17 May 2021

As we continue to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re highlighting a leader from our company’s history, Noboru Honda. His sales career spanned over 50 years, and he was a leader and a man of character in his personal and professional life. With archives from the LincolnVault, we are able to share his story as well as some of his personal “lessons in leadership” which resonate today.

Following the 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks, many Japanese Americans were unfairly viewed with suspicion.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 permitting a military necessity of the incarceration of all Japanese Americans from the three west coast states that 90 percent of the country’s 120,000 Japanese-descended population called home.

Newly-married Noboru Honda and his young wife, Matsue Pat, were incarcerated in the Tule Lake Segregation Center, the largest of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps, in Newell, California. There they lived in wooden barracks with communal eating and bathing facilities. Beds were the only furniture and potbelly stoves provided heat. Outside the barbed-wire compound, tanks and armed guards were on 24-hour patrol. There, Noboru emerged as a community leader. He joined citizen groups, headed up the camp’s Buddhist group and served on the Community Council as he sought to prepare himself for a successful life post-internment.

No Stranger to Adversity

Adversity had long been a theme in Noboru’s life. Born in Florin, California in 1911, he excelled in school, but his education was cut short when his mother died of tuberculosis at a young age. Noboru had just completed the eighth grade, but a man of his word even then, he kept the solemn promise he’d made to his mother as she lay on her death bed – to help his father take care of his six siblings. Noboru promptly dropped out of school and worked as a farm laborer to help put food on the table and clothes on the backs of his younger sister and five younger brothers.

In 1942, some internees were allowed to leave the WRA camps if they found employment away from the west coast. Chicago emerged as one of the first cities to accept Japanese Americans, leading Noboru to take a job at a rose farm in Des Plaines, Illinois. In his heart, however, he had another goal in mind – to become an insurance man. Making the rounds of the insurance companies, Honda discovered that some insurance companies were unwilling to hire Japanese Americans – but he didn’t give up.

In April 1945, Noboru began his insurance sales career with the Freeman J. Wood agency on the Northwest side of Chicago, selling policies to Japanese American families settling in the area. Throughout his 50+ year career, he received many honors as a field representative for Lincoln National, qualifying for Lincoln’s prestigious sales awards including the Emancipator Club, Circuit Rider Club, Spotlight Club, Governors List, Minute Men’s Club and National Quality Award numerous times. On several occasions, he spoke at Lincoln events, including Lincoln Life’s 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee Convention in June 1955.

The Importance of Character

Noboru often spoke on the theme of organizing for successful selling, during which he stressed the importance of character in addition to knowledge: “A thorough knowledge of the business and all around skill are, of course, vitally essential, but it is equally important for the salesman who is adequately equipped in technical skill and knowledge to have a good character and to be fundamentally sound as an individual,” he said. “Character and sound thinking are necessary to command respect and prestige, and these things I have found can oftentimes be the greatest weapons in competition.”

Click here to watch a video featuring an article Mr. Honda wrote for the Lincoln Emancipator Newsletter in 1955 on the topic of successful selling and self-development.  Special thanks to members of the Asian American BRG for bringing the article to life!

A Leader at Lincoln and Beyond

It wasn’t just in his sales career that Noboru commanded respect. Throughout his life, he remained a leader in the Japanese American community, serving as board chairman of the Chicago Buddhist Church and president of the Chicago chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a national organization whose mission is to secure and safeguard the civil and human rights of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans and all communities who are affected by injustice and bigotry. Noboru often reflected on his time in the internment camp, both in interviews and amongst the immigrant community.

His perspectives on those who may be unwilling to accept others who are different from themselves are as relevant today as they were then: “We look different and to many people, we are a mystery. There is a dislike for things you don’t know.” Decades later, Noboru’s words serve as a reminder to build relationships and trust along lines of difference, to learn from one another and to embrace our rich diversity.