By Ador Pereda Yano
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Okage Sama De” (in your honored shadow): These words are important to Bill Tashima, who has taken the difficult lessons of the past and used them to advocate for social change in the present.
For his long-time service to the Asian Pacific American community, Tashima is being honored this year as a Top Contributor by the Northwest Asian Weekly.
Bill Tashima translates his favorite Japanese expresssion as “We are Who We Are Because of You,” a tribute to those who have come before us—our parents, grandparents, and the pioneering communities of Asian Pacific Americans, who have come to build new lives here and raise families in spite of the challenges of racial discrimination in this new country.
In addition to serving twice as president of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Seattle Chapter, Tashima has also been a long-time board member of Nikkei Concerns where he has helped promote the importance of “taking care of our elders in a culturally family-friendly way.”
Jeffrey Hattori, the CEO of Nikkei Concerns (now KEIRO Northwest), notes that “Bill Tashima has a long, rich, and diverse history of service to the community that spans from local to national with the singular purpose of ensuring social justice and enhancing the lives of others. He is very thoughtful, smart, compassionate, dedicated, humble, and sincere and is always willing to do ‘what we must’ for our community.”
Raised in Cleveland by Japanese American parents who have exemplified for him the value of volunteering, Tashima has served the Seattle community well since he moved here in 1981.
Continuing the important history of civil rights advocacy by JACL—which was shaped by the tragic incarceration of Japanese American citizens during World War II— Tashima has honored that legacy by ensuring that its mission to promote civil liberties and social justice adapts to the ongoing needs of Asian Pacific Americans and other minorities who are victimized by current discrimination and injustice. He believes that learning the lessons of the past serves to help us tackle new social justice issues.
Tashima is guided by “drawing parallels with what we went through as Japanese Americans and applying those lessons to what other minorities are experiencing today.” He says that, “as we get farther and farther from the actual events of the incarceration during World War II, the bigger lesson is how we use that today and how we draw parallels between circumstances with immigration, with racial profiling, with marriage equality.”
Bill Tashima is proud of JACL’s work on immigration reform, a politically controversial issue that affects new immigrants mostly in Latino/Hispanic and Southeast Asian communities. He is also very proud of JACL’s leadership in supporting gay rights. Serving as president in 2012, Tashima led JACL Seattle’s campaign to approve Referendum 74, which successfully legalized same-sex marriage by popular vote in Washington state. JACL Seattle provided phone banking and campaign volunteers, and Tashima served as spokesman for the JACL chapter with the People of Color campaign supporting R-74.
Over the years, Tashima has found that his personal development and community service have intertwined and directed his API social activism. He says, “To me, there was a confluence in the fact that, because I’m also gay, these [issues] are not mutually exclusive. It’s not one community. You don’t have a gay community or a strictly API community. Many times, people are both.”
Finding parallels with past history and current events, Tashima reflects that, “at first, because of circumstances, I was afraid to advocate for gay rights issues. And in the larger scheme of issues, I realize, no, it’s just as important to do that as for my Japanese American legacy —if not more important because the discrimination is today.” He recognizes similar cultural struggles that bind him to the “honored shadow” of previous generations. He says, “We often wondered why our parents never talked about what happened in World War II, and then I realized I never talked about the barriers and struggles that I’ve faced growing up, so maybe I need to speak up more.”
One of Tashima’s key moments to speak up came during the 2004 JACL National Convention when there was a resolution to admonish the Boy Scouts of America for its discriminatory policy on gay scouts. JACL Board member Arlene Oki encouraged Tashima to provide his personal perspective on the contentious and emotional issue. He remembers telling the convention then: “I was a long-time JACL member and I was also a Boy Scout. And I’m also gay. I wanted everyone there to think for a second and think about how it’s not easy to be different, and how it’s not easy to be called names and to be stereotyped and bullied. People begun to realize that what was happening to gay people was the same thing that happened to them as Japanese Americans during the war.”
Most recently, Tashima is very proud of JACL Seattle’s move to establish an API support group for LGBTU. He says that “even though things are ‘easier’ or ‘better,’ the reality is that it is not easy for any teenager growing up who realizes what their makeup is. There is still struggle and it’s important that people are still there to help them.” He applauds the efforts of new JACL Seattle chapter president Sarah Baker and her work with the chapter to continue to develop this support group.
Bill Tashima’s community work has been wide-ranging and involves strong partnerships. Hatori, for example, cites the fruitful collaboration between JACL Seattle and Nikkei Concerns to support the API community via the “Living Well Health Fair,” which is held annually at the Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church. It has grown from 22 exhibits in the beginning to now include over 70 exhibitors with many speakers and demonstrations that cover almost every aspect of healthy living. As a long-time board member of Nikkei Concerns, Tashima also sees its rebranding to KEIRO Northwest as furthering its commitment to “expanding focus to the greater Asian American community to provide service for a greater number of people.”
As he moves toward a more advisory role for the emerging leaders and amidst new organizational processes and fast-paced technological changes, Tashima welcomes the modernization and transition because he thinks they need to occur to make community organizations viable. He says “history and legacy are organic—not static.”
For emerging community leaders, he offers some lessons from his many years of community service. His advice for dealing with contentious social issues: “I think it’s important to get away from the sound bites and stereotypes and just put it down to person-to-person issues.” He suggests being open about what you believe in and arguing from facts rather than emotion, but still bringing in your passion to the discussion.
While always busy with his community work in Seattle, Tashima cherishes the comforts of family life with his husband and son, as well as his sister’s family. While being a long-standing community contributor, Tashima’s friends speak highly about his compassion and generosity.
After years of friendship with JACL-Seattle co-president Elaine Akagi and working with her in a multitude of JACL activities, Tashima helped comfort Akagi during her battle with cancer and honored her each year by gathering a Walk for Rice Team named in her memory.
JACL Seattle Chapter member James Arima, who nominated Bill Tashima for the Top Contributor award, offers these heartfelt sentiments about Tashima: ‘‘In his unassuming caring manner, Bill Tashima continually provides guidance and encouragement to family, friends, and community. He has been such a constant contributor we easily fail to select and acknowledge all Bill does.” (end)
Ador Pereda Yano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.