Posted on March 25, 2020

The Unlikely Story Behind Japanese Americans’ Campaign For Reparations

Isabella Rosario, NPR, March 24, 2020

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 marked the United States’ official entrance into World War II. It also pushed the U.S. government’s legacy of anti-Asian sentiment to its most extreme.

Just two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that authorized incarcerating people of Japanese descent, based on the widespread suspicion that they were acting as espionage agents. {snip}

John Tateishi, now 81, was incarcerated at the Manzanar internment camp in California from ages 3 to 6. After the war ended, Tateishi and his family returned to Los Angeles, where Tateishi says they tried their best to assimilate. Decades later in 1975, he and his wife Carol became founding members of the local Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL). As the civil rights organization’s National Redress Director, Tateishi helped lead the eventually successful fight for reparations.

But that fight came with significant resistance—not just from the American public at large, but from the Japanese American community itself, as Tateishi writes in his new book, Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations.


I spoke with Tateishi about the redress campaign’s challenges, educating the public about internment and the implications for other reparations efforts.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


As a leader of the redress campaign, you spoke on radio programs about Japanese American internment. How did audiences react to learning about what happened in the camps?

There was a huge hostility against us because people assumed that we were guilty of something—that we betrayed the United States, the country of our birth. People would say, “Oh, you’re lying. Those camps never existed.” Or they would say, “The government did what they did because they had good reason to do it.” Because obviously in America, we don’t put people in prisons unless they’re guilty. Well, we’ve discovered that’s not necessarily true.

It was all based on racism and had nothing to do with fact. And the one thing no one ever could present to me—either officially or people calling into talk shows—was any piece of evidence that would justify what happened to us. The reason they couldn’t do that was there was no evidence [that Japanese Americans were guilty of treason].

The day after 9/11, the JACL published a letter warning the U.S. not to racially profile Arab and Muslim Americans. Specifically, you urged Americans “not to make the same mistakes as a nation that were made in the hysteria of WWII following the attack at Pearl Harbor.” Why did the JACL anticipate this reaction?

For Japanese Americans, there are certain parallels that were apparent between [the attacks on Pearl Harbor] and 9/11. We were being attacked on our own soil for the second time. There was an enemy who could be identified, and individuals living in this country resembled the terrorists. In our case, the attack was by Japan and we were an ethnic group who resembled the attackers.

I would hear people say things [about Arab and Muslim Americans] that were similar to what I was heard about us. “There is no way we can identify those who are potential terrorists”; “You’ve seen what terrorists can do, and here are these people who are walking around free. How do we know they’re not going to bomb us?”

From our experience, we knew that fear overcomes reason very easily. I don’t think there was an American on 9/11 who didn’t feel a sense of fear, including those who are Arab and Muslim. But they had to fear something else that other people didn’t have to, and that was the wrath of the American public.

What are your thoughts on reparations for slavery?

I don’t have any answers. Our situation was very different—we didn’t come out of the same historical experience. I can’t think of any group that has suffered racism to the degree that black Americans have.

I know that this kind of thing is never just about money, because money often doesn’t resolve the problem. It goes much deeper than that. It’s the whole issue of racism in America. Until there are efforts made to try to resolve the root causes and to get at the racism, it’s going to be a tough battle to move forward. I have no idea how you resolve something so profound, but we have to try. It can’t just stagnate there and fester like a wound.

You write that the redress campaign was about “giving real meaning” to U.S. democratic ideals and beliefs. How do you reconcile America’s continual sins with its purported values?

We have some great values as Americans. But unless the entire country is willing to stand up for what those values are, they’re just words and ideas which can be perverted so easily. As someone who is a minority, and as someone who’s fought for upholding the idea of America, I see it as such a fragile process. In a democracy, one has to be vigilant. We have a long way to go in making this the country we like to think we are.