Moritsugu Fights for Inclusion and Awareness of AAPI Communities, Cultures and Histories
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Raised by a single mom and grandparents in the post-World War II era, 49-year-old Erika Moritsugu believes many Asian Americans were guided by the Japanese axiom that “the nails that stick up” are the ones that generally get hammered.
“I know that it is a Japanese saying, and maybe means something different in Japan,” said Moritsugu. “But here, it means that attracting attention will only lead to trouble, like the wartime incarceration, pervasive discrimination and spikes in hate and violence that our community has suffered. That we should prioritize safety and one of the ways to do that is to prove ourselves to be hard-working, nice and quiet, especially in dominant culture here on the mainland.
“And of course, for folks my age, who may have grown up in multi-generational households or at least in close relationship with multiple generations in the islands, that sensibility is ingrained in us from my grandparent’s World War II generation, passed down to my parents’ generation and now to mine. But it reinforces the ‘model minority myth’ that urges complacency and ignores the diversity of experience within our community and is used to pit the larger coalition of communities of color against each other. At its core, too, it reminds us that it is not safe to stand up and fight against injustices – and at this time, I think it is overdue and important to try. Even with the risk of the hammer.”
Sandra Pohl, owner of the Louis Pohl Gallery and later Downtown Art Center, said her daughter, Erika Moritsugu, was born in San Francisco in 1972 when her first husband, Kenneth Moritsugu, was completing his medical internship and residency. The family moved to Hawai‘i when she was 6. Moritsugu’s mother and her sister first lived in Waipahu, but later moved to Mänoa while her mother attended graduate school and she attended University of Hawai‘i Lab School graduating in 1990.
Moritsugu attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts for two years before transferring to William and Mary College financing her education with loans and working at various part-time jobs: waiting on tables, at a law firm and in the library. She worked at a government job full-time to cover her tuition costs while attending law school part-time, acknowledging that her career path has been anything but linear straddling the nonprofit and government orbits.
“My career path has been a little non-traditional,” said Moritsugu. “Weaving in and out of the private sector, government, non-profit advocacy and volunteering in different roles, but the throughline has been helping folks elevate and solve their problems when they need access to complicated systems that can be difficult for individuals or traditionally marginalized communities to access.”
“So, for instance, I started my career in public health and economic policy in the government, carried the economic policy into my legal career, and volunteered for service organizations or started and led organizations as a volunteer for voting rights for communities of color and civil rights empowerment for Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.”
Her paternal grandparents were Richard Yutaka and Hisaya Moritsugu. They, like her maternal grandparents, George and Vivian Goo, were both born in Hawai‘i.
Moritsugu met her husband, Brian Kernek, a Texas native, while they were both undergraduates at Brandeis. He is president of his own consulting firm, specializing in computer networks. The couple have two children, Vianne Leilani, 13; and Chester, 11.
An Advocate for Social Justice
After being accepted by William and Mary College in Virginia, Moritsugu told her mother that she wouldn’t depend on her and would pay her own way to complete her undergraduate degree in political science in 1994. She earned her law degree from George Washington University Law School seven years later.
“She always loved politics,” said Pohl who describes her daughter as fiercely independent. “It was very natural choice for her … She chose working in government instead of being on the partner track in the private sector. She’s everything I wanted her to be and then some.”
For nearly a year, Moritsugu — fifth generation Chinese American on her mother’s side and a Yonsei AJA on her father’s side — has been a deputy assistant to the President and Asian American and Pacific Islander senior liaison, capping 17 years of government service that included a stint in Barack Obama’s administration.
Moritsugu was appointed on April 14, 2021 as President Biden and the country faced a spike in violence targeting people of Asian descent and the spiraling COVID-19 crisis. She was charged with ensuring that the diversity of these minority communities was no longer invisible, and that Biden’s policies included them and were communicated to other communities.
Her appointment, more than 11 months ago, was the first time in 20 years that an Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander was appointed to a presidential cabinet. She reports to Biden’s Chief of Staff and meets with the president periodically. Moritsugu’s job is to advise nearly a dozen executive policy committees, making sure the voices of one of the most rapidly growing but underrepresented racial groups in the United States are heard. Some days her work begins at 5:30 a.m. and can run beyond 7:30 p.m. “No day is like any other day,” said Moritsugu following a day of five and a half hours of meetings. Some of these meetings are in person, many by Zoom from her Capitol Hill home.
In a USA Today interview last year, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League and former advisor to President Barack Obama, described Moritsugu as “a walking briefing book. She has a gift for moving between issues like civil liberties, minority concerns, to broader national security concerns. She’s a lawyer, so she has a legal perspective. She’s drafted legislation, but she’s also got real political chops, so she’s in a role at the White House where she’s able to flex those muscles.” Moritsugu was the Anti-Defamation League vice president focusing on government relations, advocacy, and community engagement for nearly two years beginning in 2018.
Moritsugu is grateful to have had bosses who were “extraordinary leaders and public servants,” such as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a 1985 McKinley High School and University of Hawai‘i graduate; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Daniel Akaka. They “not just inspired me…” said Moritsugu. “But also believed in me and modeled the kind of leadership that I admire and try to emulate.” She served as assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs under Castro from 2014-2017.
Moritsugu also served as vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families (once known as the Women’s Legal Defense Fund) when Hawai‘i Sen. Mazie Hirono and Sen. Duckworth and California Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Committee, submitted her name because of complaints from congressional lawmakers and activists that Biden had failed to name a person of Asian descent to his cabinet. She was picked by Biden in April 2021 after Hirono and Duckworth, whom Moritsugu served as Duckworth’s general counsel in 2017, threatened to block all of Biden’s nonminority nominees.
Duckworth told The Hawai‘i Herald: “Erika is doing an excellent job in her new role. She is an approachable, experienced bridge builder who is forging new relationships and building coalitions both inside and outside of the White House, and she has both the experience and the gravitas to ensure she is listened to. Duckworth added that Moritsugu championed “the change in terminology from AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) to AANHPI (Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander) in White House messaging to be more inclusive of the Native Hawaiian community, and I’m confident that her presence in the administration will continue to help improve the lives of the AANHPI community as well as strengthen our entire nation.”
Also commenting on Biden’s appointment, Hirono described it to The Hawai‘i Herald as “historic” because this is “the first time” that a member of the President’s senior staff will “represent the voices and needs of the AANHPI community in the West Wing.” Hirono also noted that Moritsugu worked to include Native Hawaiians into the White House Initiative on AAPIs and “has been able to affect the enactment and implementation of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. I have known Erika for decades and I have no doubt she will continue to use her vantage point to make certain this administration’s work is inclusive and makes real progress in facing the disparities and challenges for our populations.”
Rep. Ed Case, a board member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus that lobbied for a special White House position to meet the needs of the fastest growing community in the country, described Moritsugu as a person with an “incredible background.”
Moritsugu acknowledged in the USA Today interview that she enters a job where there is no “playbook.” She added: “It’s energizing and affirming because we’re building something in a world without rules and examples and high expectations. It’s an experiment, but I have such a nontraditional career background in so many different areas and sectors, so I have a lot of examples to draw from, a strong network of allies and critics to learn from and a pretty good strategic sense of how the compelling interests and multiple opportunities can be interplayed.”
Fighting for Equality
For nearly 30 years, Moritsugu has seen and felt the hate and racism aimed at Asian Americans at her East Coast colleges, in the workplace, in her law practice and in the halls of Congress and the White House. She has built coalitions for the Anti-Defamation League and sought economic equality for women in the workplace through nonprofit advocacy organizations and fought for empowerment for marginalized communities.
Moritsugu said that in college and in her career, she’s experienced being the only Asian American, or woman of color, or woman at all in her classes or in meetings. Expanding on remarks she made late last year at a California public affairs forum about the problems facing Asian minorities, Moritsugu added, “All my life I’ve been the target of racist and misogynist insults or jokes and discrimination, and it has been such a fact of life that I think many of us don’t think twice about it. We brush it off, excuse it, or just suffer it, all while programming ourselves to be as safe as we can — being attentive, practicing ignoring the threats and insults, keeping our eyes averted, standing against a wall to minimize our physical presence, carrying keys between our fingers in case we are attacked.
“But right before the shut-down in 2021, my little boy was with me waiting at a public bus stop after school to go home when a man passing by started yelling ugly and hateful things at me; threatening me with racist and sexual violence because of my race and my gender. And he spat on me and walked away. It was the first time I really came to understand the risk to my children’s safety when they are with me in public in these times, and it strikes cold fear in me.
“So, I have tried when I can to not go out in public with them because they could be targeted too or have to witness these threats and feel unsafe because of the way I look. They are biracial and it’s different when they are out with their dad. And, for now, I still don’t take the bus or subway, even to work. While the mainstream press does not cover the continued rise of unprovoked attacks against Asian Americans — some with deadly consequences — maybe it’s fading in most people’s minds, but it’s still a very real part of day-to-day living for us here on the mainland now.”
In December, Moritsugu joined several other Biden appointees in announcing the launch of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and advisory commission that is chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. It was created in 1999 by President Bill Clinton. Since then, succeeding presidents have issued similar executive orders to re-establish the initiative and update its objectives. Its new executive director is Krystal Ka‘ai, a 2006 Kamehameha Schools graduate and Asian Pacific Islander caucus director for the past decade. A daughter of a native Hawaiian father and a Japanese mother, Ka‘ai graduated from Lehigh University and interned with Sen. Daniel Akaka.
In a virtual ceremony on Feb. 3, Kamala Harris, the country’s first female, first black, first Asian American vice president, swore in the 25-member President’s Advisory Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders which includes five people with Hawai‘i ties. The members are: Amy Agbayani, former chair of the Hawai‘i Civil Rights Commission and emeritus assistant vice chancellor for student diversity and equity at the University of Hawai‘i; Michelle Kauhane, senior vice president of community grants and initiatives at Hawai‘i Community Foundation and former president of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement; Dr. Kimberly Chang, vice speaker of the House for the National Association of Community Health Centers; Kerry Doi, chair of the California Community Economic Development Association; and actor Daniel Dae Kim.
Moritsugu noted that during his first week in office in January 2021 Biden signed a memorandum condemning “the hate, racism, xenophobia aimed at the AAPI communities.”
That was followed by Biden’s Executive Order 14301 which created this initiative that sets out to advance opportunity, justice and equity for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, said Moritsugu. Biden’s executive order reestablishing the initiative was the first time the program explicitly singled out Native Hawaiians, recognizing them as significantly different from other Asian Americans.
In May Biden also signed the COVID Hate Crimes law, which was co-authored by Hirono and Chu, and targets the alarming increase in race-based violence by beefing up U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to target hate crimes. It is the first federal hate crimes law in 12 years.
Moritsugu also talked about the need to continually combat microaggressions or “casual racism.”
“The spike in anti-Asian hate over the past two years and hateful racist rhetoric from former individuals in power targeting Asian Americans prove that these old patterns are not harmless and that we need to stand up and put an end to it. And insist that our allies stand up with us and do their part to change the mindset that it’s all okay.”
Just recently, in San Francisco and in advance of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott highlighted a surge in hate crimes against the city’s Asian-American and Pacific-Islander communities, according to CBS news. Breed and Scott said preliminary police data shows the number of AAPI hate crime victims in San Francisco rose from nine in 2020 to 60 victims in 2021, nearly a 600% increase. Breed laid some of the blame for the rise in hate crimes in the city and nationwide on former President Donald Trump and his rhetoric during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to KPIX in San Francisco.
In commemorating the 103rd birthday of civil rights icon Fred Korematsu on Jan. 30, Ka‘ai and Moritsugu released a joint statement saying there is a continuing need “to recommit ourselves into protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans. This is especially important as acts of racism and hate continue to plague Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities across the country.” In 1943 Korematsu defied President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 that removed 120,000 Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes and sent them to internment camps. It took four decades for his conviction to be vacated by a federal appeals court. Before Korematsu passed away in 2005, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. His legal challenges propelled the congressional apology, redress movement and $20,000 reparations for interned Japanese Americans in 1988. Since 2010, Hawai‘i, Utah, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Michigan and Florida have all commemorated “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.”
Lessons From Nisei Veterans
In a September speech at the National Museum of the Army at Fort Belvoir at the unveiling of the Nisei Experience Exhibit, Moritsugu outlined her job and her mission: “to uplift the needs and hopes of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community as we (Biden administration) design and implement the administration’s agenda.”
She added, “Central to this work is to address anti-Asian bias, xenophobia, racism and nativism and to find opportunities for the executive branch to advance inclusion, belonging and public awareness of the diversity and accomplishments of the Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander cultures and histories.”
Moritsugu, whose father is retired Rear Adm. Kenneth Moritsugu, spoke about her personal connection to the “prejudice, harassment, incarceration and injustice” that faced more than 33,000 Nisei who volunteered to fight in World War II even after initially being classified as “enemy aliens.” The War Department on Jan. 5, 1942, reclassified Japanese American men from being draft-eligible to “enemy aliens” not eligible for the draft. A year later the U.S. government, based on the record of the 100th Battalion, put out a call for volunteers resulting in the formation of the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit in World War II. Based on the 100th’s record, the draft for Nisei men was reinstated Jan. 20, 1944.
Moritsugu’s great-great uncle, Yasuichi Moritsugu, was among the 2,270 Hawai‘i Japanese Americans who were rounded up by the FBI and other government agencies during the hysteria that followed the Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was a community leader of his fishing village in Käne‘ohe. Yasuichi was first incarcerated on Sand Island and then transported to an internment camp in New Mexico. He died at age 62 in 1951 after his release from a Santa Fe detention camp in 1945 suffering from poor health.
She said her grandfather, Richard Moritsugu, served in the 100th Battalion from its formation in June 1942 until he was transferred to the Military Intelligence Service five months later. After graduating from the MIS school at Camp Savage as part of the “senpai gumi” or pioneer class of 59 Hawai‘i Nisei, he served with the 27th Infantry Division as an interpreter in the Saipan and Okinawan Pacific campaigns, according to Moritsugu. He died in 2002 at the age of 88.
Like other children of MIS combat veterans, Moritsugu acknowledged that she only recently learned of her grandfather’s accomplishments and “what valor he served with because he never spoke openly about it during his lifetime.”
Moritsugu’s great uncle Masato “Curly” Nakae also served in Company A, 100th Battalion and was one of 22 Nisei soldiers who in 2000 was bestowed the Medal of Honor for his accomplishment in breaking up a German attack in Italy in 1944.
Nakae’s daughter’s father-in-law Ronald Haruto Kuroda, one of the original members of the 100th Battalion, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest combat medal, while fighting in Italy in 1944. Ronald Kuroda’s younger brother, Robert, who received the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2000, was gunned down by a sniper after taking out two German machine-gun nests fighting with the 442nd RCT near Bruyères in 1944.
Moritsugu pointed out, in her September speech, that the service of these Nisei warriors, some who volunteered from behind the barbed wire fences of mainland internment camps or whose relatives like hers were arrested and detained without being charged, is a juxtaposition.
She said the Nisei performed “the most distinguished service fighting and some dying for our country” while some of their families were incarcerated thousands of miles away behind barbed wire fences and armed guards.
“That is not just my story. It is our story as Americans of loyalty, pride and service. And it is shared history that I am humbled to share with you all tonight.”
She told The Hawai‘i Herald, “We, as a family, did not focus on these military decorations growing up. Our fathers had them, our uncles had them, all their friends had them.”
Moritsugu said her mentors have always been her mother, Sandy Pohl, and her father, Kenneth Moritsugu. “Both, in their very different own ways, embody and urge the values of service and working as hard as you can whether or not there is fanfare over it or credit given. They taught me to be helpful and useful in any capacity when the chance to make an impact offers itself.”
Moritsugu hasn’t been home for nearly three years because of the restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Her last 2019 trip with her family to the islands was a “very special visit” because she could reconnect with friends and because it gave her two children a chance to experience why growing up in Hawai‘i is so special.
Moritsugu said that “the spirit of aloha and the strength of family” were what molded her. Growing up in Hawai‘i in a unique though not perfect interracial society gives you an awareness of other cultures, she added. “It gives me a broader kind of landscape.”
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service as a congressional correspondent and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.