Japanese-Americans in front of poster of internment orders.

In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were taken to internment camps scattered throughout the western United States.

John Tateishi was three years old when he was brought to Manzanar with his parents.  In 1984, his book And Justice For All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps was published, and he joined Studs to talk about it.

“Set the scene.  Pearl Harbor happened.  December 7, 1941.  What happened to 120,00 or so Japanese-Americans on the west coast?”  John Tateishi answers Studs’ question with an explanation reaching back to the prejudices Asian immigrants faced in the nineteenth century.


Studs and John Tateishi continue by talking about Wilson Makabe’s story.  Makabe was one of the many young Japanese men who enlisted in the American armed forces, once they were allowed to.   He served in Italy, and suffered an injury that resulted in him losing both legs.  Makabe, along with many other Japanese-Americans, served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.   Upon his return to the States, Makabe found out that his home had been burned down while he was in Europe.


They go on to talk about the silence that engulfed the Japanese-American communities who had been sent to the camps, and what it means that no one spoke about the experience for decades.  Tateishi then shares his own memories of arriving at the camp (although he was sent to a hospital and kept under armed guard first – as a three year old).

I can remember the day I got there and my mother taking me over to this barbed-wire fence, this fence, and she said, “You must never go outside this fence.   Don’t come close to the fence.”  She never said it’s dangerous, you’ll get shot, you’ll get killed.  But you know children can sense the tone, the anxiety in the voice, and I remember as she was telling me that, looking up at this guard tower, seeing this soldier with a rifle, and that memory has never left me.


As they continue to reflect, John Tateishi comments, “One thing that struck me was that the Nisei never really believed it would happen to them… As American citizens, they felt their rights were protected.”  Studs considers his own feelings about Japanese-American internment at the time, “I didn’t give it much thought, didn’t know too much about it.  At the same time, in no sense does that condone or explain it.”  Then, Studs plays an excerpt of an interview with a friend of his who enforced the curfew in Japanese-American communities near Half Moon Bay as a part of his military duties.


Studs wraps up their conversation by playing an excerpt of an interview with Peter Ota.  Mr. Ota was a member of the American military, but was escorted by FBI agents and military police officers through a train station while traveling to pick up his mother’s remains.  And finally, Studs asks John Tateishi if he thinks something like the internment could ever happen again.  He replies,

I have real fears that in a democracy if the American public and the Congress and the government are unwilling to examine past errors, that there’s always a potential for future abuses that are so similar.  And I think that what we went through in 1942 during the war years, always has a potential of happening again in this country.  It was a racial attitude in a particular region of the country that was implemented as federal policy, national policy.  And that’s frightening.  It has terrible ramifications.


 Photo by War Relocation Authority [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons