By Devika Koppikar
As a young man, Bill Imada didn’t want to identify as a Japanese American.
“I wanted to be white,” said Imada.
But on October 9, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) recognized him for not only his leadership in the Asian American community, but also for promoting diversity in the media field. Imada was one of four awardees at the 7th Annual JACL Awards Dinner who received the “Salute to Champions” recognition.
Today, Imada is the founder and chairman of the IW Group, an advertising/public relations agency .
“It was a mentor of Chinese heritage who encouraged me to be proud of my Japanese heritage,” said Imada.
A theme of linking the past, present and future of Japanese Americans permeated the gala, which was held at the Capital Hilton. Attendees included former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Embassy of Japan’s Minister Tamaki Tsukada and Congressman Adam Smith (D-Wash.). The event raises fund to finance JACL’s advocacy and educational programs.
“A lot of rhetoric from 70 years ago has not disappeared,” said Priscilla Ouchida, JACL National Executive Director, referring to the Japanese American internment camps of World War II. “So it’s important to build a new generation of leaders who are committed to diversity.”
Ouchida highlighted the JACL’s new international leadership program, where young Japanese American professionals between 18 and 25 visit Japan to connect with business and community leaders.
“The program introduces young Japanese Americans to young Japanese,” said Tsukada, who spearheaded the program. “In the past, Japanese and Japanese Americans had very little interaction. Because of the history, many did not want to remember their heritage. But the 2011 tsunami renewed their interest in reconnecting (with their Japanese roots).”
In addition to Imada, the gala recognized Hawaii Five-O television series writers Peter Lenkov and Ken Solarz, who scripted the episode “Ho ‘onani Makuakane’” (Honor Thy Father).” The episode aired on December 2013 and featured the little-known Japanese American internment camps of Hawaii. Lenkov and Solarz did not attend the gala, but submitted a video message.
The other two honorees, UPS (Corporate Award) and Congressman Smith (Congressional Award), did attend the gala. UPS was recognized for its diverse workforce, including several Asian and minority Americans who hold management positions. Congressman Smith received the congressional award for opposing measures in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would allow the detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism without charge or trial.
At the gala, Congressman Smith said he would continue to fight for civil and civic rights for all Americans.
“I am concerned about voter suppression efforts that are making it more difficult for people to vote, he said.
Congressman Smith also said he is advocating for immigration reform.
“There at 10 to 15 million people who are vital members of our community, pay taxes, Social Security and contribute more than $10 billion in our economy, but are forced to live in the shadows. They deserve a better path to citizenship.”
The evening also included remarks from Mineta, who shared a story of having his baseball bat taken by authorities when his family was confined in an internment camp. Later, when he was elected to the House of Representatives, a supporter sent Mineta a baseball bat signed by Hank Aaron. However, due to House ethics rules, he could not accept the bat, which was worth $1,500. To this, he shared, that he remarked, “The (expletive) government has taken my bat again.”