Lillian Nakano, civil rights activist and co-founder of Japanese American Redress and Reparations Movement dies

Rafu Shimpo: 

Lillian Reiko Nakano, a longtime civil rights activist and noted musician, died on Feb. 28 at Torrance Memorial Hospital. She was 86.

Born on April 30, 1928 in Honolulu to Saburo and Shizuno (nee Nakamura) Sugita, who were also born in Hawaii, she grew up in Honolulu and had three sisters, Julia, Grace and Elizabeth, and a brother, Robert.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, her father was immediately arrested by the FBI and detained at the federal detention center on Sand Island in Hawaii for a year. Nakano and the rest of her family were then sent to the internment camp in Jerome, Ark. in 1943 and were moved to the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo. in 1944. They were released in 1945 and returned to Honolulu..

She married Bert Nakano, a fellow Hawaii native who was interned at Jerome and Tule Lake during the war, in 1949. Soon after, the couple and members of their families moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul in Minnesota and then Chicago. In 1957, they had a son, Erich, their only child. They moved to Japan briefly in 1964 and then settled in Gardena. Bert died in 2003 at the age of 75. Lillian lived with her son from the mid-2000s until her passing. Lillian Nakano co-founded NCRR with her husband Bert in the early 80s.

I worked with Lillian closely for many years, first in the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization on the issue of Little Tokyo redevelopment, then the redress movement through National Coalition for Redress and Reparations,” said Evelyn Yoshimura of the Little Tokyo Service Center. “She and her husband Bert were among the most active, most curious and open-minded Nisei I ever met. I watched her growing before my eyes as she began to assert herself and play a leadership role, weighing in on how to work with JACL, as well as always reminding us how important the grassroots community members were.”

Funeral service will be held on Saturday, March 14, at 5 p.m. at Gardena Buddhist Church, 1517 W. 166th St. (between Western and Normandie) in Gardena. A reception for guests will follow the service.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (formerly National Coalition for Redress and Reparations), as her involvement with NCRR, especially during the campaign for redress, was a cherished memory for her. Send donations to: NCRR, 231 E. Third St., G-104, Los Angeles, CA 90013.

Lillian Nakano reading NCRR's statement in support of the Muslim community at a candlelight vigil shortly after 9/11, when Muslims and those perceived as Muslims were targets of hate crimes, including murder.

Lillian Nakano reading NCRR’s statement in support of the Muslim community at a candlelight vigil shortly after 9/11, when Muslims and those perceived as Muslims were targets of hate crimes, including murder

Community Advocate

After working many different jobs in Chicago and then in Gardena and the South Bay, Nakano became active with LTPRO (Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization) in the late 1970s, opposing the destruction of housing for redevelopment and advocating for greater community control.

In the early 1980s, she was a founding member along with her husband of NCRR, which consisted of the Los Angeles Community Coalition for Redress and Reparations and other community-based groups around the country. She was very active in the campaign to win redress for Japanese Americans who were deprived of their constitutional rights during World War II, urging Nisei her age to speak up about the camps and join the effort.

Her husband was the national spokesperson for NCRR for nine years and was active in other political campaigns, such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. She was always active along with him, though more in the background. In 1988, legislation providing individual payments and an apology was finally signed into law, successfully ending this historic campaign.

“Lillian always had a smile,” recalled Mike Murase of Little Tokyo Service Center, who was also active in the redress movement. “She was always willing to talk to people, to persuade and motivate them to stand up for ​what was right, and to offer support to those who needed it. She was enthusiastic and conscientious. She liked people and wanted to change society to be better for common people.”

Lillian Nakano and June Hibino at an information table during a redress-related event in the 1980s.

Lillian Nakano and June Hibino at an information table during a redress-related event in the 1980s

Evelyn Yoshimura of LTSC commented, “I worked with Lillian closely for many years, first in the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization on the issue of Little Tokyo redevelopment, then the redress movement through National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. She and her husband Bert were among the most active, most curious and open-minded Nisei I ever met. I watched her growing before my eyes as she began to assert herself and play a leadership role, weighing in on how to work with JACL, as well as always reminding us how important the grassroots community members were.”

Longtime NCRR leader Kathy Masaoka remembered the 1981 hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, during which many former incarcerates spoke publicly about their experiences for the first time: “Lillian was a role model to many of us Sansei women who saw her speak up and be fearless. When the commissioners were not going to allow the Japanese speakers to read their testimonies, Lillian prompted Bert and others to assert their right to speak.”

Nakano expressed solidarity with Arab and Muslim Americans at a candlelight vigil in Little Tokyo on Sept. 28, 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks. Initiated by NCRR and co-sponsored by other community organizations, the vigil was attended by about 300 people and featured speakers from the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Muslim Public Affairs Council, and Council on American Islamic Relations.

“I feel so badly for the Middle Eastern peoples of all communities who are now the targets of this same kind of hatred and violence as a result of the tragic events,” Nakano said. “Sixty years ago, we heard very little from our government leaders and the general public to caution against this.”

Shamisen Master

Music was always another important part of her life. She began learning shamisen and other classical arts at age 8 in Hawaii. After her studies were interrupted by the camps, she resumed her studies and in 1955 received her master’s certificate (natori) and her professional name, Kineya Fukuju, from Master Kineya Shofuku. She taught shamisen and did some performances in Chicago, but didn’t do much teaching or performing when she moved to Gardena, where she focused her attention on raising her son and working.

After the redress victory, she began collaborating with her nephew, the late jazz pianist and composer Glenn Horiuchi (1955-2000). This allowed her to grow as an artist and provided an opportunity to continue the tradition of shamisen music in alternative formats.

In addition to being an activist, Lillian Nakano was a talented shamisen player.

In addition to being an activist, Lillian Nakano was a talented shamisen player

She was a guest soloist in the premieres of Horiuchi’s “Poston Sonata” and “Little Tokyo Suite.” This began a series of tours throughout the U.S., Mexico, Canada and beyond, including performances at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle, the Western Front Jazz Festival in Vancouver, and the Berlin Jazz Festival.

Other performances included music for Purple Moon Dance Project’s “Floating Lanterns” in San Francisco in 1994, with Katada Kai in 1998, with Horiuchi and William Roper at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a Grand Performances Summer Concert in Downtown Los Angeles in 1998.

Nakano worked with the Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis in 1998 with taiko master Kenny Endo; at the Skirball Cultural Center with composer/choreographer Nobuko Miyamoto; and as part of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange’s “Hallelujah” performance in 2001. She also had numerous concerts with Tom Kurai of the Los Angeles Taiko Center.

“I performed many times with Lillian, who was a master nagauta shamisen artist, from about 1995 to 2007,” said Kurai. “We performed traditional nagauta, ensemble music for kabuki as well as contemporary music. Much of the contemporary music was written by Lillian’s nephew, the late Glenn Horiuchi. Along with her shamisen students in the Sanmi Ensemble, we collaborated with jazz musicians Francis Wong and William Roper. We performed at Japan America Theatre, Japanese American National Museum, John Anson Ford Amphitheater, UC Riverside, UC Santa Cruz and many other venues.

“Although Lillian was a master of shamisen, receiving her certified natori from Japan, being Japanese American, she was not afraid of improvising in order to broaden the music into a more contemporary setting. I learned so much about traditional music from Lillian as well as how to improvise my taiko playing. Lillian was comfortable with both worlds and could easily move between the old and new forms of music.

“Through my association with Lillian, I gained not only a firm foundation in music, but just knowing her as a friend, I learned more about humanity and the importance of social action. Lillian’s loss is not only a loss for the music community but a big loss for the entire Japanese American community as well.”

Nakano was the recipient of numerous grants to support her preservation of the shamisen art form from such institutions as the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the California Arts Commission, and was honored with a Master Musician Fellowship by the Durfee Foundation in 2001.

Bay Area-based jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Jon Jang commented, “What is quite remarkable about Lillian Nakano is that she not only represents one of the major Asian American women revolutionary activists of the 20th century and beyond, along with Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs; Lillian also nurtured a younger generation of activists and infused them with the blood and the struggle of the music because Lillian was a master of the shamisen, a three-string Japanese lute, who was not allowed to perform the instrument at Jerome internment camp in a similar way black people were denied the use of drum during slavery.

“Some of these younger activists were her son Erich, who has been a longtime activist leader and played piano, as well as her late nephew Glenn Horiuchi, who was also an activist as well as a brilliant composer, pianist and shamisen performer.”

Nakano slowed her activity and retired from the late 1990s into the 2000s to help raise her two grandchildren. She later took great joy watching their basketball games and seeing them grow up.

“She was a dedicated and devoted mother and loving wife; she and Bert helped raise their grandchildren from the time they were born and supported them as they grew into young adults,” her family said in a statement. “She was an activist and fighter for civil rights and social justice. She was a friend, mentor and role model to many in the community.

“Although outwardly gentle, and one who did not seek the limelight, she had wellspring of strength and determination that enabled her to truly make a difference in the lives of family and friends around her, and the community.”

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