took care of each other.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

Kay: My first choice is Tamlyn Tomita. In addition to being a fine actor, she has a lot of heart and passion for social justice.

Kathy: Ming Na.

How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?

Kay: Really, NCRR’s website (ncrr-la.org) shares who we are and what is important to us. The site includes an Archives section that shares NCRR’s participation in the fight for redress and reparations during the 1980s and 1990s and our current work with the American Muslim community for mutual support and religious tolerance. JA’s especially we older folks know about racism and discrimination.

Kathy: Check out our web site, join us and receive an annual newsletter, get on our emailing list and come to the Day of Remembrance program. We don’t have an office but I hope we can partner with another group soon to have more presence in Little Tokyo.

If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?

Richard: I see great potential for learning from each other, drawing on the divergent as well as common experiences of the various communities. I see natural contesting among different perspectives for validation and recognition, but I think that this dynamic is necessary to propel the communities toward a stronger and more vibrant Asian Pacific Islander American community overall.

Kay: The APIA community is so diverse- from recent immigrants to fifth generation Japanese and Chinese Americans. Since API’s have been relatively successful in accessing higher education, they have great opportunity to do well; the future is promising. One proviso is to always remember your roots and to remember that in this country you are still considered a “person of color”.

Kathy: Lots of support and sharing of resources among the API groups, This is happening now in the areas of economic development and some cultural work especially among younger people.

Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young professionals? Would you give different advice for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?

Kay: Are you comfortable with public speaking (a majority of the public are not)? If not, my best advice is to do something about it. Enroll in a speech class or a “Toastmasters/ Toastmistress” organization. It’s important to speak out when you need to and it’s easier to do with some training and experience. And, no, I would not give different advice to APIA professionals.

Fred Korematsu urged young people to “just speak up”. It’s important advice.

What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?

Kathy: Having a Hot Toddy (hot chocolate drink served in a can) at drive-in movies and falling asleep and being carried from the car to the house by my father.

Stuffed bell peppers at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles and coconut carrot juice at May Company after shopping with my mother and sister.

Cream of Wheat cereal with either butter and sugar or swimming in milk and some sugar – morning time with my mom rushing around and me in slow motion getting ready for school.

Grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup: My sister and I would make this for ourselves for lunch and pretend that we were really poor (which we were, kind of).

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[Photo from Left to Right: Kay Ochi, Richard Katsuda, and Kathy Masaoka]

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About Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (www.CHOPSO.com), the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.
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