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

April 13, 2022

The following is the THIRD & FINAL in a series of articles that features excerpts from John Tateishi’s speech delivered at the Arizona JACL Hall or our 75th Anniversary Day of Remembrance event, Journey for Justice. 

If you transpose that (the Japanese American incarceration experience) to post-9/11, what we were doing as an organization was really important. We were trying to calm the community down, throughout the country. A lot of our chapters were working with the media, were working with local law enforcement, with politicians, to try to make them understand: you cannot replicate what happened in 1942, because the consequences were so serious. My comment as I went to Washington to talk to members of Congress (and I only talked to the ones who advocated roundup and imprisonment). My comment to them was, ‘Well, you better have evidence, because if you don’t, you’re going to be in serious trouble, and the history books will note that. Because one thing is with Japanese Americans there were 120,000 of us. There are over seven million Muslim and Arabs in the United States. We asked for $20,000. We demanded $20,000. 

You can imagine the bill when they start coming back to you for reparations, and I guarantee the JACL will be a lead organization in that kind of a campaign, because we’ve been there; we know how to do this. And I would tell them, ‘There isn’t enough money in the United States Treasury to pay that kind of reparations, which you will have to do unless you can find specific evidence of wrongdoing by groups of Arabs or Muslims, or by single individuals. You can’t do this because they happen to look like them, or they happen to dress like them, or you don’t like their religion. That has nothing to do with anything.’ And so, we worked with the Congress, really heavily. Our presence was very noted in Congress. But the key to all of it, I think, I’ve always been convinced is: on the president’s cabinet, on President Bush’s cabinet, was one Japanese American, and you all know him. Norman Mineta. Norm would tell me the story about, he could just see it in their eyes. ‘Those bastards wanted to round up everybody. And I’m sitting in there looking at them, and my look is: I dare you. I just dare you to mention this.’ And of course, Norm was an instrumental, major, major part of the redress campaign, on the bill that got through the Congress. But that campaign was a campaign of the community. The JACL was the legal organization, and we were the ones who developed the strategy, to the displeasure of the community, and half of the organization (which hesitated? Cough cover) to pursue a commission strategy because it was the way we would publicize what happened to us. It would be an instrument that would serve several functions, the two most important of which was that it would establish a public record by the government that this was done and it was wrong. It would also create a body of recommendations to remedy the conclusions, to support the conclusions. In addition to that, as Daniel Inouye told me when we were trying to make that decision, that we would get more publicity with a commission if we did this right, than the JACL could possibly afford to pay for. And he was right on every count about the commission. It did establish the record, it did create the recommendations, and the publicity was nationwide, it was worldwide. I was getting reports from places like France, and Germany, England that there was a story about these hearings, about the internment. Did you know anything about it? And curiously enough, as an aside, I never got anything from Japan. And we had a chapter there. 

John Tateishi and Norman Mineta at the 2019 National JACL Convention in Salt Lake City. 

(Photo: George Toshio Johnston)

But this created so much interest that 20 years later, there was no way the Congress or the American public could just forget about it, and ignore it. It wasn’t possible. And the threat always is, if you do the wrong thing, we will come back with the group that’s targeted, and make it right. And you don’t want that, because it’s going to cost too much money. 

People ask me, ‘Well, what about Black reparations?’ That’s a whole different issue. And it’s much too complex to get into here. But it’s really important to remember what happened to us was an important lesson, and it’s got to be an important lesson, always to the future. I’ve never felt that the redress campaign was only for us. I felt a real personal obligation to the Nisei, because I grew up watching how much they suffered from the discrimination they experienced, how much they suffered to try to make a life for us, the Sansei, and to give us the opportunities that they didn’t have. They went through a lot for that. And their thanks from this country was to have that label forever, as traitor to the United States. And so for me, getting involved with redress had a lot to do with the Nisei. I wanted to help find help find for them, vindication for who and what they were, and everything they did. And for people to understand that Japanese Americans were not, in fact, disloyal; that we’ve been loyal; we’ve been more loyal than any other group in this country. And the other more altruistic overriding purpose of the redress happening, for me again personally, always was the future: to prevent this from happening again.

I can’t resist the temptation to talk about what’s happening now, and why even more so, we need to be reminded of how important it is that we hold this episode in history as evidence of what we should not do as a nation now. Now, of course, I’m talking about Trump (laughter from audience). I believe…I was just doing an interview the other day with a reporter, and I said that I believe we’re in a more dangerous time now than we’ve ever been. Because now we don’t know what’s fact from fiction. And the problem is, the president is the one creating the fiction, and turning it into fact. Just by saying it, it suddenly becomes fact. And we’re in a very dangerous period right now because I know from talking with people in Washington, there’s no way to control anything. 

I mean, everything is so arbitrary, everyone is playing catch up. And I’m talking about Republicans as well as Democrats who sit in the House and the Senate. Everyone is trying to figure out what the next crisis is going to be. It’s daily. And I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t watch television news any more. Because I’m just — well one thing I hate listening to the guy. But it’s – to me, there’s no way to resolve what’s going on in that public position he takes. I read the newspapers, and I read online, to try to get some analysis of what seems to be happening. But in light of everything going on today, it’s really even more important that we hold this kind of event, and remind ourselves how important our experience is for serving as a lesson to the public; to the American public.

Because I, you know, I have to admit, until the election I used to say, ‘The American public in general is a very smart public.’ I don’t know if I believe that any more. But I think it’s really important to continue educating them. And hopefully, we could prevent the kinds of things that seem to be happening from becoming, from reaching a danger point. People say to me, well, what should we be doing? And mainly young people. But I don’t have any answers for them, except to point out that if everyone believes we’re going to make a difference, and make that difference, how would we do it? 

And I, you know, I will say that every Japanese American that got involved in redress – even those who opposed it initially but later came out and said, ‘This is important for us. We need to speak; we need to bare our souls,’ played a major and important role in a campaign that nobody ever thought would succeed. It was labeled, ‘The Campaign Doomed to Failure.’ I knew that. But I thought, well, we may not succeed in getting to that final step, but if we succeed in educating the American public, that to me was a major part of what we set out to do, and an important part. And it has served a purpose. And even today, you will see in the cluster of all these different things being said, every now and then you’ll see something about the internment in World War II — Japanese Americans during WWII as a balance to other things being said. So, thank you for inviting me to be here, and I love coming to Phoenix. I can tell you it’s my favorite to go when I’m talking to JACL audiences. So thank you, very much.

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