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Complex is a useful word to describe Richard Aoki, and it was the way he described his life. Aoki was the firstborn of Shozo and Toshiko Aoki. As a small child, he was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans whose lives were disrupted by WWII. His father worked as a civics teacher at their concentration camp and had been a student at UC Berkeley. Though Aoki was only three years old when interned at the camp, his experiences in that harsh environment, along with witnessing his parents' separation, would teach him about the unfairness of the US government. "I know one of the main arguments for putting the Japanese into the camps was to protect the Japanese," Aoki later told his biographer Fujino. "But if you look at the top of barbed wire fences, they're designed to keep the people in. In other words, it's a damn lie that we were put in the camps to protect us."
After leaving the camp, Aoki was raised by his single father, which was uncommon among Japanese Americans at the time. Separated from his mother — the reasons are still unclear as to why — he lived with his father's family and younger brother in West Oakland, where his paternal grandparents ran a noodle factory. Aoki felt the tension of living in a "broken home," a stigma among his Japanese-American extended family and in the Japanese-American community because of conventional mores around family and single parenthood. Another curious fact is that in the ten years he lived with his father's family, he only saw his mother about eight times, even though she lived a few miles away in Berkeley, Fujino told me. Aoki's father also was steeped in debt and became a thief, setting Richard Aoki further apart from other Japanese Americans who tended to be more law-abiding.
In many ways, Aoki was more comfortable with the predominantly African-American community that had congregated in West Oakland during WWII. As a youngster, he ran with a street gang largely composed of African Americans. His first girlfriend was an African-American neighbor, and he later said that he knew members of Seale and Newton's families in West Oakland while growing up there. At the time, Aoki was a juvenile delinquent who often got into fistfights.
At the age of fourteen, Aoki saw his family disrupted again when his parents officially divorced and he was reunited with his mother. (Around this same time, his father left town and completely disappeared from Aoki and his brother's life.) After high school, Aoki joined the Army. He could have enrolled in UC Berkeley right away, but instead, he sought structure, training, and adventure in the US military (according to Rosenfeld's reporting, joining the military also allowed Aoki to clear his juvenile record). It was the 1950s, smack in the middle of the Cold War, and he had ambitions to become the first Japanese-American general in the US Army, he said later in interviews.
In the military, Aoki was staunchly anti-Communist, and it was around this time that the FBI was first interested in recruiting him. FBI agent Burney Threadgill Jr., now deceased, came into Aoki's life through the family of Aoki's Berkeley High classmate, Doug Wachter, according to Rosenfeld's reporting. Wachter's parents were prominent Communist Party members, and the FBI had tapped their phone. Under J. Edgar Hoover's watch, the FBI's covert activities had spread throughout the country to liberal cities like Berkeley. Aoki, the nineteen-year-old enlistee, was recruited by Threadgill, who would be his handler for seven years, according to Rosenfeld's reporting.
Threadgill told Rosenfeld that the FBI singled Aoki out after overhearing a recorded conversation between him and his friend Wachter. The fact that Aoki was associated with someone involved in the Communist Party likely piqued the FBI's interest. In the early Sixties, Aoki, though anti-Communist, joined organizations such as the Young Socialist Alliance and Socialist Workers Party. Threadgill told Rosenfeld that it was at the behest of the FBI that Aoki joined these groups, though this has not been corroborated. FBI documents later released stated that Aoki began officially as an informant in 1961.
Threadgill talked to Rosenfeld in 2002 when Rosenfeld was doing research for his book. By naming a confidential informant, Threadgill violated FBI protocol: Aoki was still alive at the time. Threadgill knew he was talking to a journalist who was writing a book.
Politically, Aoki was still conservative in the early Sixties. He later explained why he voted for Richard Nixon, a Republican, in 1960. Nixon was a Quaker, and Quakers were one of the only groups that spoke up publicly against the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. And it was a Democrat, President Franklin Roosevelt, who signed Executive Order 9066, which put Japanese Americans in the camps. As to being anti-Communist — that wasn't particularly unusual during the Cold War — Aoki had another reason. The Communist Party had also endorsed 9066 during WWII and even kicked out some Japanese-American members — a fact Aoki made a point of bringing up in interviews later in life.
(Members of the Socialist Workers Party, however, has come to Aoki's defense, stating that they give no credibility to FBI sources. "These charges are not solely about destroying the reputation of Richard Aoki," Willie Cotton of the SWP in San Francisco stated in a letter following Rosenfeld's initial story. "They are directed against the working-class movement today. ... The 'snitch-jacket' against Aoki is meant to put a chill on groups—those active today and in the future—who seek to politically organize workers, youth, farmers, and others interested in building a mass work-class movement.")
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