Chapter One: Evolution of a Revolutionary

Chapter One: Evolution of a Revolutionary

By Joyce Nakamura. Posted December 12, 2022.


I wrote this reflections piece as a lens into how I became a revolutionary and what being a revolutionary looked like in different periods of my life.

During the period of the emergence of the New Communist Movement (NCM) and the establishment of party-building organizations in the 1970s, I joined I Wor Kuen[1] (IWK), a Marxist-Leninist[2] (M-L) organization in 1976. IWK merged with other people of color-based M-L organizations to form the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS) in 1978. I continued to be a member of the LRS until its dissolution in September 1990.

Joyce Nakamura (far right) at Bay Area Asian Coalition Against the War demonstration in San Francisco. Photo from New Dawn newspaper.

In the 1970s we thought the revolution was around the corner. We shared the view that a vanguard party was needed to lead the violent overthrow of the capitalist system like the Russian Revolution (1917-1923). I hope by examining my life experience, one can gain some perspective on what it takes to organize the movement for systemic change.

My Roots

I was born in 1954 and grew up in Seaside, California. Seaside was a multi-racial working-class community. Because Fort Ord is adjacent to Seaside, there were many WWII vets and their families who lived there. By the 1970s, Seaside had the largest population of Black people between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

My dad was a skilled laborer and a member of the Carpenters Union. My mom was a part-time housekeeper who worked for wealthy white households. When I was nine years old, my dad passed away. My mom became the sole breadwinner from that time on. Thankfully, she owned our home. But in many aspects, we were poor. I was ashamed of being poor and felt alienated from other Japanese Americans.

When my parents were newlyweds and my mom was four months pregnant, they were incarcerated in a concentration camp at Poston Arizona during World War II.   My mom was 24 years old, and my dad was 28. My brother and my sister were born in Poston. My parents never told me about this experience or the hardships they faced.

The Nail that Sticks Up

Coming from this background, I was keenly aware of racism, sexism, and class differences.

When I first learned about the WWII incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry in American concentration camps in 1968, I became angry. Angry at my mom for never telling me about this. Angry that she did not fight against this. Angry at this racist act by the U.S. government.

Japanese Americans imprisoned at Poston Internment Camp. Photo from National Archives.

In that same year, my eighth-grade history teacher who was a Black woman, showed several films about the civil rights movement and classic white supremacist films like The Birth of a Nation. One day she showed a film about Black students fighting for desegregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Black students were fire hosed, clubbed, and attacked by dogs. The film made me physically ill, and I began to cry uncontrollably. I was sent to the nurse’s office. I sobbed, “How could people be treated this way just because they want to go to school with white people?”  This experience changed my life. I connected the racism Black and Japanese Americans endured and was outraged by it all. It was at this point I wanted to do something about racism, but I was not sure what.

I left my social clique of straight A white and Asian students. I had become quite outspoken and determined not to be a quiet Japanese girl. My actions made me an outcast within the Japanese American community. I felt isolated and depressed.

I tried to join the Black Students Union at my school, but they would not allow me in.

So, as an individual, I spontaneously became “the nail that sticks up.”

During the eighth grade in 1967-68, I refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance because I did not believe in God. I got my mother to write an absence excuse and took off from school for Buddha’s birthday in protest of Christmas being a national holiday. My Jewish history teacher arranged for me to teach a class session on the WWII concentration camps.

I also played alto saxophone in the school band. At a band concert, the white male band teacher abruptly stopped the performance when a Black student walked in with an afro comb in his hair. The band teacher, who was a “John Bircher[3]” later explained, “I thought he had a weapon (the comb), and that’s why I stopped the performance.” I quit the band after he made that statement.

One day in my biology class, the teacher reprimanded the students and said, “Why can’t you be more like Joyce?”  I was normally a quiet student and rarely spoke up in class. For the first time in my life, I spoke up and exclaimed, “I don’t really study in this class. I resent being compared to others!”

The next year when I was in the ninth grade, I gave a speech at a regional Young Buddhist Association (YBA) convention. In this speech, I questioned the white washing and “Christianization” of the Japanese American Buddhist institution. I won first place for this speech in the oratorical contest at this convention and moved on to deliver this speech at the national YBA convention.

 A Random Act

The year was 1970 and it was a time of growing Asian pride and political awakening. I was a sophomore at Seaside High School. My cousin, who lived in Berkeley at the time, introduced me to Gidra, an Asian American newspaper from Los Angeles that reflected this growing awareness.

This random act of being introduced to Gidra was a defining moment in my life and thrust me into a particular movement path and connection with people who I have had a shared history and friendship with for over 50 years.

Reading Gidra, I was heartened to find Asian Americans who felt like I did!

I remember distinctly a poem “I Love My Wife for her Flat Yellow Face.” by Ron Tanaka published in Gidra. Reading this poem impacted me deeply because of my own self-hate and desire to look white that I struggled with as a young teen.

Through a work program for low-income teens, I got a job at the Fort Ord Army base in the summer of 1971. My supervisor was Japanese American and from Los Angeles. I asked him to drive me to LA and drop me off in the Boyle Heights neighborhood to meet contacts I made through Gidra.

That weekend I spent in LA was an eye-opening revelation to meet, talk and socialize with Asian American political activists. I never met rebellious Japanese Americans before who smoked weed and were into partying. I no longer felt socially isolated because these Japanese Americans were not like the Japanese Americans that I knew back home who were politically conservative and socially uptight.

I continued to be the “nail that sticks up” and organized anti-Vietnam war protests at my high school. I continued to fight against being a model minority. In my junior year, I took a journalism class and got a C grade. I took the teacher to task because I had done exemplary work in the class. I even started a column in the local Seaside newspaper. In a meeting with the Vice-Principal, my journalism teacher and myself, I protested the C grade I received. My journalism teacher responded, “I expected more from you.”  When I tried to explain my point of view, he retorted, “I don’t have to listen to this, I have tenure.” My journalism teacher then stormed out of the meeting.

Another incident that came to mind was when the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) department from Reed College in Oregon came to my high school to recruit students. I was not invited to the recruitment event and complained to my Black counselor about it. He said, “Joyce, I thought you didn’t qualify for EOP.” That really angered me, especially coming from someone who is Black. I said, “What are you talking about? I am low income!

In the first term of my senior year, I organized an Asian American Awareness Week at Seaside High School which was sponsored by my sociology teacher who was Japanese American. She was progressive-minded and had once dated John Carlos, the athlete from San Jose State who raised the Black Power fist along with Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

I met folks from New Dawn, the newspaper of the J-Town Collective (JTC), which was a revolutionary Japanese American organization in San Francisco, who spoke at the Awareness Week. I decided at this point to only apply to go to college at San Francisco State and to join the Asian American movement in San Francisco.

San Francisco

I entered San Francisco State in the fall of 1972. During my first semester, I took only Asian American Studies classes. I had benefited from the victories of the Third World Student Strike at State in 1968. The Asian American Studies instructors were community-minded and volunteering in the community was a requisite for many of the classes. I feel fortunate to have had instructors like Edison Uno, a Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) civil rights leader who was one of the first to call for reparations for the WWII concentration camp experience. Instructors like Pat Sumi, who had been involved in the civil rights movement in the South in the late sixties, led her to become an anti-Vietnam war activist working with American GI’s. Pat was an anti-imperialist internationalist with ties to North Korea and Vietnam.

Pat Sumi (center) at anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Los Angeles, 1972. Photo from Visual Communications Archive.

During the second semester of my first year, I was looking for housing. A Japanese American Studies instructor at SF State, who was a member of the J-Town Collective, connected me with a Japanese American woman activist who was looking for a housemate. I joined a household with this woman and with activists from Chinatown.

Our household was connected to the anti-Vietnam War movement. We were all involved in the Bay Area Asian Coalition Against the War (BAACAW). One of the household members was a member of the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) in Chinatown. CPA was taking up issues like the normalization of U.S.-China Relations and the eviction of the International Hotel tenants. Our household was also supportive of the anti-Marcos anti-martial law movement in the Philippines.

One thing that sticks out in my mind is that I had gone to several Asian American movement dances. There was a distinct social and cultural movement among Asian Americans with our movement songs, dance styles, bands, and of course, martial arts! One of the popular dance tunes was Suavecito by Malo. When the song Suavecito was played or performed, everyone would jump up to dance the calypso and sing along with the lyrics.

BAACAW had the distinction of doing the Snake Dance at anti-Vietnam War demonstrations while chanting, “One struggle, many fronts” to express our solidarity as Asian Americans with the Vietnamese people for self-determination. At demonstrations, the Snake Dance was a signature move by activists in Japan who would link arms and move in a snake-like fashion.

BAACAW demonstration, San Francisco. From left to right: Joyce Nakamura, Irwin Lum and Alex Hing. Photo from Unity Archive.

In 1973, I remember going with my housemates to see Bruce Lee’s first feature film, Enter the Dragon in San Francisco Chinatown. It was packed and we ended up sitting in the aisles. To my surprise there were several Black people in attendance. Along with the distinct smell of oranges being eaten by Chinese community members, it was a memorable experience. At one point in the film when Bruce was being bad ass with his nunchaku sticks, a Black women screamed, ‘You go, Bruce!”  There were cheers when Bruce kicked the white character O’Hara’s ass.

In 1973, my Japanese American activist housemate and I joined the Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction (CANE) to fight redevelopment in San Francisco Japantown. In CANE, I experienced what it was like to be a part of a Japanese American community. CANE was a multi-racial, multi-generational organization made up of residents and small shopkeepers in San Francisco Japantown and the broader Japanese American community. I was a member of the Tenant Outreach Committee. We would walk door-to-door to talk to residents and small shopkeepers in Japantown every Saturday about what was going on with the Redevelopment Agency, what was going on in CANE and listen to their concerns.

Experiencing the strength of grassroots organizing, I was inspired by people’s willingness to work together and fight this last stage of redevelopment which had already destroyed most of the Japantown community in the 1960s. There were Issei and Nisei (first- and second-generation Japanese Americans) of all stripes: professionals, workers, small businesspeople, union activists, National Rifle Association members and even ex-members of the Communist Party who were working together with young Sansei (third generation Japanese American) activists to save Japantown.

I experienced the multi-class impact of racism on Japanese Americans. In the 1970s we Marxist-Leninists termed ethnic groups as oppressed nationalities. We referred to the revolutionary nature of oppressed nationalities movements or national movements from Lenin’s writing on The National Question. I recognized that fighting for equality as a people was objectively revolutionary as it targets the capitalist system and its system of government which serves the capitalist class. This is what we meant by the revolutionary nature of the National Question. My experience in CANE, representing generations of Japanese Americans standing up for equality, inspired me to organize the Japanese American community as my role in the revolutionary movement.

There were several housing struggles in San Francisco at the time. Redevelopment was active in many communities. The I-Hotel struggle in Chinatown/Manilatown was heating up and we anticipated evictions due to the sale of the building. The I-Hotel struggle drew broad city-wide support. Several white progressive activists were drawn to this struggle. They played major roles in supporting the tenants and the security teams’ readiness to block the evictions. CANE also drew the attention of white progressive activists, most notably from the Tenants Action Group (TAG) who were also facing eviction by the Redevelopment Agency. CANE was able to form a Support Committee, primarily of white progressive activists and Asian American college students who helped with security of the buildings owned by the Redevelopment Agency in Japantown. These white progressive activists were also interested in the party-building movement. Through their support for the I-Hotel and CANE, they recognized the revolutionary sentiments of the national movements and were attracted to the political views and practice of IWK. Many of these white progressive activists joined IWK.

The JTC tried to recruit me, but I was drawn to the political line and practice of IWK. IWK developed their political line on the National Question which made sense to me and my experience. I also saw in practice IWK’s work in San Francisco Chinatown. IWK organized the Chinese community around several issues and built the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) as a grassroots organization that empowered the community. IWK linked the struggles of Asians in the U.S. with internationalism and solidarity with China and the Vietnamese people’s struggle for self-determination. IWK’s view on the National Question resonated with my own experience as a Japanese American. That is why in 1976, I decided to dedicate my life to the Revolution and joined IWK. I quit college when I joined. It was my senior year, but I did not see the point of a college education any longer.

SF Japantown tenants. Photo from CANE collection.

My mother was disappointed in my decision to quit college because of her own experience as a single parent. She felt strongly that women should go to college and build a career so they would not have to depend on a man for economic survival. My mother’s father forbade his daughters to attend college. Only my mother’s brothers were allowed to pursue a college education.

Another thing that drew me to IWK is that I had a social relationship and camaraderie with their circle of contacts. JTC did not try to socialize with activists so much and kept their distance, maybe to set an example as being upright revolutionaries?

When I was a young 19-year-old student, I joined CANE in 1973. There were many college students who joined CANE from UC Berkeley and San Francisco State. Because we were young, we socialized a lot by taking every opportunity to cook dinner together, have parties and other gatherings. We spent time hanging out at Mama Kintoki’s, one of the restaurants which was a staunch CANE supporter facing eviction.

I was part of a cohort of activists who eventually joined IWK. These friendships remained with me over the past 50 years. Our shared experiences are carved in our hearts. It was a growing experience that made me who I am today. This experience also helped form my Japanese American identity. I did not feel as isolated from Japanese Americans as I did when I was a teenager in Seaside. I truly felt the importance of having a Japantown community to engender interactions to bring the community together in diverse ways.

 San Jose

I Wor Kuen (IWK), an Asian American Marxist-Leninist organization; the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL), a Black Marxist-Leninist organization; the August Twenty-ninth Movement (ATM), a Chicano[4] Marxist-Leninist organization; and smaller M-L collectives such as the East Wind Collective in Los Angeles, California, and Seize the Time (STT) in Santa Clara County, California, merged to form the League of Revolutionary Struggle in 1978.

The leadership of IWK asked me to move to San Jose, California to help consolidate the merger between IWK, ATM and STT. ATM and STT had cadres or members of a revolutionary group already living in Santa Clara County.

Asian American cadres from ATM were asked to move to San Jose and serve as the leadership of this new region or district that we termed the local structure of the LRS. I was assigned to work with them. However, just prior to opening the district they were transferred to other parts of the country. I was 24 years old and had only been in IWK for two years. I had not served in a district leadership position before. But I was the last person standing and assigned to serve as the district head. We referred to this position as the District Organizer or the DO.

Because I was an inexperienced leader in the organization, the labor, East Palo Alto community and Stanford student areas were directly led by the national leadership. Even though I did not lead these areas, I was organizationally responsible for integrating all LRS cadres into the new San Jose District.

Unity Photo. August 25,1979.
“Youth Getting Together, from San Jose. August 29th March & Commemoration.”

The priority of the San Jose District was two-fold:  1) the Chicano National Movement (CNM), meaning we would focus efforts on building a base in the CNM and recruiting Chicanos into the LRS, and 2) labor work. As the San Jose DO, I had no responsibility for the labor work as it was led directly by the national leadership.

ATM had some work in the Chicano community in the social service and non-profit area. ATM had several contacts who they had not been able to recruit. I was nervous with the expectation of leading this area as the DO. I was not familiar with the Chicano Movement. The Chicano ATM cadres intimidated me since they were older than me. I had no idea what I was doing. Because the San Jose District was not a priority for the LRS, I did not get much guidance from the national leadership.

I really did not know what to do. I first started working in the anti-Bakke Decision[5] Coalition that our Chicano cadres and contacts participated in to try to witness first-hand ATM’s work so I can assess what direction to take. I think what transpired was going through trial and error based on what we could figure out collectively.

At the same time in 1978, when the Asian American IWK cadres moved to San Jose, we focused on working on the pilgrimage to Tule Lake, a WWII Japanese American concentration camp site in Northern California. Because several Stanford Asian student contacts of IWK were involved in the Pilgrimage, it was a way for us to connect to them. The Tule Lake Pilgrimage at that time was led by CANE in San Francisco. Through the Pilgrimage, Asian American student activists and San Jose community activists were introduced to CANE. In 1979, a grouping of Japanese American students and San Jose Japantown community members formed the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC). As a member of the LRS, I encouraged and joined the efforts to form NOC because of my experience in CANE. I saw the potential of building a progressive Japanese American grassroots organization. The LRS was able to recruit a core group of Japanese American students who came into the community to do progressive work after they graduated. Through this work, these ex-students came to recognize the relationship of doing political work in the Japanese American community and the revolutionary movement. Even though the work in the Japanese American community was not a priority, because we recruited this cohort from the student area, in my mind, the San Jose Japanese American community work became the strongest area of work in the San Jose District.

Soon after forming NOC in 1979, NOC took up the redress/reparations movement. In 1980 NOC became a founding member of the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR). The redress/reparations movement really expanded the reach of NOC to have a significant impact on the Japanese American community. I did not work directly in the redress/reparations movement because of other organizational responsibilities but was involved to the extent I could on my “own time.”  For many Japanese Americans, including for myself and my family, the redress/reparations movement was a critical step towards healing from the WWII concentration camp experience. It was so moving and heartfelt when my mother joined me on a Tule Lake Pilgrimage. This Pilgrimage addressed the need to fight for reparations. Many Nisei voices stood up to call for reparations and spoke out for the first time about their WWII incarceration experience.

Unity Photo. February 20, 1982
“National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR) Rally, Los Angeles CA.”

Like the CANE days, there was a social network of progressive community-minded people in the Japanese American community. I would go out to dinner, clubbing and music concerts with these contacts. There were parties and occasional musical jam sessions. These jam sessions were spontaneous music making sessions by musicians.

One distinction of the San Jose District was that some of the activists the LRS recruited in the 1980s were involved in the arts: musicians, taiko drummers, spoken word artists, and graphic artists. These artists worked collaboratively with the Black, Chicano and Asian communities. This collaboration was part of a trend of progressive and community-minded artists that uplifted many grassroots struggles. Asian Americans composed music to uplift the Justice for Melvin Truss Committee work and the redress/reparations movement. Collaborations between Chicano and Asian American musicians uplifted the Chicano/Mexicano cannery workers’ struggles. One of our District leaders was a key person who encouraged this collaboration among progressive artists in Santa Clara County.

East Wind[6] magazine was launched in 1982. East Wind in San Jose was able to bring together Asian American artists and students, Asian American Studies professors and other community-minded people to support East Wind by subscribing, contributing articles and in presenting events. A notable event sponsored by East Wind was at Santa Clara University which featured the San Jose Taiko group.

I was dating a Japanese American LRS cadre at the time who did not live in San Jose. He wanted to move to San Jose to be with me, but the national leadership said he could not move to San Jose unless he worked in labor, specifically in cannery work. He wanted to work on the redress/reparations campaign in the Japanese American community. Even though I did not agree with this decision by national leadership, I was obligated as the District Organizer to tell him the conditions of his transfer to San Jose. After I told him about the conditions, he immediately broke up with me and resigned from the LRS. He continued to make tremendous contributions to the progressive work in the Japanese American community to this day. This incident left a big scar on me. It made me question the practice of democratic-centralism and the relationship of the individual to the LRS as an organization.

ATM had several white cadres who worked at the General Motors (GM) auto plant. Because the national leadership led this area of work, I was not privy to the nature of the work. Most of these cadres were white middle class ex-college students who were assigned by ATM to organize the working class.

I distributed Unity newspaper, the publication of the LRS at GM. I attended a few union social functions at GM to get to know some of the auto workers and introduced myself as a representative of Unity newspaper. I organized childcare for those who had children. I really did not have to do this, but I naturally socialized with these cadres. It was odd not to get to know them or take an interest in them even though I was not involved in their work area.

In the San Jose District, we organized several Unity programs and fundraisers that we would have an attendance of cadres and contacts from all work areas. In my opinion, these Unity events helped develop organizational identity and connection among the various areas.

The LRS initiated the formation of Raza Si, a grassroots social justice organization in the Chicano community in San Jose. Through this work we were able to recruit Chicano working-class contacts into the LRS. I personally oversaw the recruitment of these cadres. I would spend a lot of time in conversation with them over coffee. Because I was Japanese American, the cadres took an interest in the work of NOC and several of them went to the Tule Lake Pilgrimage.

This was the first time I was involved in the recruitment process for non-students, working class Chicano parents and grandparents. Understanding their situation, I did not enforce some things that were expected of other cadres, like keeping timesheets of weekly schedules of one’s political work and doing childcare for other cadre’s children. In my mind, it did not make any sense and being excused from this did not lessen their commitment to the work and the organization.

The LRS encouraged building relationships between NOC and Raza Si. Raza Si supported the redress/reparations campaign in the Japanese American community. Raza Si also helped support our work in the canneries in San Jose, and the Watsonville cannery workers’ strike. This support work had a significant impact on the white labor movement in San Jose. The LRS was able to demonstrate the power of the community-labor movement connection of Chicanos/Mexicanos. At the 1985 May Day International Workers’ Day celebration sponsored by Unity Newspaper, the MC was one of our Chicana cadres involved in Raza Si. It was a standing room only event at the Santa Clara County Labor Council in San Jose, which featured support for the Watsonville Mexicano cannery workers’ strike.

Watsonville Canning strikers. Photo from Unity Archive.

In 1984 and 1988, the LRS encouraged participation in the Jesse Jackson for President campaign. Because of our strong base in the Japanese American community and student area at Stanford University where we recruited several Asian, Black, Latino and white students, I think we had a substantial impact on the campaign in San Jose. Because NOC had grown as an organization, we were able to free up Japanese American cadre to focus work on the Jesse Jackson’s Presidential Campaign and the Rainbow Coalition. In the 1988 primary election, Jackson was able to win the majority vote in precincts on the East Side of San Jose which was predominantly Chicano. The Santa Clara County Democratic Party elected Japanese American and Chicano Jesse Jackson delegates to the 1988 California Democratic Party convention. Unfortunately, the main LRS cadres working in the Rainbow moved away from San Jose in 1989 and the gains made dissipated. We were able to recruit one Black activist into the LRS through this campaign.

In 1985, Melvin Truss, a Black teenager, was shot and killed senselessly by the San Jose Police. Because this was before the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, there was not an initial outcry about this killing, not even from Black elected officials.

The LRS decided to take this issue up and helped launch the Justice for Melvin Truss Committee. The Committee tried to organize support from the Black community at Stanford, East Palo Alto, and the San Jose Rainbow Coalition. I was one of the main contacts who communicated with Melvin’s family to update them on support efforts and check in with them to make sure the family was okay with what we were doing. The Justice for Melvin Truss Committee was able to get the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission to denounce the killing. Our Japanese American cadres played a key role in navigating this because of their visibility in county government circles through their jobs. Unity Newspaper fundraised to help cover the family’s lawyer’s fees.

Also, around this time, I was personally going through a number of changes. I had turned 30, was single and concerned about my future. The LRS supported me financially at a bare minimum salary. I had no health benefits nor savings. Because the LRS was not looking out for my personal future, I demanded that I be able to work full time. As I mentioned earlier, the circumstances of my Japanese American boyfriend breaking up with me and leaving the organization because he was not allowed to do political work in the Japanese American community also weighed heavily on me. I also was not able to work in the Japanese American community. I was resentful of that and envious of Japanese American cadres who had careers and were doing work in the Japanese American community. Some cadres who joined IWK in the 1970s were going through life changes as well. A couple of women cadres resigned from the LRS when they started having children. They could not manage the demands of political work and parenting. The stress of self-sacrifice got to me as well. I resigned from District Leadership around 1985.

 Dissolution of the LRS

To put things into context of the times, the majority of Marxist-Leninist organizations had dissolved by 1985. During President Reagan’s term of office, there were attacks on working people with budget cuts for social programs and union-busting. The M-L movement was impacted by Mao Zedong’s death, the attack on students at the Tiananmen Square Massacre[7], and policy changes of a more moderate nature by the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In my view, contrary to the majority of M-L organizations, the LRS was able to persevere through the 1980s because of our roots in the national movements.

There was a proposal to disband the organization in 1989, the year I moved back to San Francisco from San Jose. As I understood the proposal, there was a recognition that a Marxist-Leninist democratic centralist[8]form of organization was no longer relevant. This form of organization was developed based on conditions during a revolutionary period in Russia. At the time that the proposal to dissolve was put forward, I agreed with this analysis that similar conditions did not exist in that the U.S. The U.S. was an advanced capitalist country, not Czarist Russia.

The LRS dissolved in September 1990. I continued to be involved in NCRR and the Tule Lake Pilgrimage until the early 1990s.

After the LRS dissolved, I began working towards completing my bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State to start building a career. Because I was 36 years old and working full time, it took me three years to graduate at age 39. I tried to work in non-profits in Japantown, but that was not for me.

After I graduated, my next focus was to start a family. After I tried unsuccessfully for one year to get pregnant, I took a break to take a graduate course in Public Administration. By age 41, it looked like I was not going to get pregnant. My husband and I decided to adopt a baby girl from Guangdong Province, China in January 1996. From then on, I focused on building a career and raising my daughter. I was not involved in any political work for over 20 years until after Trump was elected President in 2016. Chapter II – Evolution of a Revolutionary will cover the period 2017-2022.


This piece covered the period of my political awakening which led to joining I Wor Kuen/League of Revolutionary Struggle, a Marxist-Leninist organization. I was a member of IWK/LRS for 14 years from the ages of 22 to 36. This Chapter I ends with the dissolution of the LRS in 1990.

Observation #1: Impact of the National Question on revolutionary thinking.

As I look back at this period, I developed an understanding that had a profound impact on me in recognizing the history of systemic racism through 1) The class and racial oppression I endured, 2) The incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry during WWII, including my family, 3) The impact of the Civil Rights Movement.

The experience in CANE and NOC also demonstrated the impact of how being involved in the national movements can spring forth revolutionary minded individuals, many of whom joined IWK and LRS.

It is also my experience that the work in the national movements inspired white progressive activists and set a concrete orientation on how they can support the movement for equality and justice. Examples of this were the white progressive activists who supported CANE and the I-Hotel in the 1970s and the white labor movement that supported the Chicano/Mexicano cannery workers and community.

Observation #2. Having a strategic view and analysis of concrete conditions.

The priority of the San Jose District was the Chicano National Movement and labor. This came from the national leadership as overall organizational priorities.

I do not think we were conscious of how we would implement our strategic goal of building the LRS as a vanguard party. I do not think the LRS had a concrete plan of what it meant to prioritize the CNM and labor. We were able to recruit activists in the Chicano community, but mainly family members of cadres. I think we were not able to build the work in the CNM to a great extent. Objectively, I think there were resource limitations. I feel we lacked an assessment or sense of our internal strengths and weaknesses and of the Chicano community and Chicano community forces. Therefore, I do not think we were able to develop a view on how to consolidate the Chicano student, labor, and community areas to build a Chicano national movement composed of all of these sectors. I think this was not possible because the Chicano student and labor areas were led by the national leadership and these areas of work were disconnected from the San Jose District work.

The Japanese American community work was not a priority for the San Jose District. Within the Japanese American community, there were various efforts to learn about the incarceration, organize pilgrimages, and to take up the redress/reparations campaign. These efforts brought into focus the need to organize the community. There was a cohort of college student graduates interested in these efforts, and they were eager to come into the Japanese American community to build a grassroots organization in San Jose. That was the reality of the situation that the LRS was able to tap into. Because of my background and experience organizing in the Japanese American community, I could see the potential of this work. I naturally gravitated towards this direction even though it was not a priority area for LRS in San Jose. It just made sense because the conditions were ripe for building this area of work. Later we leveraged this work in the Japanese American community to provide leadership to the Justice for Melvin Truss Committee, the Rainbow Coalition and building support in the Chicano community to elect Jesse Jackson for President.

Looking back, I think that because of how we responded to the concrete conditions objectively we did have a strategic view and was developing a path to get there.

Observation #3. Impact of individuals living their truth and standing up against injustice.

Various individuals who in their own way saw the need to fight for social justice randomly had an impact on me. From my junior high and high school teachers to my cousin introducing Gidra to me, these random acts were profound. The social justice movement among Asian Americans in San Francisco and Los Angeles inspired me and drew me into the movement. Most certainly the formation of CANE, which was initiated by the J-Town Collective, was fortuitous yet had an impact on a generation of Japanese American activists.

Unity Photo: Eddie Wong.
“S.F, CA – CANE supporters struggle to stop the eviction of the tenants living at 1531 Sutter St. in Japanetown. The day of the eviction itself- right before the police arrived.”

Observation #4. The importance of the campus-community connection to build a national movement.

I recognized that my desire for equality and justice is rooted deeply in my soul of who I am. This led me to San Francisco State where I was fortunate enough to have instructors who encouraged me to connect with the Japantown community. This is where I learned and interacted with others to build a community and an identity of who I was as a revolutionary Japanese American. In San Jose, there were student activists on campus who encouraged others to work in the community. Forming NOC and fighting for redress/reparations made it possible to build that sense of identity as well for this generation of activists.

Observation #5. Building a Marxist-Leninist democratic-centralist organization is contextual and not a template for organizing a revolutionary movement. Recognition of diversity in how people contribute to the revolutionary movement.

I joined a Marxist-Leninist organization at a time of party-building when there was struggle among parties to define a revolutionary perspective, in particular a revolutionary view of the national movements. The views and practice of I Wor Kuen (IWK), a Marxist-Leninist organization that was based In the Chinese community, made sense for me to join. The Marxist-Leninist view of building a democratic-centralist vanguard party was what we learned from the history of successful revolutionary movements. I think because we were also young and energetic, we shared the view that revolution was eminent. In my opinion that is why we saw building a vanguard party necessary and appropriate at that time.

I observed and experienced that the form of organization, discipline, and self-sacrifice could not sustain itself because of the demands of life changes. In San Jose, cadres’ lives changed. We grew older, got married and had children. Life became more complicated and demanded more flexibility. Because there was not that flexibility, cadres in San Jose began leaving the organization.

Being in San Jose, I learned that people are different and contribute in their own way based on who they are. For example, I learned about being flexible with the recruitment of working-class Chicanos and with cadres fresh out of college who want to develop their careers and pursue personal interests. The experience of my former boyfriend, who left the LRS because he wanted to be involved in Japanese American community work and not labor, taught me the importance of understanding and knowing who people are and how they can best contribute. This understanding became sharper to me in San Jose when we began to recruit and connect a cohort of artists in the LRS.

As I struggled through my own hardships and changes, I did not leave the organization. It is because I still wanted to contribute in some way – just not in the way that was expected of me and not based on self-sacrifice. I wanted a life. I needed a break. I needed that flexibility.

In San Jose we recruited a cohort of cadres that did not come from the party-building experience. By the mid-1980s, most M-L parties were headed in the direction of dissolution by the time this cohort was recruited. I think they had a different view of making change, based on their particular experiences. In the 1980s, working people felt the pain of the Reagan years. That made the Jesse Jackson campaign and his message of building the Rainbow Coalition especially important at the time.

I learned from this cohort of recruits. In some ways they saved me from being stuck in the old party-building mode. They integrated their individuality, the strengths of who they are, into the movement for social justice. I think we were able to recruit in San Jose because we were not rigid or made demands on cadres that were not realistic like forcing my boyfriend to do cannery work when his heart was in working in the redress/reparations movement in the Japanese American community.

Observation #5. Building the grassroots movement, uniting all that can be united.

What I learned from my experience in CANE was building relationships with those who were directly affected by Redevelopment and members of the Japanese American community. That is, building the multi-generational grassroots movement by uniting with other forces who can potentially have an impact on making social change. This was the same experience in the redress/reparations movement in San Jose. Without grassroots organizing, the broadest unity within the national movements would not be possible.

Observation #6. Importance of building social relationships.

In my experience, I have learned the importance of building social relationships. If we see fighting for equality and social justice as a lifelong struggle, these relationships help inspire and keep people going during different periods of their life. If I had not made friends and the support that came from those friendships, I think it would have been difficult to sustain my involvement. I think the same goes for others as well. Building these relationships includes sharing ideas and perspectives while doing social justice work, trusting each other, supporting each other, having fun, and respecting different points of view. Having gone through challenging times and transition in San Jose, I think I would not have been able to get through it without support from this cohort of comrades.

CANE sit-in at Redevelopment Agency office. Joyce Nakamura (third from right). Photo from New Dawn newspaper.


Author’s Bio: Joyce Chiyomi Nakamura is a Sansei (third generation Japanese American) who earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Social Science at San Francisco State University and a MA in Public Administration at Golden Gate University.

Joyce’s family was incarcerated at Gila River and Poston concentration camps during WWII. She was an activist in the Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction (CANE) from 1973-1978 and served as its Vice-President. She joined I Wor Kuen (IWK) in 1976. She held a leadership position in the League of Revolutionary Struggle from 1978. In San Jose, CA, she was a founding member of the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee (NOC), the Justice for Melvin Truss Committee and the San Jose Rainbow Coalition.

Joyce lives in San Francisco, California with her husband and daughter. She remains active in the San Francisco Japanese American community and in city-wide campaigns in San Francisco. Currently she is a member of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, National Nikkei Reparations Coalition, the San Francisco Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, and the San Francisco/Bay Area Day of Remembrance Planning Committee. She is a sustaining member of the Chinese Progressive Association. She is also currently serving on the DA Accountability subcommittee of the DA Accountability Coalition. SF Rising Action coordinates this sub-committee. Joyce is part of the planning committee for the 50th Anniversary of CANE to be held in 2023. Recently, Joyce was involved in the nearly two -year campaign to implement the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance for Domestic Workers. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted the Ordinance in October 2021.


[1]“I Wor Kuen (Righteous and Harmonious Fists) took its name from a peasant organization that fought to expel foreigners from China during the so-called “Boxer Rebellion.” Founded in 1969 by second-generation Chinese Americans in New York’s Chinatown, it adopted a 12-point program Platform and Program, similar to those previously issued by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords. It also advocated Mao Zedong thought and engaged in militant struggles in the community. It also started publication of a bi-lingual newspaper, Getting Together. In 1971, I Wor Kuen became a national organization when it merged with former members of the San Francisco-based Red Guard Party…” History of I Wor Kuen 2, retrieved from, 12/1/22.

[2] Marxism–Leninism holds that a two-stage communist revolution is needed to replace capitalism. A vanguard party, organized through “democratic centralism”, would seize power on behalf of the proletariat and establish a one-party socialist state, called the dictatorship of the proletariat. The state would control the means of production, suppress opposition, counter-revolution, and the bourgeoisie, and promote Soviet collectivism, to pave the way for an eventual communist society that would be classless and stateless. Wikipedia, retrieved from, 11/29/22

[3] The John Birch Society (JBS) is an American right-wing political advocacy group. Wikipedia, retrieved from, 11/12/22.

[4] “Chicano, feminine form Chicana, identifier for people of Mexican descent born in the United States. The term came into popular use by Mexican Americans as a symbol of pride during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.” from Britannica, retrieved from, 12/5/22.

[5] Anti-Bakke decision refers to the legal suit that a white student, Alan Bakke, filed against the Regents of the University of California when he was not admitted to medical school at the University of California, Davis. The California Supreme Court ruled that in favor or Bakke who claimed that affirmative action was “reverse discrimination” and violated his 14th Amendment rights.

[6] East Wind was a progressive Asian American art and culture and politics magazine published by Unity publications. Unity was the newspaper of the League of Revolutionary Struggle.

[7] “The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations in 1989 calling for democracy, free speech, and a free press in China. Pro-democracy protesters initially marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square following the April 1989 death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader who had worked to introduce democratic reform in China. While mourning Hu, the students called for a more open, democratic government nationwide. Eventually thousands of people joined the students in Tiananmen Square, with the protest’s numbers increasing to the tens of thousands by mid-May. The protests were halted in a deadly crackdown, known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, by the Chinese government on June 4 and 5, 1989.” History, retrieved from, 12/6/22.

[8] “In the Marxist literature, democratic centralism refers to the organization of a Leninist party that allows members participation and voice but compels them to follow the party line once a decision has been made.” (Diaz-Cayeros, Alberto, International Encyclopedia, retrieved 11/13/2022,

4 thoughts on “Chapter One: Evolution of a Revolutionary”

  1. Joyce,

    Thank you for your reflections and insights. I had to read the article multiple times because you covered so much territory, not only in our areas of work but also reflected on the changing landscape of the movement from the mid 70’s into the late 80’s. Because some of our paths crossed in similar work, Housing, the Tule Lake Pilgrimage etc. I appreciated the walk down memory lane. I really valued the honesty in your observations sections, pointing out not only the positive impacts we had on some mass areas but also the miscalculations and assessments of our work with the working class and some of unrealistic expectations in our implementations of cadre policies. Again, thanks for the memories and reflections.

    In solidarity, Warren

  2. This piece brought back so many memories of our work together back in the 80s in SJ! Thanks for giving a shout out to the revolutionary cultural work we engaged in during that period! Thinking about it all, we really were making the future back then. Thanks so much for all of the work on such a substantial piece. I can’t wait for the next chapter!

  3. WOW! Thank you so much for such thoughtful reflections on your experience on the Left. We don’t often get to hear about the context in San Jose and reflections that have a comprehensive understanding of the left/mass work. I appreciate the honesty and modeling of how you struggled with national leadership and balancing life decisions/commitments. These continue to be key questions for our movement today. I’m so grateful for this website and glad that you all are writing up your reflections. It is such an important contribution to our generation and generations to come. I’m looking forward to chapter 2!

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