The Story of Mike Nakayama
By: Casey Ly, Brian Patel, Cathy Yoo, Angela Zhao
Mike Nakayama was born in Los Angeles, CA. “I grew up in Los Angeles and I went to high school about a mile from here, called Dorsey.” He is a third generation Japanese American, also known as Sansei. The neighborhood he grew up in was nicknamed the Westside and mainly consisted of African Americans and Japanese Americans. During the 1950s, Japanese Americans experienced more racism as a result of being taken to concentration camps and labeled as the enemy during World War II. Afterwards, it was a tough time for any person of Japanese descent to live without being scrutinized or to avoid the stigma of being the “perpetual foreigner.” “I felt that because of the nature of the American population, ethnic people were not afforded the same type of future possibilities and options as the white dominant community. We started to dislike other people that looked like us cause they reminded us, or me, that I’m not going to be able to fit into the, this big picture. And it’s a frustrating kind of thing to feel like some other people can fulfill their dreams and your [dreams] are limited.”
To deal with the depression, Mike and fellow Japanese Americans took other avenues to try to escape reality and relieve the stress they were going through. Drugs were a way to escape reality and help with depression. “People started to alter their perceptions of reality by taking drugs, or by fronting off and fighting other people.” Joining gangs was also another outlet for Japanese American youth. “Back when I was in high school … there was a history of gangs in the communities. In the Japanese American community, LA was called the Westside. Some of the gangs were named the Ministers, the Constituents, [and] the Black Juans. And we ended up fighting with other people our age who are Japanese American who are from East LA. And there was this rivalry between East LA and the Westside. And we would go out to Triangle Bowl to fight them, and they would come out to Holiday Bowl, which was an institution here on Crenshaw, and every weekend we fight in the parking lot after a dance. And it just felt like the right thing to do. Violence doesn’t make sense, but it felt right and it wasn’t until years later that, that most of us kind of formulated this theory about ‘why?’ But we were just kind of caught in it at the time.” Mike did not fight regularly with African Americans; instead, he focused on Japanese Americans and other Asians. “Most of the energies, the direction of our anger were toward other Asian or Japanese Americans.”
Mike also noticed racism from within the Asian American community because of past historical events and wars. Many other Asian Americans did not like Japanese Americans and felt resentment towards the community. “There is a historical racism … the way that Japan had treated the rest of Asia during World War II separated Japan from all the other Asians. And when there were immigrants that came to the United States, the older, first generation hated the Japanese first generation because of what Japan did in Asia, which, which I understand now, I don’t blame them. I mean Japan murdered like hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Koreans, Southeast Asians, Manchurians… but we didn’t know that, so we’re like, hanging out and my Chinese friend’s parents didn’t want me to come over and I didn’t know why.”
Mike started thinking about enlisting in the military after high school. During that time, the Vietnam War was in its early stages. Mike did not know much about the Vietnam War or much of what was going on, “I was rebelling in a sense, so I wasn’t being really rational about my decisions. It was a need more to … try to get out of the situation. And without really caring about what the consequences might be, or without, full knowledge of what I am getting into.” Rather than patriotic duty, enlisting provided more of an escape for Mike, “there is so much scrutiny in the community, anything that happens in a tight knit ethnic community, everybody knows. Somebody does good, they tell everyone, somebody does bad, everybody knows.” Because Mike was involved in drugs and fighting, there was a lot of social pressure on him and his family, and the military became an appealing option to avoid the community’s gaze. The military was, “[a] change of environment and hopefully a different kind of future. We were not very mature in thinking about what the future was going to hold, but we knew that what we were doing was a …dead end situation.”
Before he enlisted in the war, two of his friends had already been killed fighting. However, his friend’s deaths did not discourage him from joining the Marine Corps. “Two of my friends were killed. And that’s kind of a frightening concept when you’re in high school. But it didn’t discourage us cause it was still so abstract. It was something that happened over there and maybe he’s gonna come back later. Maybe it’s not true. But we just need to do something and get out of here cause all we’re gonna do is end up hurting ourselves and it’s not getting better.” Even his family did not oppose his decision to join the U.S. Marines. Mike believed that life could not be as bad in the military as it was in Los Angeles. Mike eventually enlisted with two of his friends.
Before going to Vietnam, Mike was sent to bootcamp to train and prepare for the war, which Mike describes as the “most horrible experience” he has had in his life. Mike and his childhood friend ended up at the same boot camp but they were the only Asians in the entire class. Mike did not think about racism towards Asians or that he might look similar to the Vietnamese enemies when he joined the military, but his views started to change soon after. “In bootcamp… there’re three platoons, which is about 150 guys taking classes on the history of the Marine Corps. One day, right in the middle of the class, a drill sergeant comes marching into one of the classes and yells out, ‘Private Nakayama, stand up!’ so I stand up and he says ‘alright everyone, this is what a gook looks like. Turn around so everyone can see you.’” After this incident, Mike started to feel different from the other soldiers and race became more of a concern whereas before, he had not focused on it at all. “They do all this to intimate you basically, it got really racist and very personal in that sense. I started thinking a lot more about the differences between me, my fellow marines, and the military a little bit more. Whereas when I first went in, I was very naïve.”
Mike did not experience overt racism from his fellow soldiers but there was direct racism in the indoctrination process of soldiers before he was sent to Vietnam. The goal was to “dehumanize the Vietnamese so we wouldn’t look at them as another human being… it’s easier to kill someone when you see them as inferior to you. So we were told that the Vietnamese’s main goal in life was to come back as a water buffalo or some other animal to contribute to the longevity of their country, which is totally untrue but because of racist interpretation of Asian culture, they picked this stuff up about reincarnation. It made it seem like [the Vietnamese] didn’t care about human life so you would get a sense of fear and superiority. Killing the Vietnamese would be similar to swatting a fly, they’re irritating, trying to mess with you so just get rid of them, and you don’t even feel anything.” The indoctrination process was common during war time, including a similar propaganda campaign that was utilized during WWII when the military used racist posters depicting Japanese or Chinese people with exaggerated features.
In order to increase the effectiveness of the indoctrination, the military made sure to physically exhaust the soldiers. “Most of the time we were running and doing physical training, and they were trying to get us exhausted…they kept us up, made us go to classrooms, listen to lectures and watch films on the history of the United States through their eyes. After a while, you get sleep deprived, physically exhausted, and at some point, you accept what you are being told. The Marine Corps. became the most effective war fighting units in the world because of the brainwashing process where they take everything you thought you had before and they build you back up according to their image, so you respond to their orders without question.” Mike agrees that the brainwashing process produced good soldiers as it helped some people survive the war. However, “you want people like that in war but you don’t want to be around people like that in civilian life.”
The Vietnam War
After bootcamp, Mike and his fellow soldiers were flown on a nice, commercial flight to Vietnam. When they arrived and got off the plane, “you see the guys who are leaving and they look like the walking dead and they are looking at us shaking their heads. So that’s all we knew as we are getting there. We heard some stories from drill instructors but there really isn’t more information.” On his first day, Mike was quickly given a rifle and other equipment, assigned to a unit, and flown on a helicopter to where his unit was located. Mike’s unit was already out in the jungles of Vietnam so within two hours of being there, he was put in the jungle, in the war. “Then you are expected to pretty much learn by yourself, guys are going to help you because their lives depend on you as well. And that’s what you learn, you have a mutual dependence on each other. These people, I got to know better than anybody else previously in my entire life. When you spend 24 hours a day for months on end, you get to know people really well and you make sure you have trust.” However, Mike was not able to keep in touch with any of the soldiers, “it’s just not that easy. In previous wars, when you went to bootcamp, all guys went together and maintained that group but during Vietnam, it was just a matter of replacing the dead bodies…so when we got to Vietnam, everybody split up.”
Even after his bootcamp experience Mike felt like he was an American and although he was Asian, he separated himself from the Vietnamese. However, when he got to Vietnam, he started to understand the consequences of the dehumanization of the Vietnamese during bootcamp training. “It wasn’t because my fellow marines were looking at me suspiciously, I didn’t feel that. One day, when we got back to the rear — we would have to go to the jungle for 2 to 3 months, and then come back to the rear to get warm food and shower…There were rednecks from the south who had confederate flags up and they were dropping gas grenades on my tent because of me, they didn’t like me because I was Asian. They called me a gook and all this stuff and I didn’t get this stuff from any of my unit but now there’s this thing and it was out of my control.”
Mike’s encounters with the people of Vietnam were far from the images one might have about rural Vietnam. “If you weren’t fighting, you were a woman between the age of 50 and 80 or you were child up to 4 years old. Going through people’s villages, all we would see were very old women, young children, and old men.” But Mike and his unit remained alert because any one of these villagers could have been VC supporters. “We didn’t have any real interaction other than watching to see if they were cooperating with the local VC and that would manifest itself in booby traps. They would take a 155mm artillery round and dig a hole with the point on top and put a pressure plate on top of it and you step on it—would kill 2 or 3 people.” American soldiers needed to be even wary of children, “we would give them candy and hope that they wouldn’t take a grenade and drop it on us when we were not looking.”
But Mike doesn’t blame the Vietnamese for being so hostile towards Americans, “we were invading a country, they know why they’re fighting, they’re defending themselves.” One might ask why would they needed to defend themselves from America, Americans were the good guys and communists were the villains. “It’s like the centric kind of attitude about the United States being the center of the world, knowing better than everyone else. And it kind of prevailed, and guys would go in there and throw them cans of sea rations, giving food to these people but they’re throwing and hitting them with cans—no respect.” America’s way of thinking is the same back then as it is now—America knows best. But what America failed to see was that “you’re bringing violence and death to their doorstep and if they’re not smiling, it’s interpreted as collaborating with the enemy—there’s no way to win.” In these types of situations, the Vietnamese would always get the short end of the stick. “That could mean that we would have to call artillery on that village because they were too close to the foothills and we don’t want to take fire. And they would kill all these people—kids and women—and at least a half dozen times, we had to go through villages and find little kids blown up. And we’re supposed to have some kind of cause for doing that and it wasn’t always necessary because we were Americans, and we know better than everybody. And it is something that still haunts me.” These experiences would later become a contributing factor in Mike’s decision to become an anti-war supporter.
Mike came into this war with an indifferent and naïve attitude but came out with an entirely new outlook, “when we first got there, we were here to do something for America, democracy and the betterment of the world. And every day after I got there, that concept fizzled out and I started thinking, I am more concerned about my personal survival.” Winning this war to rid the world of communism was the furthest thing from Mike or any American soldiers’ mind. “After about three weeks, I had no concern about winning or losing, I just wanted to get home alive. Very often, someone was getting killed or hurt and you’re always thinking the next one is going to get you. Nobody was there thinking, we’re winning, we got the edge now. After anybody that had spent enough time there, they would tell you that they just wanted to survive, and help the person next to them to survive. Democracy was not on their minds.” But if Mike had learned anything from his experience at boot camp, it is that military training is all about continuous conditioning and at times, truth and lies can become interchangeable. “We would have a shift of watch every night—get about three hours of sleep and walk about 7 miles a day, we were so tired by the time we got to the rear and be able to take a shower, get hot food etc. So that’s when they would have announcements about so and so unit having a successful mission. No one cared but if they’d ask us, we would remember that because we were so tired. We would accept any information.”
Mike’s last moments in Vietnam turned out to be his breaking point—his best friend was killed in action. “They called us up, we had to reestablish our perimeter, and I got wounded and my best friend was killed. Cause my lieutenant—my friend was the best radio man—he took him, and he sent me with two rookies out to patch up this hole in the perimeter where they were crawling through.” Mike was sent to China Beach for a couple days to cool off and his anger subsided, with a little help from alcohol. Three and half weeks later, he was sent back out to the jungle. This would be the last time he set foot on Vietnam soil. His company was overrun. “That means, they hit you and kill people and they run right through your position. We were like this company sized ambush; probing to see if we could get some contact and they overran our position.” Mike was literally face to face with the enemy, “and I was looking and I saw [some] grass move, and about 20 yards in front of me—I look down and this guy was crawling up on my position about 20 feet. I grabbed the guy next to me and pulled him down and got a grenade, and as soon as I did that, they hit all three of our positions with rockets.” Chaos ensued and what felt like hours only lasted several seconds, the Viet Cong had destroyed their position and Mike was seriously injured. “I got hit with shrapnel from two different grenades and I still have a piece in my shoulder. I got shot in the chest. And then it was done.” Help came soon after but with all the destruction that occurred, the MEDIVAC helicopters were reluctant to land. “We started to shoot at them because if they weren’t going to pick us up then we were going to shoot them down.” The helicopters did eventually land and as everyone was getting treated, Mike started to hope. Soldiers survive in war and they die in war, but they never expect to survive. If you lived you were lucky. “I could hear stuff happening—and I started thinking I’m going to live.” Just moments ago, Mike was 20 feet away from death’s door and now, Mike might actually survive. But even in the midst of such happiness, something always seems to ruin it. “These guys were standing there, these doctors and they had these tables and there was one guy left and I’m like, ‘Hey man, are you going to help me or what’. And this corpsman comes by and goes, “We thought you were a gook. Why didn’t you tell us you were American’ and so that was the first sign; they were not directly racist towards me as an individual but they assumed in a racist way that I was the enemy.” Mike, the enemy—not even an hour ago, he was fighting the enemy, and now he was the enemy; Mike was stunned from this blow, just as he was stunned an hour ago when the enemy blew up his company. “And that kind of threw me off.” But this is a jungle war, and “a jungle war is ugly and in a jungle war, you are alone.” That was the last night Mike spent in the jungle.
The War at Home
Due to Mike’s direct experiences with the war, he was asked by various activist groups to speak. Pat Sumi, an activist who was organizing people outside of Marine Base, Camp Pendleton, took notice and asked Mike to get involved. From that point on, Mike became one of the main Asian American Vietnam veterans to speak out against the war. He toured various college campuses, community groups, and church groups. He started doing teach-ins to help educate the population and raise awareness about the war. They wanted people to know the Vietnam War was a racist war of annihilation and had nothing to do with democracy or freedom. Most importantly, they demanded a stop to the killing of the Vietnamese people.
At one point Pat asked Mike to go to Detroit Michigan for this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation which involved many veterans testifying about atrocities and violence against the Vietnamese people. When he arrived, he testified along with about five hundred other veterans, only six were not white. They were comprised of: three Asians, one Native American, one black guy, and one white guy with a Spanish surname who they talked into representing the Latino population. While the event itself was largely inconsequential, a major organization was formed in the hotel room during the conference: VVAW, or Vietnam Veterans Against the War. This group has become the largest organization against the war in Vietnam and beyond and Mike is still in contact with three of the guys, 39 years later.
Later that year (1972), Mike was invited to a women’s anti-war conference in Vancouver. He was asked to work security because of his experience as a Vietnam War veteran. The reason the conference was particularly significant was because of the involvement of three Vietnamese women who had managed to escape the grasp of the North Vietnamese Army and come to Canada. As a result, interested groups of women from all over the United States, from Marxists to Lesbian organizations, came to Canada to hear these women speak.
However, these women could only speak for short periods of time because of the treatment they endured while captive in Vietnam. They were tortured and put in tiger cages for nearly two years. Descriptions of what they endured were horrific. For example, one woman had a child which they took and put beyond arms reach, leaving the child to die right in front of her. Beyond psychological torture, the women were also destroyed physically, as they were force-fed lye, which burned up their insides. As a result, when these women were asked to speak at the conference they could only appear for ten to fifteen minutes before having to be escorted back to a resting area. Mike and several other veterans were asked to restrict the conference-goers from interrupting the rest of the Vietnamese women. During this process, Mike was poorly treated as the women attendees were aggressive in trying to speak to the Vietnamese women.
Within the next couple of years, Mike’s experiences with activism compounded. He became a key organizer across many groups. He met with SNICC members from Arkansas and helped them form another group called the Black Workers Congress in Indiana. They were trying to mobilize black Vietnam War Veterans so Mike, along with his VVAW comrades, decided to meet them and join forces. They ended up meeting several times in South Central, along with the Black Panther Party. These meetings eventually created one of the largest demonstrations ever seen in Los Angeles. It was reported that there were 150,000 people, which probably meant that there were closer to 200,000 people. The Asian contingent, made up of Mike and many of his fellow activists, was allowed to lead the parade, which ended up being about two miles long. The universal participation of the public in these protests could be attributed to the fact that the draft made everyone vulnerable. As a result, people of all ethnicities and competing political backgrounds banded together against the war.
Eventually, through activism on his school campus, Mike became involved with local communities in downtown Los Angeles and Little Tokyo. These community leaders wanted to do more than community service in these areas and move into political activism. In a sense, rather than simply finding temporary solutions, they wanted to take the fight to the very root of the problem, which lay in the political arena. At this point, Mike was still enrolled at CSU: Long Beach but he spent most of his time in Little Tokyo organizing and mobilizing the populace. Along with his friend Nick Nagatani, Mike put together an organization known as AMMO out of his work in Little Tokyo. The idea behind AMMO was to go beyond simply meeting every week and sharing grievances to going out into the community and progressively organizing teach-ins in places such as churches. They actually went out and performed demonstrations rather than lecturing and showing films. For example, they would have some of their white friends dress up in jungle fatigues and run into the particular venue and grab people, whom they planted in the audience, and start beating them. These demonstrations were particularly effective because they simulated situations which occurred throughout the country at this time.
After the war ended, it became very difficult to mobilize people for activism. The leftist movement in general became very stagnant because it was so closely tied to the anti-war movement. Mike was particularly disappointing because the dying of the movement showed the strength of self-preservation over the need to uphold higher causes. Subsequently, Mike met up with other radical activists and decided to lead by example by living as a collective. They were essentially trying to live out a progressive, socialist lifestyle by pooling their resources and living together in single dwelling houses. They read many books and held discussions about their grievances. Eventually, there were about five other houses like Mike’s collective. However, the momentum slowed and everyone began to phase back into regular life. Many other Asian American activists began focusing on legal issues such as the re-dress of Japanese Americans for unjust internment during World War II.
At this point, Mike had to figure out how to fend for himself. While many of his classmates at CSU: Long Beach had graduated and obtained jobs, Mike had to return to school to earn his degree. After earning his degree, he started his own business doing graphic design for magazines. He started working for Guns and Ammo magazine, which was, as he described, “an interesting position.” While he did not align with their political viewpoints, Mike felt that it was a fun and steady job that allowed him to engage in his hobbies. During this time, Mike was removed from activism until he saw a news story about Lt. Watada, a Japanese American officer who was refusing to deploy to Iraq. He immediately called some of the people he worked with and asked them if they heard about it. Mike’s network was just as surprised as he was about the story so they all made calls and within a week he received about fifty emails about Lt. Watada.
The Lt. Watada situation lit a fire under Mike and his fellow activists because not only was Lt. Watada Japanese American, he was also the first officer to refuse deployment to Iraq on the basis of an unlawful war. Mike and his friends renamed their group Asian American Vietnam Veteran Organization, or AAVVO, and put together educational programs about Lt. Watada and his heroism. They held a large demonstration in Little Tokyo, which was especially significant because there had not been a demonstration in Little Tokyo for the last fifteen years. Through their work, they also got to meet many Iraq veterans. AAVVO also put together teams to go to community organizations, high schools, churches, and college campuses to educate the community about Lt. Watada’s situation and their anti-war stance. Three or four years ago Mike’s group spoke at Professor Omatsu’s class at UCLA and he asked them to participate several times after. Since then, Mike uses his experience with war to continue his involvement with AVVO and works with his fellow activists to serve the community and produce campaigns for peace and justice.