‘Yamamoto’ Surname Provokes Opposition by Some Recent Immigrants
By George Toshio Johnston, Senior Editor, Digital & Social Media
The push to rename one of two Palo Alto, Calif., middle schools after a local man who was awarded the Silver Star after being killed in action in Europe while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II seemed like a layup just a few weeks ago.
But after several local residents voiced opposition to having either Jordan Middle School or Terman Middle School renamed for Fred M. Yamamoto, a graduate of Palo Alto High School’s class of 1936 and former incarceree at the Heart Mountain WRA Center in Wyoming who volunteered to serve in the storied 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team and was killed Oct. 28, 1944, the chances of the Japanese American being so honored may be in doubt.
It will come down to a vote by the five members of the Palo Alto Unified School District’s Board of Education, set to take place on March 27.
Ironically, most of those opposing the name change to that of an Asian American appear to be recent immigrants from China, and the reason for their opposition: Fred Yamamoto’s last name is the same as that of Isoroku Yamamoto, the admiral who served in Imperial Japan’s navy and is credited with, among other things, planning the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on the Pearl Harbor naval facility in Hawaii.
When Brad Shirakawa, 62, learned in February that Fred Yamamoto was among a group of candidates to have a Palo Alto middle school named after him, the Sunnyvale, Calif., resident said, “I was shocked and kind of happy about it.” But he also wondered how Fred Yamamoto could beat out all the suggested names, which included Steve Jobs and Mohandas Gandhi.
Then Shirakawa learned that Yamamoto was the No. 1 recommendation among just six finalists, and he thought, “Hey, we’ve got a great shot at this!” The other finalists with ties to the local community are Ellen Fletcher, Edith “Eugenie” Johnson, Frank Greene Jr., William Hewlett and Anna Zschokke, as well as two place names.
The drive to rename the schools arose when it was learned in 2015 that namesakes Lewis Terman and David Starr Jordan were said to be proponents of eugenics, which has become associated with racist ideology and practices such as forced sterilization of people deemed unfit to reproduce.
But following the vocal opposition to renaming one of the schools for Fred Yamamoto at a recent school board meeting, as well as an online petition opposing using Yamamoto as a name for the school, Shirakawa is no longer hopeful that Fred Yamamoto will get the nod.
Asked whether he thinks the board will vote against Yamamoto being named for one of the schools, Shirakawa said, “Frankly, I could not blame them if they did. The vocal opposition has become very loud.”
JACL National President Gary Mayeda weighed in on the issue, writing in an email, “In a multicultural society, we cannot afford to trip over misplaced confusion of identity. Two very different people can have the same last name and should not be confused, especially when one is an American citizen.”
JACL Executive Director David Inoue, in a letter to PAUSD Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks, wrote, “I am writing to express our support of honoring Fred Yamamoto with the naming of one of your middle schools,” adding that Yamamoto’s legacy “is one that not only deserves to be memorialized but also one that all Americans can learn from.”
According to the Washington, D.C., office of the Organization of Chinese Americans, its Palo Alto chapter is working on contacting the local school board on the issue, with the national organization working in concert with the National JACL. [Editor’s note: On March 26, the P.C. received the OCA Silicon Valley branch issued-letter to Hendricks voicing its support in favor of renaming one of the middle schools after Fred Yamamoto.]
Meantime, JACL’s Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific District Regional Director Patty Wada also sent a letter in support of the renaming one of the schools for Fred Yamamoto, who was “an American hero but also someone whose life and death are a testament to the very definition of a loyal and dedicated citizen.”
Attempts by the Pacific Citizen to contact the five school board members and opponents with Chinese surnames listed in online news reports for comment were unsuccessful.
Interestingly, while the online petition to block Fred Yamamoto’s surname states: “There exist certain hurt feeling when the last name ‘Yamamoto’ is mentioned, especially for Asian immigrants whose families were tragically affected in China, Korea and Southeast Asian countries during World War II,” and that “our middle schools should never be affiliated with such a person,” historians say that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto was against Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and Japan’s war with China, and despite his part in planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was against going to war with the United States.
In 1943, Adm. Yamamoto was killed by U.S. forces during WWII when an airplane transporting him was shot down by American P-38 Lightning aircraft.
The March 27 meeting is 6:30-10 p.m. at the boardroom of the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education, located at 25 Churchill Ave. in Palo Alto. The members of the PAUSD board can be found at tinyurl.com/yc4nn5qq.