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JANIS HIROHAMA... "You look like Yoko Ono"
May 23, 2008 by Mable Yee
Janis Hirohama was born in Japan on an U.S. Army base as a third generation Sansei. She spent most of her time growing up in Hawthorne, California . A working class neighborhood where many families were employed by the local Aerospace industry. Her neighborhood was mixed with second to fourth generation Latinos, a handful of African Americans and Whites. She grew up in a traditional Japanese American household where their family projected their cultural values on her: study hard and get a good education, uphold the family honor, never dishonor your family, be accountable to your community and always behave honorably. Her mother used to tell her "Comb your hair, you look like Yoko Ono" and there was nothing worse than being married to a hippie. Janis had to go to Japanese school to learn Japanese in Gardena, a nearby city where many Japanese Americans lived. Janis' family shopped, bought their food, and went to all the local service providers in their community.

Her parents voted and encouraged her to vote. They didn't make a big deal of it. However, she remembers when she was young and watching the Watergate hearings on TV. Senator Daniel Inouye was a prominent figure during those proceedings and it was a point of pride for her that a U.S. Senator was a Japanese American. However, she remembered John Ehrlichmann calling him "You little Jap" at one point of the proceedings and how it awakened her political consciousness that he would be subjected to outright bigotry. She clipped and saved an article detailing the event as it made a significant impact upon her.

During World War II, her mother, two sisters and older brother lost all their possessions and were put into the internment camp with all the other Japanese Americans in Poston, Utah. This experience had a major impact for her mother and she never alluded to the experience except to say obliquely "When we were in campů.". She never explicitly talked to them about the experience. For years, Janis thought her mother was referring to a "summer camp". Janis shared with us a saying "There's a 100 ways to tell you're a Japanese Americanů.one of them is that camp doesn't refer to summer camp".

Janis remembered her first time seeing the film "Farewell to Manzanar" in 1993. It clearly articulated her feelngs about incarceration in camp. How people were so traumatized and ashamed to be put into a concentration camp. How they suffered unjustifiable burdens of shame. She remembers her mother who liked to write poetry and stories and that was the only subject she wrote about. The Japanese Americans were not open to talking about their experience and it created major impacts on their lives and their families. It taught them as Japanese Americans to keep a low profile, stick to their own communities, trust only people in your community. They didn't want to leave their small communities and have to worry about being discriminated against. Janis was raised to be quiet, trust only your own kind and that it could happen again. Janis said that there was self consciousness being in groups of Japanese Americans. They felt that if White people saw you together, then you must be "up to something".

Janis had no women mentors nor strong role models. When she graduated from college and became a litigator in the 1980's for a Wall Street firm, it was very unusual to see an Asian American in that role. In fact, she was oftentimes mixed up by people in the firm with the other Asian American woman who happened to be a Chinese woman.

One of the reasons why Janis became involved with voting and eventually became the President of the California Chapter of the League of Women Voters California League of Women Voters is because her grandparents were barred from voting. They did not earn the right to vote until years later and then voted in every election. She saw what happened when minorities didn't vote. She learned that the Japanese Americans were easy to target. Many of them were too young to vote and nobody called the community to tell them about their rights to vote. So they were powerless. She saw how it was important that we all use the right to vote as a way to change things.

Janis got involved with the League of Women Voters because their primary efforts are to inform and encourage active participation in government. Through their educational efforts, advocacy and empowerment of women to vote, they can teach them how to lobby within their own communities. However, the League of Women Voters is not a diverse organization. It is largely a White and older group. It is important to reach economic and racially diverse communities to build and expand the organizations.

Janis said that there are numerous reasons why minorities do not vote in higher percentages: -They come from a culture of non-voting -Immigrants mistrust the government -There is no confidence that their votes will be counted -Lack of information and a language barrier -Initiative system is confusing and doesn't provide enough information -Lack of creation and culture of voting and civic engagement in minority communities

She goes on to say that the Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are a very diverse group of cultures. Many people do not speak English. While most people try to put all AAPIs into one bucket, it isn't about "one size fits all". The Japanese Americans had to fight hard for citizenship and many Japanese Americans died to get the right to vote. More recent immigrants did not face the same exposure and hardships and their issues are different.

We want to thank Janis for all her hard work and efforts to getting more women and minorities to vote and be engaged. She is setting a very strong role model for the rest of us in the years ahead. Congratulations on being the first woman of color President for the League of Women Voters in California. Mable

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