If you could only use a few words to describe Wes Mukoyama, the man behind the 2018 voting rights lawsuit that overturned Santa Clara’s discriminatory at-large, by-seat council election system, you might use Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
But the soft-spoken Mukoyama’s ‘stick’ isn’t a club. It’s his lifelong dedication to “reaching out to the excluded and neglected” and fighting injustice — both as a social worker and a community activist. In 2017, he received the Norman Y. Mineta Lifetime Achievement Award for his dedication, but he will never tell you about it unless you ask.
A second-generation Japanese American born in Chicago a year after Pearl Harbor, Mukoyama knows what anti-Asian prejudice looks like — whether in Chicago in the 1950s or Santa Clara in the 21st century.
Those memories are one reason he stepped up to the plate in 2016 to fight Santa Clara’s at-large by-seat council election system.
Mukoyama still remembers being picked on by bullies, and someone sticking up by saying, “Leave him alone,” his defender said. “He can’t help it. He was born that way.”
Anti-Japanese prejudice didn’t stop with the end of WWII. “In high school, I was harassed every Pearl Harbor Day,” he said. The war-era comic books depicting Japanese with yellow skin, monkey faces and fang-like buck teeth are still clear in his memory.
“I was bullied a lot,” Mukoyama said. “But I wouldn’t take it, so I would fight back all the time.”
“The Most Important Influence in My Life”
Mukoyama’s family history intersects world history.
Although his mid-western family didn’t suffer the catastrophe of internment, his wife was born in a Japanese internment camp. At the same time, members of his family served in the U.S. military.
He had relatives that were bombed in Pearl Harbor and others who were bombed in Hiroshima. While his immediate family spent the war in Chicago, his older brother spent the war in Japan where he was sent to attend school before the war. His father was a journalist who interviewed Emperor Hirohito after the war — the longest time a commoner had sat with the Japanese Emperor.
While in high school, Mukoyama saw parallels between prejudice against African Americans and what he experienced as a Japanese American. In college, he studied political science and volunteered for CORE. The currents of the time “influenced me quite a bit,” he said. “I’m a ‘person of color’ just like African Americans.”
Following graduation Mukoyama joined the Peace Corps, teaching in Tanzania, and calls his Peace Corps experience “the most influential thing in my life.” The volunteers he worked with remained close and returned in 2005 to donate a computer to the town’s school. To this day he cherishes the memory of Robert Kennedy’s visit to Tanzania.
“That produced my independent thinking about my own country,” he said.
“I was able to get away from looking at the world through the lens of American culture and begin to see it through people of a different culture. I think we learned more from the people we worked with than they did from us. They had no running water or electricity, but they had a very rich culture. The joy they had in living was remarkable.”
The Peace Corps was followed by travel through Asia and Africa. He ended up in Japan where he met his wife, to whom he’s been married for more than half a century.
A Lifetime of Work With “Excluded and Neglected”
The couple returned to Chicago, where his wife worked for Mitsui and Mukoyama attended graduate school and became a city social worker, working directly with people in the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project.
But California beckoned to the couple because his wife had family there. “I liked California and I knew some people there. So, we moved. I thought it’d be for a few years. But it’s been 46 years.”
While working for the county department of social services, he met Wanda Alexander who ran All Cooperating Together (ACT) for community-based mental health services and joined the staff.
“We did crisis intervention,” he said, “We visited people in SRO hotels — a lot of mentally ill people were placed there. We led a rent strike in one building until the substandard conditions were fixed. I loved it.”
This work led to a job offer from the VA, where Mukoyama continued his work “reaching out to the excluded and neglected,” doing outpatient work with people with mental illness. During that time, he brought veterans and Vietnamese refugees together to build connections and promote services for PTSD and was successful in getting official recognition of the disorder.
After 30 years with the VA, Mukoyama served for six years as Executive Director of the Yu-Ai Kai Senior Center and served its board for about 20 years. As director, he was instrumental in constructing the organization’s new building and renovating an old, vacant building into a wellness center.
Even in retirement Mukoyama is active. He runs a caregiver support group at the Yu-Ai Kai, serves on the county’s Senior Care Commission and Mental Health Services Act Stakeholder Leadership Committee, volunteers with the Red Cross and as a Buddhist lay chaplain in jails.
Challenging His Hometown’s Inequitable Election System
Just as he wasn’t shy about fighting back against racism as a child in Chicago, he isn’t shy about fighting it in court and at the ballot box. For decades he had seen minority candidates lose election bids in Santa Clara, even as neighboring cities’ councils reflected Silicon Valley’s demographics.
“There has been nobody of color on the council since the charter was signed,” Mukoyama said. “I’ve been living here for 45 years, and I’ve seen people of color discouraged from running because they feel they can’t win so they didn’t get involved.”
In 2011, he wasn’t yet ready to take the step of filing a voting rights lawsuit challenging Santa Clara’s at-large, by-seat election system. But he approached several council members around 2011 about it.
“[Former Council Member] Will Kennedy’s daughter was on the same soccer team as my granddaughter, so I decided to talk to him,” said Mukoyama. “He said, ‘Well, okay, we’ll look into it.’ He was nice but didn’t do much. I talked to [former Council Member] Jamie McLeod, and she said she would do something, but nothing happened. They had their [charter review] committee in 2011 and they did nothing.”
After four more years of inaction, when civil rights attorney Robert Rubin approached him in 2016 about a voting rights lawsuit, “I signed on and stuck my neck out,” he said. “I felt that that was the right thing to do.”
After Judge Thomas Kuhnle ordered Santa Clara to elect its council by single-member districts, Mukoyama actively campaigned against two City Hall ballot measures aiming to restore at-large elections, one with a complicated vote-counting system. He was instrumental in persuading the Santa Clara County Democratic Party to oppose that ballot measure, telling them, “It’s a scam to keep [the former city council] in power.
“One woman compared ranked-choice voting to choosing ice cream,” he continued, “whether you like the strawberry ice cream and the chocolate ice cream, or the vanilla ice cream. That’s how they explained that. They insulted people’s intelligence.”
Mukoyama is pleased with the council’s change since 2018. “I’m very happy with our candidates who have been elected and that the ‘old boys’ no longer have control of the council,” he said. “Now we need a mayor who’s progressive, forward-looking and is committed to finding resources for the poor and disadvantaged.”
You can hear an interview with Mukoyama that was recorded by Stanford on the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps: historicalsociety.stanford.edu/publications/mukoyama-wesley.