A Case of Mistaken Identity Politics in the Heart of Silicon Valley

Yamamoto was born Oct. 19, 1918. In his centenary year, his memory was at the center of a bizarre, bitterly contested local dispute that exposed deep fissures within the region’s growing and highly educated Asian-American population.

The story begins in 2015, when Kobi Jonsson, a student at Palo Alto’s David Starr Jordan Middle School, wrote a report about the school namesake, an advocate of eugenics. Jordan, founding president of Stanford University, was a progressive reformer who thought society could be improved through sterilization and selective breeding. Kobi’s parents alerted the school board, and the idea of dropping Jordan’s name quickly gained traction.

Fred Yamamoto as a member of the 442 RCT.
Fred Yamamoto as a member of the 442 RCT.

Fred Yamamoto as a member of the 442 RCT. Photo: Courtesy Pam Hashimoto

The board voted unanimously last year to rename the school, as well as Terman Middle School, one of whose namesakes, Lewis Terman, was a Stanford psychologist who also had ties to the eugenics movement. (The other was his son, Frederick, who is sometimes called “the father of Silicon Valley” and has no ideological taint.) The board formed a committee to recommend new names. The panel produced six possible names and strongly recommended one of the schools be renamed for Yamamoto.

That provoked an unexpected fury from the Chinese immigrant community—“like a tsunami,” says LaDoris Cordell, a former judge and City Council member who served on the committee. Their objection: The name reminded them of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet from 1939 until his death in 1943, who was not related to Fred Yamamoto.

Chinese immigrant parents organized on the social-networking app WeChat and showed up in force at meetings to declaim against the “war criminal” Yamamoto. Many cited the Nanjing massacre of 1937 in emotional testimony. “There exist certain hurt [feelings] when the last name ‘Yamamoto’ is mentioned, especially for Asian immigrants whose families were tragically affected in China, Korea and Southeast…

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