Densho Digital Repository
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: John Tateishi Interview
Narrator: John Tateishi
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Emeryville, California
Date: March 12, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-469-1

[Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]

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TI: So today is March 12, 2019, we're in Emeryville, California, at the Hyatt House. We're interviewing John Tateishi, on camera is Dana Hoshide, and then I'm the interviewer, Tom Ikeda. And this is actually a follow-up interview, John, that we did ten and a half years ago in Denver, and we had a fifty-minute interview where I really focused redress. So this interview is going to be a little different, we're going to start with your life history and the family history. When we actually get to the period where you start the JACL, we're actually going to take a jump, because I'm not going to re-cover the stories that we already did, and push ahead.

JT: Yeah, that's fine.

TI: So it might seem kind of weird to say, oh, he didn't talk about this or this. I just wanted to explain that. So let's jump in, because I didn't even ask this question in the first interview. Tell me when and where you were born.

JT: I'm an old guy. I was born in Los Angeles in 1939, in August of '39. So then the war broke out, I was about two and a half years old. And we lived in L.A., my parents had a farm and a store, produce store, and it was in Lawndale. And they decided they wanted to move to West Los Angeles, and they liked the community better, etcetera. So we moved to West L.A., which is where I grew up until the war broke out.

TI: And so help me, so what high school would that be?

JT: The high school in that area was University High. We went to an elementary school called Nora Sterry, named after this woman. And it was a very mixed kind of high school, a lot of Japanese kids, a lot of Mexican kids, working class whites. And then we went from there to what was called, in those days, junior high school, and that was a really interesting experience because that's where we separated. We were no longer part of a larger group, the segregation started once we got to junior high school because then we were going to school with kids who came from Bel Air, Brentwood... well, Brentwood had their own junior high. But Westwood and Bel Air, the rich kids.

TI: And so was it just geography? Because it was like you went to one school, but because of the boundaries of your junior high school, you shifted.

JT: Right. And the L.A. School District, which is enormous, I mean, bigger than almost any other school district in the country, if not the biggest, had very defined perimeters around areas. So if you lived in a certain area, you went to the schools that took those kids in those areas. Once we finished elementary school, we went across, literally across the railroad tracks into Westwood, and there we encountered a whole different kind of student body.

TI: And how was that for you? Because I've had similar situations, not necessarily that young, but I remember going from a very multiracial high school to the university, and that was the shift for me. But what was it for at that young age, going from a very multiracial school to something that was predominately white?

JT: What was interesting is that we came back from the war, I was six years old, very aware by that point in my life why we were in those camps. So I could sort of bridge between the younger Sansei part of my generation and those of us who are older, experienced World War II. So when we talk about the Nisei, I feel like I have this intuitive sense of the things that really affected them, the war years and after, and now we talk a lot about the silence, the pain, the wounds, as kids we didn't have that because kids are really protected. In camp, quite honestly, we had total freedom. If there were pedophiles, they didn't dare do anything with all us children around because within the borders of that camp, you screw up like that, you're dead. So it was very safe for us, we could roam the camps, but there was always the sense to me that we're here because we're Japanese, and all these white people would come in, like the teachers or the administrators, they leave at the end of the day, but we're stuck here, we can't leave. And it developed in me a sense of outside of that fence, America was there. In fact, I said to one of my brothers once, "I want go to America, I want to see what it's like." His response was, "Oh, you're stupid." But I had this sense of separation from what America's supposed to be, because I had already started school, kindergarten, nursery school, kindergarten in camp, and the teacher would talk about America as this sort of abstract place. And so when the war ended and we went back to Los Angeles, I had this idea that America was going to be a good place, and it turned out to be anything but. Because for us, as kids, going back to school, we encountered the mainstream population. In West Los Angeles -- I've always felt -- the saving grace for us was that there was a mixed population of Mexican and Japanese. We were there, and most of the cities were agricultural. I remember in West L.A., just about maybe a half a mile down the street, there was a family farm. This was not uncommon in L.A. in those days, pockets of family farms all over the place. So we were there earlier in West L.A., the Japanese population, and then Mexicans came to work the farms. So there was always this very comfortable relationship where the Mexican community, coming back from the war, they were the ones who welcomed us and said, "Come live among us again." And so we were there, but our neighborhood was working-class whites, and these were tough kids.

TI: Okay, so maybe it was that population that made it harder for you. Because as you were describing it, it was almost idyllic, like maybe that was a better America where you had Mexicans welcome you, welcome back, and the Japanese and multiracial, and then the junior high school was a different one, but you're now talking about the working whites.

JT: Yeah. And I used to get into fights, I mean, we all did. At one point or another... I guess I've always been sort of rebellious because I got really tired of getting picked on. I've always been a small guy, and so I was a target for some of these guys, typical of Japanese kids in those days, we all did judo. And not that I ever felt judo would ever help me, but I learned really early how to fight. I used to get my butt kicked, because these hakujin kids were so much bigger. And then I learned that it had to do with speed, it had to do with not being scared, or being able to face the fear. And I always thought one of the most important things for me was coming home with a bloody nose or a bruise and my father saying to me, "It's too bad," "Gaman," and all of the things that you say to a kid, but he would always say, "Just remember, you're Japanese. That means you're better than they are." And so I grew up with the sense that being Japanese was my advantage, that it made me better than the people who were trying to pick on me. So then I would go after them, and if some kid was picking on a Japanese girl, especially, I'd go over to the guy and just challenge him to a fight. And sometimes I'd run like hell and get out of there, but I learned that that was how you survived when there's that kind of hostility around it. With the kids, you could deal with that, but with the adults, it was difficult.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.