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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-1000-469-18

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

<Begin Segment 18>

TI: So other than the members of Congress, when you take a step back and think about redress, it passed, it succeeded. What were the other key factors? There are so many, but if you were to choose maybe the top three, other than Mineta or the other congressmembers, what would those three things be?

JT: That contributed to its passage?

TI: Yeah.

JT: I think the most important was that the American public changed its views about us, about the experience.

TI: So the public opinion, public sentiment about this shifted.

JT: Yeah, my mantra to Clifford when he became the national president was convince the public and you'll convince the Congress. Without the public's support, you can't get a bill through.

TI: That's what Pelosi just said recently about... what was the issue? It was around, I think maybe it was this showdown with Trump, she says, "It's all about the public interest. If you go with that, you're always going to win."

JT: Yeah, she's absolutely right. And it doesn't take a genius to do the strategy of lobbying. I mean, I had no special skills, I was a teacher. And I went to Washington and started talking to members of Congress. The education part of it was really important because it had probably more impact than anything else on changing the minds of members of Congress. One thing I found, I was working with Yoshino, we were working the Midwest and I'd call Bill and I'd say, "You know, I'm talking to Porter's staff, and he's a hard knock on this." And this guy Porter had his constituency, was just on the outside of Chicago, he worked the media and then suddenly I realized there's a softening. There's not this hard-ass attitude, like no matter what you say to me, we don't care about the constitutional issue. It's right and wrong, and it was right at the time, we had no choice. It started changing as we worked the public. So I think the public education component was absolutely critical. And I can tell you, after 9/11, I was the national director of JACL. We mobilized the entire organization to try to protect the Arab and Muslim communities. I was working the White House and I was working the Congress. I know for a fact that when I did talk shows, invariably -- and I love the radio talk shows because they can't see me visually. They don't see an Oriental, they see who they want to see when I'm on television, on radio they don't know. So all I am to them is a voice in the abstract who's arguing these issues. But what I realize was, on those radio talk shows after 9/11, as much as people would say, as they did during redress, "Well, we don't know who among them is a terrorist, and the only way we can be safe..." all the old arguments that we used to get. Then someone would call in and say, "Wait a minute, we did this to Japanese Americans," and would say, "maybe this gentleman on the air doesn't realize what a mistake that was." And would say, "John, can you explain how that happened?" And so all the myths that were laid against us were being translated in a different way, talking about Arabs and Muslims. That, "Well, look at them, my god, they look like they're terrorists." And I would say, "Well, you know, what about Timothy McVeigh? I don't remember them rounding up a bunch of tall, white, blond guys. And what about all the terrorists in Idaho and Montana who just happen all to be white, and I don't see that attitude about them. And I would say, "Yeah, there are terrorists, there are thousands of terrorists in America." But you know what? The FBI knows where they all are, they're keeping track of all of them. What they're not worried about is a community like Dearborn. So to me, the education part of that whole effort we did...

TI: And that's education, the media, having spokespeople. Okay, that's one. Anything else that you thought was really critical?

JT: I thought one thing that happened that made a big difference was how we coalesced as a community. After we got that first stage out, got through the commission process, that changed everybody. I mean, that was the most important single factor in getting all this word out about making the public understand the nature of the injustice and the extent to which Japanese Americans were willing to sacrifice for the good of the country, that was very clear. That convinced a lot of people. And I'm talking about how this impacted things after, like after 9/11, the legacy that it left, it changed things. It was only after 9/11 that I thought about what Clifford said to me about Dan Inouye. That, "If you do this, you will change history." I never understood that. I mean, you know, the words, I thought, "Oh, that's nice, that's flattering," I felt really great about it. But as I was sitting there fighting this whole backlash, I was working like eighteen hour days. And I thought about that, and I thought, "Wow, what a difference this has made." I don't know if passing the bill was the thing that did it, or all this education that we put into it, something is making a difference. There are those voices that enter the fray and say, "Wait a minute, we did this in 1942 and it was proven wrong, that Japanese Americans were innocent, we're doing exactly the same thing now."

TI: Yeah, so when you think about that, when you look at the impact that happened, especially with public education, the shifting of public sentiment about what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, what's the impact today? Do you think that has taken hold or has remained or changed, gotten better or worse? What's your sense of where we are today?

JT: I think ultimately it will have an impact in the long view. But right now I don't think anyone can predict anything. I mean, you know, I used to write a column once, twice a month, thinking, "I wish they were a weekly." Right now, people who write, probably want to write every hour about the most recent incident. I mean, it's a kind of craziness, but it's really dangerous for us. Because not so much that Trump is... to me, he's totally insane. I mean, there's something really wrong about this man, but it's his followers who really worry me. I think what will have to happen is that in the longer view, it's going to be really rough for a while, but in the longer view, people will remember the lessons that we've learned. This is another lesson we're learning right now, and it may make a difference in the future, of never electing someone like this again, and may serve its purpose. I do think the lessons of the redress campaign will always be part of the story of our history by virtue of the fact that when you talk about the horrible moments in our past, you talk about Pearl Harbor, and you talk about 9/11, I mean, those are parallel. And what I saw changing was, as people talked about Pearl Harbor after we did redress, or in the process of it, there was always this story that was connected about, in this whole process, Japanese Americans lost their freedom and were put in prisons, and they were even using terms like "concentration camps" and telling that story as part of the story of the outbreak of the war. And so by the time 9/11 occurred, that was already embedded in the minds of the media, and the media are really important. One of the lessons I learned was you'd better convince the media, because they control so much of the thinking. So right now, if you look at contemporary society with our daily traumas, I worry about that group of people between the two coasts who believe everything Trump says. I mean, part of it is I'm kind of stunned by their stupidity, the fact that they don't understand what he's doing, and they're so vulnerable to twisting facts around to suit themselves. There's got to be a point where we have to get away from that, and they need to heal. But I think as a country we need to... I think there's a lesson here that will be told for centuries, that this is a madman and this is what happens. You can destroy a country. And one of the great things about this country is that there is so much freedom. You know, we're not a true democracy by any stretch of the imagination, but we have a lot of freedom in this country, and that's the risk you take, is you get someone like a Donald Trump, or you get people like in Charlottesville, or those terrorists, white supremacist groups, but you just live with it and you learn how to deal with it.

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.