'Enemy Child' chronicles local statesman's life in Japanese internment camp

Norman Mineta aims to bring awareness of the social injustice in new biography

Norman Mineta, the trailblazing congressman from San Jose who served two presidential cabinets and 10 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, has come forward to share a different story about his life before politics in the first biography of the 87-year-old to ever be published.

Released on April 30, "Enemy Child" recounts Mineta's childhood years spent in a Japanese American internment camp at Heart Mountain, Montana, during World War II from the innocent perspective of a young Mineta.

Mineta shares his childhood memories of living in San Jose before World War II, the alienation from his American friends when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, sending his family to the remote internment camp after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and his subsequent struggle integrating back to a normal life. He eventually becomes the first Asian American mayor of San Jose, the first Japanese American from the mainland to be elected to Congress, the first Asian American to serve in a presidential cabinet and the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

In his biography, Mineta recalls being at church with his family on the day of the life-changing Pearl Harbor bombing that set in motion the removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans, or "resident enemy aliens," from their communities and their incarceration in isolated internment camps for the duration of World War II. Under Executive Order 9066 Japanese American families, including Mineta's, were told they had to evacuate San Jose by May 30, 1942.

Prior to these events, Mineta's only worries were learning how to write in Japanese and getting good grades. He never thought of himself as a Japanese American; he just saw himself as a normal San Jose boy who liked baseball, playing with his dog and going to the movies with friends. His family just wanted to live the American dream.

Along with Mineta's memories, the book is filled with images that depict different moments in Mineta's life: family photos taken before the war, the dismal living conditions at Heart Mountain and anti-Japanese American propaganda from the era.

Mineta, who was influential in getting the United States to apologize for Executive Order 9066 with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and providing reparations to Japanese Americans, hopes this book will prevent history from repeating itself.

"He feels it's so critical that (younger audiences) understand what happened and why," said biographer Andrea Warren, who was inspired to write the book after seeing Mineta's name on display at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center during a visit to Yellowstone National Park.

Warren, who spent three days at Mineta's San Jose home talking to him about his childhood, said she believes that much of the country, including Mineta's own parents, adopted a "code of silence" following World War II to forget about the camps and the shame of that injustice.

Mineta and his family were kept away from their San Jose home for three years, detained at the camp with 10,000 others in crowded barracks furnished with iron cots and without access to sanitary facilities.

To Warren, the most touching moment of Mineta's story was when he recalled sharing a small, confined room with his parents, two sisters and brother that they called home. It was apparent that the family had become very close-knit during this time.

Slowly, his sisters, brother and father were permitted to leave the camp to pursue work and other opportunities. Mineta, who was too young to work, remained behind with his mother as she waited for her immigration documents to be approved.

"His parents have always taken such good care of him, and he's literally on his own," Warren said.

Mineta was worried all the time until the two were allowed to rejoin his father in Chicago, where he found comfort in being able to listen to his old favorite radio shows.

Coming from the perspective of a child protagonist who endures a historically significant event, Mineta's biography is crafted to resonate with readers of all ages.

The book also connects Mineta's past to the immigration struggles that Muslim Americans and others are currently experiencing.

"We're doomed to repeat history if we don't understand it," Warren said.

A document portrait of the statesman will also premiere on PBS, including interviews with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, on Monday, May 20 from 9-10 p.m.

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