Oral Histories

Interview of Don Nakanishi

UCLA professor of Asian American studies and education. Director of the Asian American Studies Center.
Interviews not in a series, part two
UCLA and University of California History
Asian American History
UCLA Faculty
Biographical Note:
UCLA professor of Asian American studies and education. Director of the Asian American Studies Center.
Cline, Alex
Nakanishi, Don
Persons Present:
Nakanishi and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Sessions one to three: Asian American Studies Center conference room in Campbell Hall, UCLA; Sessions four to five: Nakanishi’s office in Moore Hall, UCLA; Sessions six to eight: Conference Room A of Powell Library, UCLA.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, Series Coordinator, Center for Oral History Research; musician.Cline prepared for the interview by reviewing materials on Nakanishi’s career supplied him by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and by surveying sources related to Asian American studies in general and Nakanishi’s tenure struggle at UCLA in particular.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Nakanishi was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a few corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
12.5 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Nakanishi’s parents’ backgrounds—Their internment at Poston, Arizona, during World War II—Parents’ lack of openness with him about their internment experience—His parents’ relocation to Tule Lake internment camp, where uncooperative internees were sent—Nakanishi’s relatives in Hiroshima miraculously survive the bombing there—After the war, his parents eventually return to Los Angeles, where they first settle in Boyle Heights, then in unincorporated East Los Angeles—The racial and ethnic diversity of Nakanishi’s neighborhood as a youngster—His American Jewish best friends—The rapid shift in the demographics of his neighborhood during his youth there.
Nakanishi’s American Jewish friends as a child in East L.A.—The fate of his childhood friend Norman Matloff and his family—East L.A. quickly becomes a largely Mexican American community by the mid-1960s—Japanese American teachers at Harrison Elementary School address Nakanishi’s poor English—Regular activities in which his parents had him engaged which were designed to support his competence in his Japanese culture—Early exposure to basketball and baseball through his Japanese cultural activities—A school assignment that required watching an early morning travel show on TV exposes him to other places in the world—Communication in Nakanishi’s family—Help and attention he received from his parents—Food at home while growing up—How his older brother’s choices and behavior affected the direction Nakanishi’s parents set for his early life—His parents’ reticence with mostly English-speaking Japanese Americans—His parents’ feelings about living out their lives outside Japan away from their relatives—How the Japanese American experience as it expressed itself in his family helped inform Nakanishi’s later academic perspective—Activities at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo—Family-owned businesses in Little Tokyo during Nakanishi’s childhood—How living in unincorporated East L.A. helped shape the extent of his Japanese American experience as a child—Ways in which his family seemed more Japanese than some of the other Japanese American families he knew.
The Watts Riots—African American students at Roosevelt High School—The Jewish population leaves Nakanishi’s neighborhood during his youth—His relationship with mostly Mexican American friends growing up—Racial composition of the teaching faculty at the schools he attended—Racial climate at Roosevelt High School—East L.A. gangs—Activities in which Nakanishi engaged with his friends outside of school—White teachers at Nakanishi’s junior high and high schools who elected to expose good students like Nakanishi to culture outside that of East L.A.—Influential homeroom teacher Ed Cano—Nakanishi cruises Whittier Boulevard with his high school friends—How his leadership roles in high school helped expose him to varied people and communities in the area—Popular culture’s influence on him during his teen years—He directs his academic aspiration toward medicine, but is well trained in writing—His leadership and organizational skills—How he came to apply to Yale University—His late cousin, Kenji Nakanishi, becomes a role model for academic achievement for Nakanishi—He elects to attend Yale after being attentively recruited—His parents’ feelings about his choice of university in the wake of his brother Mike’s academic experience and its financial cost—Their feelings about Nakanishi’s mostly Mexican American girlfriends while growing up.
Nakanishi is chosen to be boy mayor of Los Angeles during his senior year at Roosevelt High—He attends a party for newly recruited L.A.-area Yale freshmen in Bel-Air—His arrival as a new student at Saber College, Yale University—His college roommates and neighbors in McClellan Hall—The fates of his hall mates—Nakanishi’s class is deemed the “most diverse class ever” at the time—The few Asian American students he encountered at Yale—An incident on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, in which Nakanishi is assaulted in his room with water balloons by a group of his classmates—How the incident led to Nakanishi’s first effort to find information about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—He applies to work as a VISTA volunteer during the summer of 1968—He goes to Oklahoma, where he is trained and then sent to work on setting up an emergency food and medicine program in Idabel, Oklahoma—How the volunteers addressed race relations in basically segregated Idabel—He encounters rural American poverty—Nakanishi returns to Idabel around thirty years after his summer as a VISTA volunteer—Back at Yale he takes a political science class on a model United Nations, where he meets and befriends two of the Mexican American students there—He decides to investigate a way to pursue an independent study major focusing on Japanese Americans—The circuitous route toward the goal of his major—Law professor Harold Laswell offers to serve as Nakanishi’s advisor—The attitude toward ethnic studies centers in Ivy League schools at the time—Nakanishi joins the few Chicano students on campus and helps them form the Chicano Students Association at Yale, ultimately an East Coast chapter of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA)—Socio-political activities on campus in which the association engaged—Joaquin Avila—How Nakanishi’s meeting Glenn Omatsu led to the formation of the Asian American Students Association at Yale—The association succeeds in collecting 3,000 signatures in favor of repealing Title 2 of the McCarran Act—Why Nakanishi took Russian as a pre-med student at Yale.
How Nakanishi’s political point of view was developed during his first years at Yale—The first ethnic studies classes at Yale—The first ethnic studies conferences for the East Coast are held at Yale—How Yale handled the massive protest at Black Panther Bobby Seale’s arrest in New Haven—The Yale Asian American Students Association’s official statement protesting Seale’s incarceration—Nakanishi’s credibility as a Yale student doing research among revolutionary groups—Left-wing Asian students' status before the field of Asian American studies developed—Nakanishi’s own stance amidst the youth counterculture movement of the late sixties and early seventies—The genesis of Amerasia Journal—How Amerasia Journal wound up being produced at UCLA after beginning at Yale—Nakanishi’s reasons for departing from his medical school aspirations and applying to graduate schools in political science—Why he chose to attend graduate school at Harvard University—He is recruited by Harold Isaacs to participate in a study examining perceptions of Japan and the United States toward one another—His parents’ feelings about his change in academic direction—Their trip to the East Coast for Nakanishi’s Yale graduation—He learns that his phone was wiretapped during his senior year at Yale by the New Haven Police Department—Hillary Rodham and William J. Clinton at Yale—Yale classmate Kurt Schmoke—Reasons Nakanishi found his experience at Harvard disappointing—More on Harold Isaacs and his impact on Nakanishi—Interviews Nakanishi initially conducted for his dissertation lead him to change his dissertation topic to focus on the impact of the Holocaust and the Japanese internment during World War II on American Jews and Japanese Americans.
Late stage at which Nakanishi learned his parents’ full story of their internment experience during World War II—His parents’ view of his academic pursuits related to their history—The issue of the draft during the Vietnam War—Teaches at UCLA while finishing his dissertation after graduating from Harvard—Pursues a post-doc in Japan focusing on Japanese Americans’ presence in the occupation of Japan after World War II—His feelings about being in Japan as a Japanese American—How Nakanishi met his wife, Marsha Hirano—He is ultimately hired to fill a new position at the UCLA School of Education—Controversy surrounding the increase in enrollment of Asian Americans at prominent universities during the 1980s and how Nakanishi was involved in researching and analyzing the admissions data—He complies the first National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac in 1976—Racial and ethnic diversity at UCLA—The Nakanishis settle near their old neighborhood near East L.A.—Changes they’ve witnessed in the neighborhood over time—Controversial changes in Little Tokyo beginning in the 1970s—Ways in which the Nakanishi’s son's experience growing up in their neighborhood paralleled and differed from theirs.
Academic climate for ethnic studies and for Asian American college students in the 1980s—Nakanishi’s activities in the ‘80s, including his writing and teaching in relation to Japanese Americans beginning to come to terms with their internment experience during World War II—Irregularities in his tenure process show up early in it and trigger a long and arduous grievance process—He receives the first report of his being turned down for tenure, followed by his learning of unprecedented and suspicious deviations in the traditions of the process—Early effort to correct the process fails to solve the problem and leaves the faculty polarized—After being turned down again, he decides to contest the decision and begins to formulate how to go about it—His primary attorney, Dale Minami, compiles and presents a formal grievance to the Committee on Academic Personnel after learning of more blatant irregularities in Nakanishi’s tenure process—Nakanishi’s sense of his many supporters during a contentious time—Students’ demonstrations of support for Nakanishi—Other tenure cases involving Asian Americans across the nation at the same time, notably that of Rosalie L. Tung—How a commonly held view of ethnic studies among established academics played into the resistance to Nakanishi’s tenure—After a three-year struggle, Chancellor Charles E. Young calls a meeting between Nakanishi, Minami, and himself—Young and Minami exchange preambles at the meeting—Young lays out his condition under which he will grant tenure to Nakanishi, which he does one week later—Nakanishi applies for and is selected for the directorship of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center (AASC) in 1990—Relative ease with which he was able to fulfill his requested needs for the Center upon becoming its new director—The AASC receives the Challenge Grant in the Arts from UCLA’s administration to support their year-long multi-departmental project in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese American internment—The Center’s two hugely successful exhibitions at the Wight Art Gallery and how support from the chancellor’s office helped make them happen—Current support for ethnic studies at UCLA.
Resistance to ethnic studies already present in UCLA’s academic culture at the time of Nakanishi’s tenure battle—Reason he waited so long to reveal the story behind the end of his tenure battle—Development of degree programs in ethnic studies centers at UCLA, leading to the centers ultimately becoming academic departments—The Asian American Studies Center’s online networking with social services organizations in the Asian American community—More on the Center’s ability to collaborate with other departments on campus for the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese American internment—Asian American studies at UCLA in relation to the size of the Asian population in Southern California—Changes in the Asian American student population on California college campuses after the passage of Proposition 209—The strong presence of Asian student groups at UCLA—Unity and diversity among the many Asian student populations at UCLA—Changes in the status of Asian Americans over the last forty years—Relevance of the term “Asian American”—Nakanishi’s current involvement in pursuing the incorporation as a city of East Los Angeles—His activities at the beginning of his official retirement from UCLA—His collection of around four hundred maneki nekos, Japanese waving cat figurines—His successor as director of the Asian American Studies Center, David Yoo—Nakanishi’s view of his relationships with UCLA and with Yale—He reveals why he has always rooted for the University of Southern California in football—Reason he soured on John Wooden and UCLA basketball at one point—His view of contemporary Los Angeles, its future, and the role of Asian Americans in it.