Activist Clifford Uyeda, Champion of the Underdog, Left Legacy of Principle
By KENJI G. TAGUMA
Man of principle. Voice for the voiceless. Champion of the underdog. These were the phrases used by many who remembered a human rights icon who dedicated much of his life to social justice.
Clifford Iwao Uyeda was a fighter. But even Uyeda, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer for several years, could not overcome the debilitating disease.
Uyeda, a staunch human rights activist who often took principled, if unpopular, stands, died Friday, July 30 at his Japantown apartment. He was 87.
a champion for humans and mammals alike, spearheading an
anti-whaling campaign, leading a drive to educate Japanese Americans
about the plight
“The Japanese American community, Asian American communities, and the U.S. have lost a valiant and resilient fighter for peace, equality, and justice,” said UC Berkeley Asian American Studies Professor L. Ling-chi Wang.
passing of Clifford Uyeda is a terrible loss for the JA community,” said
John Tateishi, the national executive director of the Japanese American
Citizens League. “He was an exceptional kind of person, a kind
and gentle man but tenacious and unwavering when he believed in a cause.
He was the type of
“He looked like a conservative college professor but had the heart of a rebel,” said civil rights attorney Dale Minami. “He was absolutely fearless in battles against injustices and his example of courage, integrity, perseverance and kindness is a legacy we should adopt.
“Cliff was simply one of the most decent and honorable persons I had ever known,” Minami said. “I will miss him.”
“Clifford was a leader among leaders,” said historian Wayne Maeda, who served on the board of the National Japanese American Historical Society along with Uyeda. “He always considered issues he was involved in deeply, using social justice and doing the right thing as his guiding principle.”
Clifford I. Uyeda was born in Olympia, Wash. on Jan. 14, 1917, to Matsutaro and Kimiyo Uyeda, and upon being educated through high school in Tacoma, he matriculated to the University of Wisconsin, where he received a B.A. degree in English. He then earned his medical degree from the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.
During the Korean War, he became a captain in the U.S. Air Force. Upon relocating to San Francisco, Uyeda became a staff pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente, running a variety of clinics.
Because he was in college at the time, he was not incarcerated — like his parents or others on the West Coast — in the wartime concentration camps.
Nevertheless, Uyeda maintained a strong interest in Japanese American history and culture, as witnessed by his co-founding of the Center for Japanese American Studies in 1969 — which helped to develop curriculum for the fledgling Ethnic Studies program at San Francisco State University — and serving as one of the first board members of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in 1972.
He was also chair of the Issei History Project of the JACL.
The Case of ‘Tokyo Rose’
Uyeda first heard of the case of the infamous “Tokyo Rose” in 1973, and became passionately involved in a campaign seeking to overturn the post-war conviction of Iva Toguri, who was falsely accused, tried and sentenced for treason against the United States during World War II.
Toguri was accused of broadcasting anti-American propaganda to American POWs as “Tokyo Rose” on radio.
Working with Wayne Merrill Collins, son of famed civil rights attorney Wayne Mortimer Collins, Uyeda brought national attention to the case. An intense effort by Uyeda and others in the JACL’s National Committee for Iva Toguri— which he chaired from 1975-77 — culminated with a full pardon for Iva Toguri d’Aquino by then-President Gerald Ford on Jan. 19, 1977.
“It was primarily his work that launched the campaign,” reflected Wayne Merrill Collins at a dinner held in Uyeda’s honor in 1997.
Although the concept of redress for concentration camp survivors was coined by Edison Uno years earlier, Uyeda was asked in October of 1977 to “take over” the chairmanship of the JACL campaign because the program was not moving forward.
In 1978 he successfully ran for the presidency of the organization, and asked John Tateishi to take over the helm of the JACL’s redress committee.
“What people do not recall today is the critical role he played in helping create the campaign,” recalled Tateishi at the 1997 dinner tribute. “Without him, it never would have happened.”
Tateishi recalled that he and Uyeda together helped to launch the redress ampaign into a national forum, something that “would not have been possible” if Uyeda were not president.
Frank Abe, director of the award-winning documentary “Conscience and the Constitution,” remembers Uyeda’s support for the Seattle JACL’s efforts to launch the first-ever “Day of Remembrance” redress event at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.
Abe said that in his support of funding for the program, Uyeda demonntrated “his belief in our ability to break the ice and kick-start a national movement by proving Nisei no longer needed to fear a white backlash by remembering the camps and standing for redress with their families.”
Uyeda has, no doubt, his detractors who don’t agree with him, said Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society. But he was still able to gain their respect.
In the 1990s, Uyeda became active in uncovering truths that had been suppressed. He advocated for the publication of what has become known as the “Lim Report,” which uncovered the questionable wartime role of JACL leaders.
He was an early supporter of Nisei draft resisters — who as young men refused to be drafted from behind barbed wire concentration camps — and who for years were ostracized by the so-called Japanese American community leadership, namely those associated with the JACL.
“I just thought…how close I was to being a draft resister,” he told a group of resisters in 1997. “I made up my mind that if the orders came to report, I would not go.”
“He was very sympathetic towards the resisters,” remembered Mits Koshiyama of San Jose, who was a Nisei draft resister from the Heart Mountain, Wyoming concentration camp.
Uyeda also gave vocal support for redress for the more than 2,000 persons of Japanese descent who were virtually kidnapped from their homes in Latin America and held in American detention camps for use in hostage exchanges with Japanese POWs.
“(Uyeda) is remembered by former Japanese Latin American internees for his steadfast support of our educational and redress efforts,” said Grace Shimizu of El Cerrito, director of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and a leading advocate for Japanese Latin American redress. “As a champion for human rights whose inclusive vision, strong conviction for justice and commitment to activism inspired many, he gave us much hope, courage and determination.”
Community activist and writer Phil Tajitsu Nash called Uyeda “truly one of the giants of Japanese America.”
“He could have had a comfortable career as a physician, and instead he devoted himself to innumerable causes that have left this world a much better place,” said Nash. “He had the organizational skills of an insider, combined with the passion and keen insights of an outsider. Without him, I don’t think redress would have happened.”
Uyeda’s actions speak to a new generation of activists.
“Clifford inspired and encouraged me and many other Sansei community activists through his words and deeds,” said Andy Noguchi, civil rights co-chair and a past president of the Florin JACL in Sacramento.
Noguchi, who chaired a JACL ceremony in 2002 to recognize Nisei draft resisters of conscience – which followed decades of bitter divide between the two groups — said Uyeda “helped lead the way to greater justice, understanding, and reconciliation for our community.”
Champion of the Underdog
“You can say that Dr. Uyeda is a champion of the underdog, with a penchant for exposing injustices within and without,” said Carole Hayashino, a community activist who spoke in tribute to Uyeda at the 1997 dinner.
To many, Uyeda was a staunch, yet reasoned, “voice of the voiceless.”
In 1983, he formed the Committee for the Big Mountain People with the JACL, writing more than 40 reports over four years on the plight of the Navajo people, who were fighting the government’s attempts to forcibly remove 10,000 of them from their ancestral homeland.
“I thought that Japanese Americans who were also ‘relocated’ during World War II should be aware of another ‘relocation’ being forced upon the Navajos,” explained Uyeda.
In 1974, he formed the National Whale Issue Committee within the JACL, which was a four-year effort.
“The whale issue was actually a very difficult and protracted issue for the community and for Clifford,” said Hayashino. “Clifford was placed in the unique position of on the one hand, supporting whale conservation and the efforts for a moratorium on commercial whaling, and at the same time opposing the blanket boycott of Japanese goods because of its ‘misdirected racism’ against the Japanese people and Japanese Americans.”
This campaign worked directly with numerous American conservation rganizations, answering hundreds of letters explaining their positions.
“Clifford’s persistence and leadership convinced major conservation organizations to withdraw their support of the economic boycott and instead work to develop cooperative ties with the Japanese conservationists,” Hayashino recalled.
Uyeda was an influential leader in the National Japanese American Historical Society, including his tenure as NJAHS president from 1988-94, and was instrumental in changing the organization's name from Go For Broke in an effort to increase membership and broaden its reach.
Uyeda served in various capacities with NJAHS, including research chair and chair of its Capital Fund. He also edited the organization’s publication, Nikkei Heritage, for a number of years.
Uyeda was already diagnosed with prostate cancer when, in 1998, he began what was to be the last chapter in his book of activism.
He was the founding co-chair of what became the Rape of Nanking Redress Coalition, a group of Asian American and other activists demanding that the Japanese government apologize and give redress to victims of Japanese military atrocities during World War II.
A second-generation Japanese American himself, Uyeda led rallies even in a wheelchair.
“Japan needs to realize the errors she committed, acknowledge its truth, apologize and pay the necessary restitutions,” said Uyeda at a July 31, 2001 protest at an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the peace treaty between the U.S. and Japan.
Around that same timeframe, he further elaborated in an interview with the Nichi Bei Times: “Japan has everything to gain, and little to lose by practicing this action,” Uyeda stated. “If Japan continues to be stubborn as she is doing now, she will become a true target of world hatred. We do not want the Japanese people to have to suffer the consequence of such action.”
“Even as he gallantly fought off the ravages of cancer, he took on and was an outspoken leader on the atrocities committed by Japan during WWII in the ‘Rape of Nanking,’ ‘Comfort Women,’ and human experimentation by the notorious medical ‘Unit 721,’” remembered Maeda. “He was driven by his commitment to justice and the hope that Japan would finally confront and apologize to the Chinese, Korean, Filipino and other victims of World War II.”
His co-chair in the RNRC, now-retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Lillian Sing, said Uyeda’s “passion for justice was unmatched.”
“He was our fearless leader,” recalled Sing. “I have lost a comrade in arms, an adviser, and a dear, dear friend. The world has lost a giant and a hero. We mourn for our loss. We have lost a great champion for justice, for peace, and for humanity.”
Historian Art Hansen visited Uyeda in 1997 to conduct a lengthy oral history interview with him.
“Clifford Uyeda was someone who possessed not only the courage of his convictions, but also the energy, intelligence, and dedication to convert those convictions into monumental deeds of social and humanitarian justice — which he did, time after time after time,” recalled Hansen, director of the Japanese American Oral History Project at California State University, Fullerton and senior historian at the Japanese American National Museum. “How shall we ever repay our enormous debt of gratitude to this fallen giant? Let us at least try.”
“Those who are committed to social justice will miss his clear thinking and moral leadership, but his life should inspire us all to do more and be more than we are,” reflected Maeda, who teaches Asian American studies at California State University, Sacramento.
“Cliff was never afraid to take unpopular positions if he believed they were just — redress, the World War II resisters, Tokyo Rose, preserving the environment,” recalled Dale Minami. “He was such a visionary, it just took all of us time to catch up to him.”
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Memorial Service Aug. 18
Clifford Iwao Uyeda, was the loving husband to Betty Uyeda; brother-in-law to Sachiko Uyeda, Edward and Cherie Nakamura, and Hiroshi and Emiko Miyake; uncle to Katherine Uyeda, Richard Uyeda, Donna Baba, Gail Haslett, Stan Miyake and Gary Miyake.
Memorial services will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 7 p.m., the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in his honor may be sent to National Japanese American Historical Society, 1684 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94115.
Updated: August 5, 2004