Academic journal article Social Justice

Race, Place, Space, and Political Development: Japanese-American Radicalism in the "Pre-Movement" 1960s

Academic journal article Social Justice

Race, Place, Space, and Political Development: Japanese-American Radicalism in the "Pre-Movement" 1960s

Article excerpt

YURI KOCHIYAMA, RICHARD AOKI, AND MO NISHIDA LIVED IN DIFFERENT GEOGRAPHIC locations, belonged to different generations, and traveled different political pathways. But Black oppression and Black resistance strongly shaped their activism as it emerged in the early to mid-1960s. I refer to them as "pre-Movement" activists--those who gained political consciousness and practice in the years preceding the advent of the Asian American Movement (AAM) and then provided leadership to that nascent movement. (1) Yuri Kochiyama is one of the most prominent Asian-American activists, famous for her connections with Malcolm X and support for political prisoners. Though little known outside activist circles, Richard Aoki became a leader in the Black Panther Party and the struggle for ethnic studies at U.C. Berkeley, and Mo Nishida worked with some of the earliest Japanese/Asian-American radical organizations in Los Angeles. Significantly, it was from their roots in the Black Liberation Movement that Kochiyama and Aoki emerged as early leaders of the AAM.

This article examines the significance of space and place, combined with the 1960s historic moment, for the development of oppositional consciousness and activism in pre-Movement Japanese-American activists. In particular, their connectedness with Black communities and Black protest was more important than any genealogical linkage to the Japanese immigrant Left, primarily because the latter linkage was severed through state repression and internal contradictions within the Left. By the early 1900s, a vigorous but small Japanese immigrant Left existed, influenced by Sen Katayama, the "father" of the Japanese labor movement and co-founder of the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA). But the politics of World War II, particularly the concentration camps and the errors of the CPUSA, including suspending Japanese American members and failing to oppose incarceration, resulted in the virtual collapse of Japanese-American radicalism by the early 1940s (Ichioka, 1971; Fowler, 2003). Issei and Sansei radicalism is thus marked by what I call "intergenerational discontinuity" (Fujino, 2007a). (2)

The AAM remains one of the most invisible social movements. Asian American Studies scholars have barely begun a systematic study, while other social movement scholars have all but ignored the subject (Fujino, 2007b). Not surprisingly, then, virtually no scholarly attention has been paid to Asian-American organizing in the pre-Movement period of the early to mid-1960s. Yet, it was a period of vibrant political protest throughout the nation and internationally, animating full-blown civil rights, budding Black power, and provocative New Left movements.

Why didn't an Asian (or Japanese) American civil rights movement emerge by the early 1960s? After all, widespread legal discrimination and racism dating back to the 1800s (McWilliams, 1944; Sandmeyer, 1973; Daniels, 1977), combined with their fairly assimilationist politics (Levine and Rhodes, 1981; Takahashi, 1997; Maeda, 2001; Kurashige, 2002), might have fostered protests demanding inclusion into the American dream. (3) Indeed, Japanese Americans were engaged in civil rights activism in this period. (4) But no large-scale social movement formed until the late 1960s, a period characterized by decline in the Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of Black Power. Some refer to this period as the "bad 60s" given the shift to self-determination, self-defense, nationalism, and militancy, and away from the integrationism, nonviolence, and the beloved community of the early or "good 60s" (Gitlin, 1987; 1995). Others, however, critique the "good sixties/bad sixties" dichotomy for disparaging the contributions of Third World and radical movements (Breines, 1988; Elbaum, 2002; Pulido, 2006).

At least two major reasons help to explain why the AAM emerged during the late 1960s and not earlier. First, Espiritu (1992) argues that key to the development of the AAM was the coming together of previously disidentified ethnic groups. …

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