Join us for Reflections on Race, a three-hour series of special coverage on Spectrum News 1, starting July 30 that addresses the important conversations around trauma, healing, activism, education, and allyship. Experts in psychology, parenting, and civil rights break down what can be done individually and collectively to keep moving toward a more equitable society.
GARDENA, Calif. — Quite literally from birth, Alan Nishio was a prisoner. He was born during World War II - in the Manzanar internment camp in Inyo County, California - on August 9, 1945, the same day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
A Gardena resident, Nishio has been fighting for the rights of Asians and Asian Americans for five decades - experiencing racism his entire life.
“It was just kind of this easy way in which people would identify me as not being American based on my facial, physical features - and not for anything else,” Nishio said.
His experience has played a major role in his life as an activist. He began to understand that the internment camps 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to were prisons in 1966 as a senior college.
“My parents never talked about Manzanar. When they mentioned camp they talked about it in the context of knowing a certain family in Block 22 in camp, but I had assumed Manzanar was like a farming camp in Central California that my family happened to be at during WWII, and it had not occurred to me that it was actually a prison,” Nishio said.
That silence was part of what the Nisei, or second generation Japanese Americans, came to be known for - choosing to persevere with quiet strength.
But for Nishio, the signs of their imprisonment were all around him growing up. His mother and father were forced to sell the grocery store they owned before the war for pennies. And their belongings stored in a neighbor's garage were gone when they left camp and came back after the war in December of 1945.
The toll their imprisonment took was evident, as Nishio's father became an alcoholic. And speaking limited English as a Kibei - second generation Japanese American educated in Japan - he joined thousands of other Japanese American men coming out of camps and became a gardener.
“This became something that was very near and dear to me because it was very personal,” said Nishio.
Nishio was a founder and co-chair of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, helping over 80,000 Japanese Americans gain redress payments from the U.S. government.
He has used his own story to teach generations. He formerly served as the Associate Vice President for Student Services at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) and taught in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, and was a founding staff member of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
Today, Nishio is hoping to change the narrative from silence to activism - making pilgrimages back to Manzanar and serving as a keynote speaker. 2020's was virtual. He hopes to continue to pave for the way for his grandchildren so they don't have to grow up having to persevere through racism the way he did.
“That’s the lesson we learned, that as Japanese Americans, we cannot afford to remain silent because we’ve experienced what can happen when racism and xenophobia can run rampant and we are the victims of scapegoating,” he said.
Making sure history doesn't repeat itself.