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If you like Norman Mineta's story, you might also like:
Willie Brown,
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Norman Mineta
Norman Mineta
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Norman Mineta Interview

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation

June 3, 2006
Los Angeles, California

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  Norman Mineta

(The Academy of Achievement interviewed Norman Mineta's boyhood friend, Senator Alan Simpson, on May 22, 1998 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Senator Simpson's remarks on their friendship are also included in this transcript.)

Secretary Mineta, could you tell us what your childhood was like, growing up as the son of immigrant parents in San José before World War II?

Norman Mineta: Well, my dad had come as a 14-year-old from Japan in 1902, and he worked for Speckles Sugar Company down in Speckles, near Salinas. Then in about 1910, they moved him from Speckles in Salinas to San Martín, just south of San José, to set up a sugar beet operation there, and he did that. Then, in 1917, he was part of that influenza epidemic, maybe 1918, so he ended up in county hospital for six, seven months, and as a result of that, they said that he couldn't go back to farming, it was too strenuous, so he moved into San José, doing a number of odd jobs. One of them, one day he was interpreting in court, and these fellows came up to him and said, "How would you like to go into the insurance business?" And he said, "Well, I know nothing about insurance." So they said, "We would train you." So actually, in 1920, he started in the insurance business. So that was the setting of the family in the early twenties. In 1928, he built a home in San José, and then I was the youngest of five children, and I was born in 1931. So for us, life was pretty idyllic. Every summer we had our vacations, Lake Tahoe, Santa Cruz, Crater Lake, Arizona, Grand Canyon, wherever. It was a family of seven, and it was just a strong family, and we just had a great time growing up.

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Were there problems for you as a Japanese American family at that time?

Norman Mineta: Well, for example...

I remember my sister went to San José State and majored in education, and they said, "What are you doing majoring in education?" "I want to be a teacher." This is 1937. And they said, "No school district is going to hire a Japanese American." So she then changed to commerce -- to major in commerce -- which enabled her to become a secretary when she graduated from San José State in 1940. So yes to that extent, you find the traditional historical racial discrimination that was existent and prevailing, especially with Asian populations.

My oldest sister went to Berkeley in 1933, and my father used to always be asked by friends of his, "Why are you sending your daughter to Berkeley? She ought to either get married or go to work." And he would say, "No, they need a good education to prepare themselves for their future." This is from a person who had only an 8th grade education himself. So there are the traditional kinds of prejudices that all of us I think went through, but I think in San José in those days, it really was what I would call an integrated community. We were living as Americans of Japanese ancestry in an area that was predominantly of Italian ancestry.

After December 7, and the evacuation orders came out, the San José Mercury News came out editorially and said, "Look, these are our friends, our neighbors, so don't think of them as the people who were piloting the planes in Hawaii." Because there was that distinction that couldn't be made by many, many people, of those who were flying the airplanes on the 7th of December and those who were living in Washington, Oregon and California, who by accident of birth happened to be of Japanese ancestry. So all of that fury of December 7th, with historical racial discrimination, wartime hysteria and weak political leadership at that time then caused the forced evacuation and internment of those of Japanese ancestry.

Up until that time, what kind of a kid were you when you were growing up?

Norman Mineta: A good kid. When you are the youngest of five, and the next older above you is 10 years, you really get sort of treated as a caboose. There is no question that I was treated very specially by the family. There was a very well-known Japanese American pharmacist who had a drugstore right in Japan Town in San José. He used to refer to me as Kuza. A kuza is sort of a brat. I think of myself at that age as mischievous, as Alan Simpson said one time. I met Alan Simpson in 1943, so that friendship has been there for a long time. But in fourth and fifth grade, I was playing violin and playing baseball in the streets, and having a great time.

What interests did you have as a child?

Norman Mineta Interview Photo
Norman Mineta: Sports. I loved playing basketball and baseball, and pursued that in high school, as well. I also tried track, but couldn't do the 100 fast enough consistently to be on the track team. In the meantime I had developed an interest in photography. We had a crew of photographers for our high school newspaper and yearbook, and we did all the photography for the newspaper and for the yearbook, except for the senior photos. So I became a photographer for the staff in my sophomore year at San José High School.

Were you a good student?

Norman Mineta: I think I did relatively well, but if I were to compare myself to today's young people, I am sure glad I went to Berkeley when I did, because I would never be able to compete with them today. They are so much more intelligent and sophisticated, much wiser in their ways. When I started in Berkeley as a freshman, I was literally wet behind the ears, because I started at the time when the last of the World War II vets were just starting to graduate. They had a real strong influence on how I was at Berkeley.

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