Before the slur

Library dean had history of tension with Japanese-American community

Patricia Larsen

Patricia Larsen

Courtesy Of California State University, Sacramento

Could one word destroy a career?

In the case of Patricia Larsen—the dean of the library at California State University, Sacramento, who was forced to resign last month after using the word “Japtown” in a speech—her career derailment may have been about more than just that one utterance.

Larsen used the word during a Feb. 8 speech at the Golden State Museum opening for the new “Time of Remembrance” exhibit, which honors Japanese-Americans who were forced to reside in internment camps during World War II.

Larsen uttered the “slur” in reference to the Placer County community of Penryn, which turned into a virtual ghost town after its predominantly Japanese-American population was interned during the war. While it appears Larsen was trying to use the word in its historical context, many in the audience took it as an inappropriate racial slur.

In the same week that Larsen’s resignation was announced, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante publicly apologized for using what many heard as the word “nigger” during a speech honoring African-Americans during Black History Month.

The furor over Bustamante’s comment died down after a few days with no calls for his resignation or lasting repercussions, whereas CSUS President Donald Gerth asked for and received Larsen’s resignation for her $121,476 per year job. Why the disparity?

Larsen’s relationship and history with the Japanese-American community may offer some explanation. In the past two years, Gerth and other university officials have received many documented complaints about Larsen’s management and behavior toward noteworthy members of the Japanese-American community.

In a letter written to CSUS Vice President Elizabeth Moulds, the president of the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) Sacramento chapter, Richard Ikeda, charged that Larsen had treated him in a demeaning and insulting manner during an advisory board meeting.

The letter details how Ikeda was appalled with the way Larsen was being disrespectful to the group by reconstructing the school’s Japanese American collection and dismissing any suggestions made by the advisory board.

“To come before a Japanese American group, citizens from all walks of middle class life, and to lay out what is going to be done by fiat to a collection that is there through our generosity and hard volunteer work is beyond belief,” Ikeda stated.

Larsen has refused to comment on her history of problems with the Japanese-American community and offered only a few comments about the “Japtown” comment: “My speech was very brief, but by saying that term, it never occurred to me that I would offend anyone. I am truly saddened by all this.”

Another letter criticizing Larsen and the handling of the Japanese American Archival Collection (JAAC), this time written to Gerth, came from Andy Noguchi, the president of JACL Florin chapter.

“Over recent years, people have related instances where the sensitivity and support of the JAAC have been questioned. Community volunteers have received rude treatment. Facilities for preparing exhibit materials were not made available. Remarks were made to community members that too much time was being spent on the JAAC,” Noguchi stated.

Noguchi did not make it clear in his letter if it was Larsen herself who was rude to the community volunteers, but he did express that Larsen’s staff did not provide support for community outreach JAAC exhibits.

The JAAC began in 1994 when retired schoolteacher Mary Tsukamoto donated her materials to the CSUS Archives. In 1983, Tsukamoto began to educate the public on the history of Japanese-Americans and their involvement with the internment camps. Thus began the “Time of Remembrance” exhibit that is presented every year in February and March in honor of Tsukamoto.

Tsukamoto was also the one who spearheaded the materials and information at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and has had an elementary school named after her in Elk Grove. She spent many years in the Elk Grove district before she died in 1998. Ever since Tsukamoto’s death, many people in the Japanese-American community realized that Tsukamoto left behind an invaluable collection that needed to be preserved and expanded.

One of the more prominent volunteers at the CSUS Archives and Special Collections, Reiko Nagumo, has seen first-hand the difference Larsen has made on the JAAC since she came on board.

According to Nagumo, the main negative impact Larsen has had on the JAAC is the demotion of the former head of Special Collections and University Archives, Georgiana White. Larsen made the demotion despite votes of support for White by library faculty and staff.

“Georgiana was the only one who was trained by Mary (Tsukamoto). With previous deans, Georgiana had no problems getting release time to go out and do more outreach programs to educate people about the Japanese-Americans, but she’s had a lot of problems with this one,” Nagumo said.

Nagumo, who also serves on the JAAC advisory board, recently talked to Congressman Robert Matsui about the word Larsen had used in her speech and the issue of academic freedom.

“We know that many people are talking about the academic freedom and freedom of expression, and that’s fine, but the issue is in the word itself and how it was used by someone in that position,” Nagumo said.

Larsen’s most vocal critics contend that it was her use of the slur, not their history of frustration with Larsen, that provoked such an outcry over the speech. But they are also pleased that someone else will now be in charge of the JAAC.

Noguchi and Ikeda have both thanked Gerth and Larsen for their timely apologies and her subsequent resignation. They also feel that these are appropriate steps to repair major damage to the university’s reputation as a supporter of diversity and racial sensitivity.

“Larsen did the right thing in resigning,” Ikeda said. “Now we can move on.”