“Journey for Justice” Revisited for the 80th Anniversary of EO 9066

March 13, 2022

In 2017, JACL pioneer John Tateishi visited Arizona to join our community for our 75th Anniversary Day of  Remembrance event, Journey for Justice. The following is the SECOND in a series of articles that features excerpts from John’s speech, shared to preserve his words for posterity, and as an opportunity for our community  to reflect on the timeless importance of preserving the lessons of February 19, 1942, and Executive Order 9066.  

I have said over and over till it’s just buried in my head: redress was not  about the money. It was about the future, always. It was about the vindication of Japanese Americans from the label that we carried for 40 years as traitors and disloyal to the United States. And you have the Nisei finally at peace with who we were as American citizens, because they’re the ones who sacrificed so much to try to prove that to the country. But it was also, and more importantly, about the future, that should we ever face a crisis like Pearl Harbor again, that there would be a lesson from what we were trying to teach about the internment. And as often as I said that, and as much as I believed it, I never imagined that there would be an event in this country where that would be tested. But it was, on 9/11. We all remember 9/11. Just as the Second World War generation will remember Pearl Harbor. 

It’s that iconic moment in our history that you cannot forget: those towers crumbling, seeing people falling  from the building, the horror of what that was all about. When I saw that happen, my immediate reaction was,  as soon as the news media, and it was Peter Jennings on ABC News where I first heard: ‘The FBI suspects  that this was a terrorist act by Middle Easterners,’ I suddenly thought about that group of Afghanistanis in the  South Bay of the Bay area, down in a town called Freemont; I thought about the Arab community in the town  of Dearborn in Michigan; and I realized that we were going to be in serious trouble in this country, and it would  be a trouble of our own making. And I was actually headed out of town when that happened, and when I turned  around, I was talking to my wife, who was watching the news on television, and she said, ‘Oh, my God, there’s  a second plane up there.’ That’s when I realized it was an attack and not an error, not a mistake. And my immediate reaction was ‘Something horrible is going to happen in this country.’ Just like Pearl Harbor. After Pearl  Harbor there was no reaction. The nation was stunned. In the same way, this country fear gripped everybody. I  felt it.

Every day when I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, to get to the JACL office, I would see these soldiers patrolling the bridge, thinking, you know, it would take one car bomb to send all of us into the ocean. That’s all it would take. And, but I realized, unless we did something, we would not be able to prevent this from happening. Because we’re the only community in America who understands the sequence of events that were going to take place, and the threat being presented to this country by the presence of people who look like the terrorists. That’s all it takes in America, is you look like the people you fear, and you become part of that fear. So what I did was, I got together with the directors around the country on a conference call, said, ‘I’m sending a letter to the President, the attorney general (a guy named John Ashcroft at the time), who was the precursor of Sessions, someone who was anti-civil  rights, and to the leadership of the House and the Senate, urging them not to fall victim to the kind of panic and  hysteria that occurred after Pearl Harbor, which resulted in what happened to us. 

I’m convinced that the difference between 9/11 and the reaction to that, and what happened to us, was the fact  that Japanese Americans had the courage to launch a campaign to bring out this whole issue of our imprisonment in concentration camps and to educate the public about it, because every news report I saw on Sept. 12  and subsequent to that mentioned: in 1942, Japanese Americans had been rounded up. The parallel and the  comparisons were already starting to be made. And that only happened because we ran the redress campaign. It  happened because we got the idea: 9066 was really important to us and we had to remember as a date. Because  it’s the trigger for everything that happened. So, 9/11 would become the trigger date for everything that’s happened since then, in terms of the treatment of Arab and Muslim communities here. So, I sent the letters out that  day, on the 11th, and the next morning, on the 12th, I called the regional offices and said, ‘You need to brace,  because I’m sending press releases out to all major media outlets to talk about the same thing, and I’m quoting  those letters, which I did. And I did send a press release out.  

Within 30 minutes I started getting calls. And all of our offices started getting calls. And the first call I got was  from an AP reporter who was on the West Coast, talked about the press release, talked about the letters, talked  about where the JACL stood on this whole issue. And I said that if this administration even starts to imagine  taking action the way they did in 1942, the JACL will be one of the lead organizations trying to prevent it. The  big difference also between 1942 and 9/11 was social media. Media information was instant, I mean, it was  instantaneous. Things can’t happen in this country any more with most of the population not knowing about it.  If we had social media in 1942, they might have been able to prevent what happened to us. I kind of doubt it,  because nobody really cared about us. But by the time we got to the new millennium, the American public was  really educated about the internment.  

We still need to continue that education. There are still people you’ll talk to here in Phoenix who will be incredulous at the idea that we put Americans into prisons for no reason. But still, the majority of this country under stands this took place. Because it’s now in the history books, it’s being taught; it’s an issue that’s discussed over  and over at different times. So the difference is that after 9/11 they knew about the internment and they under stood the basic premises of the internment, that the entire segment of the population innocent of any crimes or  any threats to the government or to the safety of the public, were removed and put into prison, into concentration camps. Barbed wire, guard towers, military guards and the whole thing. They understood this.  

They also understood that nobody, ever, among us was accused of disloyalty; there was no evidence. It was a blanket racist accusation that Japanese Americans could not be trusted. But it wasn’t something that someone could hold up a piece of paper and say, “Here is the evidence.” Over a million documents were reviewed by a federal commission – you know the commission  

I’m talking about. There was not a single piece of document that said: ‘This justifies the internment because this happened. A Japanese American was found guilty of doing something.’ It neverhappened, because it was never done. And yet, we all ended up three years in concentration camps just because of who we looked like.  







President George W. Bush with Senator  Norman Mineta, Secreatary of Transportation  and voice of reason in the Bush cabinet on  9/11.


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