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VOX POPULI: Memories of Martha – Rafu Shimpo

Martha Nakagawa (right) with former Rafu Shimpo colleague Naomi Hirahara at the Japanese American National Museum in 2018. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)


I don’t remember exactly when I first met Martha Nakagawa. Maybe it happened when she was helping out the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists (AAPAA) from 1990-1993 or when she was the Southern California correspondent for Asian Week from 1991 on. I do remember encouraging her to come to the earliest MANAA meetings in Little Tokyo in the spring of 1992. 

After a couple of months, we were trying to settle on a name for our media watchdog group. Eventually, the list was whittled down to one of my suggestions, Media Action Network. I’d pushed to not include “for Asian Americans” in the title because there were so many community groups with AA in their name, yet outside the Asian American community, nobody knew who they were anyway.

I wanted our organization to get so much media attention, White people would know it was us without the AA designation (I mean, it wasn’t called The Anti-Defamation League for Jews; the public knew who they looked out for).

Yet I quickly realized the acronym for Media Action Network would spell MAN. So I felt obligated to disclose that to those around the table.

“OK, I have a big issue with that!” Martha quickly volunteered. I quickly nodded, as others agreed. Fine. So we added the AA and became MANAA.

At a subsequent meeting, I announced that we had submitted papers to get 501(c)3 nonprofit status. Since we hadn’t yet chosen a secretary, I put down Martha’s name. She blew a gasket, saying she’d never given me permission to do that. I reminded her that months before, she’d said if I couldn’t find anyone, I could use her name.

We talked about it again after the meeting, but she still didn’t seem to be satisfied.

A couple of years later, Martha called to tell me she’d just been hired as a reporter for The Rafu. “I am your worst nightmare, man!” she threatened. I was flabbergasted: A journalist admitting she was biased and was going to make my life miserable by writing negative articles about me?!

Instead of expression outrage, I quickly decided to use reverse psychology. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said calmly. “I think you’ll be great for The Rafu!” 

“Really?! Why?…”

Her attitude quickly changed, and I don’t remember her ever expressing any negativity towards me again.

In fact, in 1996, Martha told me she was reporting on MANAA’s beef with longtime KFI-AM morning man Bill Handel, who’d spent over an hour telling his listeners he wanted Tonya Harding back in professional skating because he was “sick and tired of seeing slanted-eyed figure skaters winning all the time.”

Sam Chu Lin accepts an award for ABC’s “Nightline” at the 2000 MANAA dinner..

After a heated exchange with the station manager and Handel, I issued an ultimatum: “OK, Bill, today’s Wednesday, and it’s noon. I’m going to give you 48 hours to make up your mind. I’m going to call you on Friday at noon. And when I do, you pick up. And you tell me if you’re going to apologize on the air. Because as of this moment, we have supporters making a list of all your sponsors. And if you refuse to apologize, at 12:01, we’re going to start calling them to drop their advertising from your show!”

I didn’t have to wait that long. The next day, the station told me Handel would do just that at 8:40 a.m. on Friday. Martha asked if she could call to get my reaction. Sure enough, less than 5 seconds after Handel finished his 20-minute apology, the phone rang, and I gave Martha soundbites while still lying in bed. (Hey, I wasn’t going to wake up early for that blowhard DJ! I didn’t have to wake up for my Dick Clark job until 9!)

Like Martha, I was so proud of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, who stood up to the U.S. government and refused to volunteer or be drafted to fight for the U.S. during WWII while they and their families were incarcerated without any rights.

Guy Aoki (second from right) with Sam Chu Lin’s family at the 2006 MANAA Media Achievement Awards. Sam passed away in 2006 at the age of 66.

In the mid-’90s when an L.A. Times editor asked me to be a stringer and suggest articles focusing on little-known aspects of the Asian American community, I accepted. And my first pitch was to interview Frank Emi, someone I’d worked with in NCRR. Emi, who never expressed anger, was a calm man, always laying out his group’s reasoning and never putting down those who chose to fight for this country. Still, predictably, after my article was published, a group of 100th/442nd vets sent a letter to The Rafu raking me and Emi over the coals.

In 2000, when Martha was assistant editor at the Pacific Citizen, many conservative JACL members verbally attacked her — even asked for her to be fired — for writing sympathetic articles supporting the resolution to issue a formal apology to the draft resisters for how the organization had treated them.

In March 2006, Martha and I consoled each other over the sudden death of journalist and mutual friend, Sam Chu Lin. While still shell-shocked, I wrote a column revealing details of our friendship over the years and how I was haunted by his passing. Martha emailed me in response:

“I think you hit it on the nose when you said that Sam was so accessible that we took him for granted. I always thought he’d be around, and his presence was always reassuring at various press events. Now that he’s gone, I feel a huge, huge emptiness … Sam’s death has affected me greatly. Other than the death of my father, no other death, so far, has impacted me this deeply. If there’s anything like reincarnation and I meet up with Sam again, I’m going to give him apiece of my mind!

“I woke up the Sunday after the funeral with a great emptiness inside and had a good cry. Over the phone, I couldn’t talk to Sam’s wife without breaking out in tears, and when I wrote her a letter this Tuesday, I started to cry again…”

At my urging, later that year, MANAA presented a Lifetime Media Achievement Award to Sam’s family, and I kicked myself for not recognizing him when he was alive (Thankfully, OCA-LA was smarter; they’d honored him the previous October.).

On May 1 of this year, Martha told me she was having problems with her back: “I carried something too heavy. I couldn’t walk for about four days and had to borrow my friend’s mother’s walker for a while. I didn’t go into emergency because I figured they were just going to drug me up and I pushed through the enormous pain (couldn’t really sleep for about three days, couldn’t even lie down so had to sit). And I went to chiro (six days a week) and acupuncture (seven days a week). That really helped. But I still can’t walk properly. Maybe I never will.”

On July 6, I wrote Martha again, mentioning another sudden passing, that of Wimpy Hiroto. I was trying to reach his relatives, so I could understand what had happened. 

Two days later, she responded, apologizing for the late response. “I’ve been sick in bed all week so just getting enough strength to check emails right now.” A close friend had suffered a stroke on Memorial Day. “I think dealing with all this got me sick lol. Anyhoos, take care! We’re not getting any younger, huh.”

I responded, but never heard back from her. Then on July 28, former Rafu editor Naomi Hirahara wrote about Martha on Facebook, but talking about her in the past tense. I got an uneasy feeling. I glanced lower in her post and saw “1967-2023.”  

I got angry. How could this be?! Between July 8 and July 28? This is insane! I was going to Wimpy’s funeral the next day and Martha was already gone?!

After much digging, I learned that on July 16, Martha got devastating news — and on her birthday, yet: She had cancer in her liver, breast, bone, and possibly abdomen. Yet because of insurance company issues, she went to six different hospitals/medical facilities in nine days and barely received any treatment until towards the end.

On July 26, Martha began having breathing problems, her kidneys suddenly started to fail, her blood sugar levels dropped and potassium levels hit the roof. If that wasn’t enough, her liver was damaged.  

On Friday, July 28, 7:43 a.m., just 12 days after learning she had cancer, Martha Nakagawa was gone. 

I don’t recall anyone succumbing so quickly after getting a cancer diagnosis. And the only early symptom she had was a bad back? It seems so unfair: She had no chance to mentally deal with her situation, to put her affairs in order, or to finish pending projects. 

Like our friend Sam Chu Lin, many of us took Martha and her important work for granted (her articles were very long and often in multiple parts; they should’ve been in books). I’m sure the families of the draft resisters and those whose life stories she chronicled will miss her dearly. And that many of her late subjects will greet her with open arms in the afterlife.

In 2021, Kenji Taguma of the Nichi Bei Foundation did a video interview titled “Perspectives on the Nikkei Press with community journalists Takeshi Nakayama and Martha Nakagawa.” In it, she explained her motivation for her community work: “Journalism is history in a hurry, so if we don’t document our history, our history gets lost.” She said she purposely relegated herself to working for ethnic publications, not the mainstream media. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhgZcTOWHGs&t=619s

Only 56 years? Way too young. Martha, I am so sorry that you suffered. You deserved so much better. Thanks for all you did to help our community. And if you bump into Sam Chu Lin up there, please tell him that I still miss him. But go easy on him, OK?


Guy Aoki, who co-wrote the “Into the Next Stage” column from 1992 to 2017, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at guyaoki@yahoo.com.

A celebration of life for Martha Nakagawa will be held on Sunday, Aug. 27, at 11 a.m. at Fukui Mortuary, 707 E. Temple St. in Los Angeles. For those unable to attend, the service will be livestreamed here: https://www.youtube.com/NichiBeiFoundation

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