Japanese-American advocate James Murakami dies
Published: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 6:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 6:32 p.m.
James Fumio Murakami, a Santa Rosa engineer, was national president of the Japanese American Citizens League in the 1970s when the group launched the successful campaign for the U.S. government to pay redress to those interned during World War II.
Industrious until the end, Murakami died Saturday after he collapsed while helping his son change the oil in a tractor on his family's Laguna Road ranch near Forestville. He was 85.
Murakami and about 1,000 Sonoma County men, women and children of Japanese descent were ordered to leave their homes in 1942 and, with only what they could carry, sent to internment camps.
Once reluctant to even speak about his family's imprisonment, Murakami would help lead a decades-long effort to demand the government apologize for the mass evacuation of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to prison camps.
“One of the main things that he said to me was, ‘Alan I hope this injustice that happened to the Japanese Americans never happens again,'” said his son, Alan Murakami of Sebastopol.
Murakami's father Saihachi Murakami moved from Kyushu, Japan to Hawaii in 1900. His mother Shina Nakashima was a “picture bride,” who was married by proxy in Japan and later joined her husband, a stranger, in Hawaii. The couple moved to San Francisco just after the 1906 earthquake and soon settled in Sonoma County.
Murakami was born Sept. 7, 1926, in a three-room cabin on Santa Rosa's Imwalle Ranch. His parents eventually bought a chicken ranch on Sebastopol Road where they raised Murakami, his two older sisters and younger brother. Murakami attended Roseland School and a Japanese school at Sebastopol's Nippon Hall.
Their lives were utterly disrupted after Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.
The next year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066 authorizing incarceration of Japanese Americans and nationals. Murakami was 15, a freshman at Analy High.
He and his family were shipped to a Merced assembly center then taken to the Amache camp near Granada, Colo., where they lived for three years.
“They said, ‘We have to put you in for your own protection.' But why were the guns turned inward and not outward?” Murakami said in 2002.
Murakami graduated high school among the sage brush and cactus of Colorado. Later when he applied for college, he would learn the diplomas given at the Amache school weren't recognized. He took night classes in Philadelphia to earn a high school degree.
He was drafted into the Army and, before being deployed to Germany, met his future wife Margarette Masuoka on a blind date at a concert in Rio Nido. They married in 1953.
He earned a two-year degree from Santa Rosa Junior College in 1950 and in 1952 graduated from UC Berkeley. Murakami worked for PG&E in the Bay Area before founding Murakami Engineers, an electrical and mechanical business, which he ran for about 40 years.
His son remembers the rare tears his father shed when a dinnertime discussion about food turned to the meals they had at Amache.
Murakami shook his head when his family asked him to tell them what was on his mind, his son said.
“He was a man of few words,” Alan Murakami said. “But he would say, ‘They can take your liberty, they can take your rights, but if you learn something, they can't take that away from you.'”
Murakami's transformation from a stoic man who didn't talk about the camps to a leader demanding the government acknowledge the injustice represents a common experience among internees, said Priscilla Ouchida, national executive director-elect for the Japanese American Citizens League.
“There was a widespread view that bringing up the whole internment experience ... might create a backlash,” Ouchida said. “He was president during a key time.”
Murakami began talking about his experience after a family friend convinced him to join the league's Sonoma County chapter. He served as local president before joining the national board.
He became the group's national president in 1976, the year President Gerald Ford rescinded the executive order that authorized the camps.
Murakami oversaw heated debates over the decision to seek redress from the government.
“It was hard work,” said his wife, Margarette Murakami of Santa Rosa. “I went through it with him, during those years when he was installing local chapters and working for redress. Our children were neglected.”
In 1978, Murakami led the group in adopting a resolution to demand redress payments to each incarcerated person. His efforts would pay off a decade later.
President Ronald Regan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which established $20,000 payments to surviving internees or their relatives.
The official apology, signed the next year by George H.W. Bush, hangs framed on Murakami's wall:
“We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize the serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
In addition to his wife and son, Murakami is survived by his daughter Kimiye Beane of Springfield, Mass., and sister Fuji Kamatami of Los Angeles.
Memorial services will be held at 3 p.m. May 20 at the Community Church of Sebastopol at 1000 Gravenstein Hwy. N.
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