A proposal to rename a Palo Alto middle school after Fred Yamamoto, a Japanese-American Palo Altan who enlisted in the U.S. Army and died in battle in World War II, has sparked intense protest among community members who associate his name with Isoroku Yamamoto, an unrelated Japanese admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Parents, particularly those of Chinese descent, took to online networks and email late last week and over the weekend to voice fierce opposition to the name, which a district committee proposed with five other individuals' and two geographic features as possibilities for replacement namesakes for Jordan and Terman middle schools. A letter-writing campaign produced more than 100 emails to the Board of Education over the weekend, by one trustee's estimate, and an online petition gathered hundreds of signatures within hours of its launch on Monday morning.
Fred Yamamoto -- a second-generation American who graduated from Palo Alto High School, attended a local Methodist church and was forced into an internment camp in Wyoming after the attack on Pearl Harbor -- is not related to the Japanese naval officer. Yamamoto is a common Japanese surname. But the parents are arguing that the Japanese surname would be a disrespectful choice for a school district that serves many Asian students and families.
Like many other educational institutions across the country that are reckoning with the complicated histories of people their facilities are named after, the school board decided unanimously last year to rename the two middle schools. Their namesakes, David Starr Jordan and Lewis Terman, were leaders in the eugenics movement, a 20th-century belief that promoted the reproduction of genetic traits of particular races over others, believing some races to be inferior. (Terman is also co-named for Lewis Terman's son, Frederick Emmons Terman, a Silicon Valley pioneer who did not espouse eugenics; however, the school board has declined to retain Fred Terman's name in the school name.)
A district committee presented their suggestions for new names to the school board last week after narrowing down more than 1,600 public submissions. The school board is set to vote on the recommendations next Tuesday, March 27.
More than 30 parents and students addressed the committee members at a meeting on Monday night -- many to protest the name Yamamoto but others to defend it.
"If we go back to the reason why we (had) this committee, it's because some of the children under the names of Jordan and Terman ... feel hurt," parent Vicky Huang told the committee and a full audience. "Even if you haven't read the Asian history, please remember and please understand in this community, we do have families, their children in our school district, whose relatives and friends (were) killed in the Japanese invasion."
One father who came to Palo Alto for the public schools said he would not have moved here had he known one of the middle schools would carry the name Yamamoto.
Encyclopedia Britannica describes Isoroku Yamamoto as Japan's most prominent naval officer during WWII and the commander-in-chief of Japan's Combined Fleet. A strategist, he advocated for "tactics based on aircraft carriers (rather than battleships) — carrier tactics that he later incorporated into the plan to attack Pearl Harbor," the Britannica entry states.
However, he is said to have "opposed the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the subsequent land war with China (1937), and the 1940 Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy," according to Wikipedia. Some news articles describe him as the "mastermind" behind Pearl Harbor, while also detailing his opposition to going to war with the United States. Yamamoto was killed by U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943.
The renaming committee's report on Fred Yamamoto to the board notes the shared surname with Isoroku Yamamoto and more than 60 other "notable Yamamoto's, including artists, athletes, scientists and politicians."
Meanwhile, other community members have galvanized around Fred Yamamoto, launching their own letter-writing campaign before last week's board meeting. One of those people, Brad Shirakawa, called the fears about the name confusion "unfounded" and voiced his support for Fred Yamamoto on Monday.
"Despite the fact ... that the U.S. government put him behind barbed wire because he looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor, he decided to fight for the U.S. government anyway ... so we could all have freedom and liberty," he said. "That's why we're all here today talking about it."
The Recommending School Names committee has expressed a strong preference for naming the schools after people, and in particular for Yamamoto. The other names proposed are Ellen Fletcher, Frank Greene Jr., William Hewlett, Edith Johnson, Fred Yamamoto and Anna Zschokke. The geographic alternatives are Adobe Creek for Terman and Redwood Grove for Jordan.
A majority on the school board -- three out of five members -- agreed last week that the schools should honor people rather than places. (Todd Collins and Ken Dauber preferred places.)
In an email to a parent on Sunday, board member Melissa Baten Caswell wrote that using a "guilt by association" argument in opposition to Fred Yamamoto "is exactly the action that was used to remove Fred Yamamoto and his family from their home in Palo Alto and place them in a prison camp in Wyoming."
Some parents have criticized one board member's role in the divisive debate. Emails that Collins sent to parents were posted without his knowledge on Chinese messaging application WeChat over the weekend. Collins, who opposes using individuals' names, wrote in one email that he was "disappointed" that the committee and perhaps other board members "seemed unaware" of the impact the Japanese surname could have on Chinese and East Asian families.
"While Mr. Fred Yamamoto of course was a second generation Japanese-American, and Yamamoto is a common Japanese name, it is hard to explain to a child why that particular name is honored when our schools have so many ethnic Chinese students and families," he wrote.
It was also "unfortunate," Collins wrote, that there were no Chinese or ethnic Asian members on the renaming committee.
After reading this message, parent Michelle Higgins wrote to the board and interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks asking them to publicly censure Collins at the next board meeting.
"I believe that Mr. Collins is conducting himself in a way that will stir up resentment within a segment of the Chinese community and create further division within and between communities," she wrote. "Suggesting that a name is unacceptable because of its national origin is not a position that I would expect any board member to endorse."
In an interview, Collins said that this was neither his intent nor position.
"This will bedevil us on any name," he said. "Whatever little upside there might be from inspirational names is in my mind wildly outweighed by the potential downsides and the divisiveness of the process."
In a message posted on Facebook on Monday evening, board Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza said that to insist to name schools after locations will mean the district is "forever left with a collection of secondary schools named almost exclusively after white men."
Out of seven secondary schools, five have been named after white men in district history: Terman, Jordan, Gunn High School, the now closed Cubberley High School and Wilbur Junior High School, which is now Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School.
"If we are serious about dismantling structures that are holding some of our students back, that," DiBrienza wrote, referring to using only place names, "cannot be an option for this board."
Renaming offers an opportunity to "pay tribute to inspiring contributors to Palo Alto (who may not have been considered equals in a school run by David Starr Jordan or Lewis Terman)" and "to center women and citizens of color who are often overlooked in our history books, our history classes, and our community conversations," she added.
People on both sides of the issue have said they feel saddened by the fissures in the community renaming has exposed.
LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County judge serving on the renaming committee, responded frankly to public comment on Monday night, calling on Palo Altans to face "the tensions that exist in this community" among different racial and ethnic groups.
"It's become palpable," she said. "I encourage those of you in this room and I encourage the Board of Education to do something affirmatively about having these conversations so we can confront what it is we're feeling."