Renaming schools: Backlash to proposed name of Yamamoto surprises Japanese-Americans

BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer

Backlash to a proposed name for a Palo Alto middle school has provoked surprise and confusion among Japanese-American residents who don’t see the connection between Fred Yamamoto, the Palo Altan who was held in Japanese internment camps and later died in combat, and Isoroku Yamamoto, the reviled marshal admiral who ordered the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Tamie Yusa-Ogawa, a Mountain View native who now lives in the Los Angeles area, called the protest “racism, plain and simple.”

“Yamamoto is an extremely common name. I understand why these people don’t want a school named after Isoroku Yamamoto, but Fred Yamamoto shouldn’t lose out just because he has the same last name,” Yusa-Ogawa, a Los Altos High School graduate, told the Post.

Several dozen parents and residents, including many from Chinese communities, spoke out against renaming Jordan or Terman middle school after Fred Yamamoto at a meeting of the school district’s Recommending School Names Committee on Monday.

The citizen committee was appointed after the school board voted last year to rename both schools because their namesakes, David Starr Jordan and Lewis Terman, both supported eugenics.

Terman is also named after Lewis Terman’s son, Fred Terman, who is known as the “father of Silicon Valley” and not as a eugenics supporter.

School board to decide Tuesday

The committee has recommended six names of prominent Palo Alto and Stanford figures along with two geographic names, Adobe Creek and Redwood Grove. Both geographic names were ruled out by the school board last week.

Fred Yamamoto was chosen as the committee’s top recommendation. The school board is set to vote on the names on Tuesday night.

More than 1,200 have signed an online petition calling for the district to not name the schools after a person, particularly Fred Yamamoto because his last name reminds them of “the tragedies Admiral Yamamoto was responsible for in Pearl Harbor and Asia,” including China, Korea and southeast Asia.

Some petitioners have urged the school board to keep the names Jordan and Terman.
“Do not repeat the same mistake by changing from one problematic name into another problematic name. Get away from names like Yamamoto,” petitioner Gene Zhang wrote.

Tina Jiang cringed at the thought seeing the name “Yamamoto” emblazoned across children’s school clothing.

“Definitely no Yamamoto! Imagine our students wearing a school t-shirt with this name. What other school children will think?” Jiang asked on the petition. “Are you using a World War II criminal name as school name? This is ridiculous.”

Perpetuating prejudice?

But others say that keeping the Yamamoto name off the school would perpetuate prejudice against Japanese-Americans, including Fred Yamamoto’s nephew, a professor of internal medicine at the University of New Mexico.

Hashimoto’s mother named him after her brother, Fred Yamamoto. He said that what made his uncle so admirable was that he responded to the injustice of internment in his own country not with bitterness, but with courage and patriotism by enlisting in the all-Japanese 442nd battalion.

In a letter to the school board on March 8, historian Mike Mackey quoted Fred Yamamoto in writing “I am putting all of my blue chips on the U.S.A… in short I’ve volunteered (for the Army).”

“He didn’t get taken down by losing property, being put behind barbed wires, being displaced. He said, ‘This is the right thing to do, so I’m going to do it,’” Hashimoto told the Post. “We can get beyond this. He was able to get beyond that.”

Silver Star recipient

Fred Yamamoto was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal, the third-highest distinction for combat heroism below the Medal of Honor, for his service to save the Texas Battalion in France.

Lawson Sakai, an interned veteran who served on the 442nd Regimental Combat Team but never met Fred Yamamoto, wrote in a letter to the school board that Japanese men who were interned enlisted later to prove their Americanness.

“‘Go for broke’ was our battle cry and it became the common bond among all of us in the 442nd RCT,” Sakai wrote. “Fred’s service exemplified that commitment.”

Kelly Kim, who grew up in a Japanese-American community in Palo Alto, said she was surprised by the petitioners’ emotional response to the Yamamoto name.

“You would have to be really old for it to really have affected you,” Kim said. “Even if they don’t pick his name, I would feel really sad that now he’s kind of affiliated with this other person.”

Cherry Aguirre, a San Mateo resident and the former executive director of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, said the backlash was “the most racist thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Why should an American be blamed for something that happened in another country?” Aguirre asked. “He wasn’t responsible for anything that the Japanese government did during World War II.”

14 Comments

  1. We need a city wide survey before going any further on this. First question should be … should these schools be renamed. Then we need to test these options to see what people think. I can’t believe we’re leaving this in the hands of THIS school board that has made so many disastrous decisions already. If you’re a parent you know they do surveys all the time on more minor things than this. Let’s do a poll first!

  2. Fred Yamamoto deserves to have his name on the school he attended before he was subjected to illegal relocation as a Japanese-American and then volunteered, served, was wounded and decorated, returned to action, and was killed fighting Nazis to save white Americans. Isoroku Yamamoto — NOT a relative — planned the Pearl Harbor attack after Harry Dexter White, a Soviet agent in the U.S. Treasury Department, deliberately provoked the Japanese cabinet by influencing the Hull Note, which triggered the actual attack. Sources: OPERATION SNOW, THE VENONA SECRETS, STALIN’S SECRET AGENTS, THE BATTLE OF BRETTON WOODS. Should we ban the name “White” from the names of school buildings. If we did, would we be by Nazis?

  3. Public school should not choose a such controversial name period. It needs to be considerate, understanding cultural differences, it needs to promote harmony and unity!

  4. Why can’t they name it Fred Yamamoto Middle School? I went to a school named after someone’s full name and everybody said the full name when referring to it.

  5. For the Chinese who seem to be hurt about this: imagine if you were trying to name a school Wang Zao, the Southern Song poet, and instead someone said no, Wang Zao shares the same surname as Wang Jingwei, the traitor to the Han people, hence we should name the school Cao Cao to maintain harmonious relations. They’re not the same person.

  6. I mean we like to strip our enemies of their humanity and portray them as having devil horns but that isn’t necessarily the case. Rommel was fighting for an evil government but he was also an honorable man just like Yamamoto.

  7. Jeff says, “Isoroku Yamamoto was also an honorable man” … The guy who plotted the Midway and Pearl Harbor attacks is an honorable man? We lost 2,400 men at Pearl Harbor and another 2,500 at Midway. Honorable man? I’ll bet Jeff can justify 9/11 too.

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