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Striking Parallels: WWII Internment and the War on Terrorism

General Assembly 2004 Event 2066

Sponsor: Asian/Pacific Islander Caucus (A/PIC) of Diverse & Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM)

Speaker: John Tateishi

This GA workshop marks the second time the group has brought in a prominent speaker of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage to speak on an issue of importance to the growing number of Asian/Pacific Islander Unitarian Universalists in our denomination at our General Assembly.

Manish Mishra, current president of A/PIC, introduced John Tateishi to the more than 100 attendees gathered in room 103 B of the Convention Center. Tateishi is a third generation Japanese American who has been active in civil rights issues for Asian American communities for more than 25 years. His grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1885 and both of his parents were born in Los Angeles. At the age of three, he and his family were interned at the Manzanar Camp for three years after Pearl Harbor. He now lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children and his 93-year-old mother who still power walks.

As the National Redress Director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Tateishi campaigned for and won a law suit that resulted in an apology in 1988 from President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress and monetary redress of $20,000 per victim of the Japanese Internment.

Tateishi is currently serving as National Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizen's League. He is the author of And Justice for All (an oral history of the WWII internment of Japanese Americans), and contributing author of Last Witnesses (a collection of essays by Japanese children of the WWII Internment Camps.) A Google search shows up more than 5,000 web pages referencing his essays, speeches, writing, and public appearances.

With a mixture of humor and sadness, Tateishi retold personal stories of life inside Manzanar Camp. He had come down with German Measles the day they were rounded up for internment and although his mother covered him with a blanket in an attempt to hide his condition from the guards, they were discovered and the feverish little boy was forcibly separated from his family and transported to Los Angeles General Hospital for a two-week period of quarantine in a military restricted area under armed guard because he was "a threat to the nation." One of his earliest memories of the Manzanar Camp was sitting on the floor with cracks and dropping bobby pins through the cracks. He remembers the fervent wish to return to the home he knew but it was impossible. He remembers his mother walking him around the camp, showing him where he was allowed and where he was not allowed to go. His mother showed him the barbed wires and the guard towers and told him not to go outside because it was a dangerous place out there. So for him, the fence was scary and "outside" was a dangerous place. The little boy could not help but observe that everyone inside the fence was Japanese and everyone outside the fence, including those who zoomed by in their cars on Highway 395, were white. He understood that "out there" was America, and America was a dangerous place.

As he grew older, he and the other boys began to venture a little closer to the fence and began playing with the guards. They even tried to set fire to the guard tower until someone got shot and they realized that this was serious business.

Another memory he had was of a burning car in a parking lot. His mother confirmed that it really did happen. When the evacuation order came, people were given anywhere from 24 hours to two weeks to sell their houses and all their properties and to report to some assigned locations. The scavenging non-Japanese would wait until the last minute to buy up properties and belongings at ridiculously low prices. When someone offered his father $5 for the family car, his father was so insulted that he drove it to an empty parking lot and set fire to it.

Adults who emerged from these internment camps (there were ten in total) did so with psychic wounds and spent another 40 years or more in their mental prisons. They felt guilt and shame and were stigmatized. Most of them didn't want to talk about their experiences, especially to their children so that many of the children born after that era never found out about that part of their parents' lives. In the Japanese culture, honor is the highest virtue. By having been incarcerated, they were dishonored and the experience was too painful to talk about.

On the other hand, the children who emerged would ask one another, "Which camp did you come from?" instead of the usual, "Where are you from?" when they met. Some camps were more "prestigious" than others in the children's eyes because there were more uprising and riots in some than others. It became a mark of pride for Tateishi to have come out of Manzanar Camp which was known to have had more trouble than other less-known camps.

Besides sharing personal reflections of life inside the camp, Tateishi also explored the what, the why, and the consequences of the Japanese Internment. The restitution process has been long and painfully slow but the most important thing was not the monetary compensation (which was symbolic and most of which was donated to charities) but was the signing of the Civil Liberty Act and a public apology by the U.S. President and Congress for violating the civil rights of a section of the American population based solely on their racial and ethnic identities. This was to ensure that the U.S. Government will never let history repeat itself but the sad truth is that this part of our history is being repeated with the current War on Terrorism and internment of Arabs and those of Middle-Eastern ancestries.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Tateishi was driving to Modesto for an early morning meeting and listening to Chopin's Nocturnes in his car. When he eventually tuned in to the radio, he caught the end of the announcement about the fall of the second twin tower. Their son was living in downtown New York at the time. He called his wife and turned around to drive home. When they found out more about what was going on, he convened a phone conference with his regional directors and drafted the first letter from a major private citizens' organization to the White House warning the government to not act hastily.

Rumor has it that there are anywhere between 500 to 20,000 Arabs and persons of Middle-Eastern ethnicities in detention after 9/11. The closer figure is around 2,250. The Japanese American Citizen's League (JACL) has been working tirelessly along with the ACLU to seek the release of these prisoners.

Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton; edited by Margy Levine Young.