by Deanne Stone, OLLI member

From the Japanese American Internment to 9/11

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. federal agents detained 2,000 people of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian heritage. For many in the Japanese American community, rounding up people based solely on their country of origin or ancestry was too reminiscent of the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Groups like the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), led by executive director John Tateishi, sprang into action, contacting members of Congress and offering help to Arab Americans on how to respond to the mounting hysteria in the country.

"It seemed like World War II all over again," says Tateishi. "We heard the same conversations targeting one group of people as potential terrorists without any charges brought against them. Our government failed the Constitutional test in 1942. We didn't want it to happen again."

Tateishi gained national prominence in 1978 when, as the National Redress Director of JACL, he launched a campaign to seek redress for Japanese Americans interned in U.S. detention camps during WWII. Although many believed the campaign was "a fool's errand," Tateishi was not deterred. He spent the next eight years lobbying in Washington, rarely getting to see his wife and kids while working on the campaign.

When Tateishi was three, he, his parents, and three brothers were sent to the Manzanar detention camp in the California desert where they stayed throughout the war. When they were released, Tateishi remembers his father saying to his sons, "Never forget this place. If you ever have the opportunity to make it right, you have to do it."

Tateishi's father was a Kibei, a Japanese American educated in Japan. "The Nisei (second generation) was most traumatized by the detention and felt the most shame, but my father, a Kibei, had had the experience of being part of a majority in a homogeneous Japanese society. He was outspoken and never felt like a second-class citizen. His insistence on fighting for justice rubbed off on me."

Tateishi was born in Los Angeles, where his family returned after the war. They had lost their home and considerable property, but not their sense of justice. While many Nisei preferred to put their detention experience behind them, Tateishi's father talked to his sons about the injustice of interning people based on race, with no evidence and no trials.

In 1988, the Japanese American community won a landmark victory when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which paid out $20,000 to each of the 80,000 survivors of Japanese descent detained during the war. "This wasn't just about money," says Tateishi, "but about righting a wrong, getting a formal apology, and educating Americans about a shameful time in American history." Tateishi chose not to attend the signing ceremony. "I didn't need the kudos. Knowing I had played an important role in making it happen was enough."

Tateishi is often asked, "How did you pull this off?" This fall, he will give an insider's view of the Redress Campaign in the OLLI @Berkeley course, From the Japanese American Internment to 9/11. "I want students to think about how fragile democracy is and how, in the wrong circumstances, it can easily go astray if we aren't vigilant in protecting it."