Bert Nakano, an airline worker who fought for the rights of Japanese Americans, died on Sept. 27 from respiratory failure related to Parkinson’s disease. He was 75.
Nakano was 14 and living in Hawaii when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Shortly after the assault, Nakano’s father and hundreds of other Japanese Americans were arrested and shipped off to an internment camp. The family reunited briefly, then were moved by the federal government to different segregation centers in Northern California and Texas. His pregnant mother gave birth while living at a center, and when she contracted pneumonia, Nakano took care of his infant sister.
After the war, Nakano’s brother was so disgusted by the government’s actions that he renounced his citizenship and moved to Japan. The rest of the family returned to Hawaii, but his mother died within the year. His father couldn’t rebuild his once successful carpentry business and also moved to Japan where he died an alcoholic.
Nakano was bitter and angry about what happened to his family. He studied Zen Buddhism in Japan, but eventually returned to America to marry and spend 20 years working for Pan Am airlines. In 1980, Nakano and other activists founded the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. As the organization’s top spokesman, Nakano demanded that the government pay reparations for the way Japanese Americans were treated during the war.
“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. Can anyone return those things to us?” Nakano once said.
His efforts were rewarded in 1988 when President Reagan signed a bill offering a formal apology and giving $20,000 payments to each of the 65,000 surviving internees.