National Public Radio: Morning Edition
Japanese Americans & 'Pearl Harbor'
Airdate: May 24, 2001
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HOST INTRO: The film Pearl Harbor opens in theaters tomorrow. Theater owners and Touchstone Pictures are hoping for a blockbuster at the box office, but Japanese Americans are anticipating the film with dread. From NPR member station KPBS, Beth Accomando reports:
The attack on Pearl Harbor not only represents a pivotal moment for the United States but also for Japanese Americans says John Tateishi, national director of the Japanese American Citizens League.
JOHN TATEISHI: It changed our lives forever. It resulted in every Japanese American on the West coast of the U.S. ending up in concentration camps, and regardless of where weve gone or what weve done since then were always pulled back into December 7th I mean that is the central point of our whole history.
Those internment camps were the subject of the documentary Conscience and the Constitution written and directed by Frank Abe. Hes deeply apprehensive about the release of a movie titled Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day weekend.
FRANK ABE: People do respond to videos and film more than to books and magazines. This is how a generation of 12 to 25 year old will know the experiences of 1941. So like it or not its going to be something to deal with. I mean I can make a video documentary for public television that will be seen if Im lucky will be seen by a hundred thousand people, this film will be seen by tens of millions this week end alone.
CLIP Trailer FDR Speech: " December 7th, 1941 attacked by the empire of Japan."
Films like Pearl Harbor can rekindle a resentment that has never really gone away says Karen Narasaki of the National Asian-Pacific-American Legal Consortium.
KAREN NARASAKI: As a Japanese American, I get nervous every time December 7th approaches because most people realize that this is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. And weve often seen hate crime happen around this time. My brother had a brick thrown through his house on December 7, with no note or no other explanation. So the fears that Japanese Americans have about the fact that a lot of Americans cannot distinguish us from the enemy are very real and grounded in reality.
Concerns in the Japanese American community
led Citizens League director John Tateishi to meet with Pearl Harbors
producer Jerry Bruckheimer and other studio executives. The final film
offers what he says is a more humanistic portrayal of the Japanese. Even
the 1970 film
CLIP (voice of actor Jason Robards as Lt. General Walter Short): "There are 130,000 Japanese on this island. Our main problem is sabotage. It would be too easy for enemy agents to sneak in at night and blow up every one of those damn planes if theyre left out there."
But audiences may not be able to make the distinction between the Japanese who were the enemy and Asian Americans who were and are U.S. citizens says John Tateishi. He points to accusations of espionage against scientist Wen Ho Lee and the recent collision of a Chinese fighter plane and U.S. spy plane.
JOHN TATEISHI: The kinds of reactions throughout the U.S. was phenomenal, it was almost as if there was license to say anything about the Chinese and a lot of the radio talk hosts started making comments that were disparaging and in Illinois on one of the programs, said if that pilot were here wed throw him into a Japanese camp, referring to the camps we were in World War II.
Those reactions stem in part from the fact that Asian Americans are still seen as foreigners says Frank Abe. For that reason, the documentary filmmaker says movies like Pearl Harbor cause greater concerns for Japanese Americans than other World War II films have caused for German Americans.
FRANK ABE: Jerry Bruckheimer at the very beginning of this film gets in the kid calling his friends father a dirty German, and he says "how dare you call me that. I fought the Germans in Europe in World War I, Im an American, how dare you." I hoped that that would lead to a similar situation with a Japanese American.
But it didnt. Robert G. Lee, Professor at Brown University and author of Orientals, a study of images of Asians in popular culture, says that during the war the very rights Americans were championing abroad were being denied to certain citizens at home.
ROBERT G. LEE: In some ways this was the great contradiction of American culture: on the one hand anti-fascist and on the other deeply racist.
But not everyone in this country approved of the internment of Japanese Americans and Karen Narasaki had hoped to see some of that story in Pearl Harbor.
KAREN NARASAKI: Its an opportunity to see how did America react. It could have been a very rich story unfortunately I think it was missed by this movie.
But Frank Abe shudders at the thought of having the man who produced Top Gun and Armageddon tackling Japanese American history in Pearl Harbor.
FRANK ABE: The experience of American internment camps following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor after are my reality. Im glad Jerry Bruckheimer didnt go there because it would have come out of left field, they just would have messed it up and would have cost us untold hours on radio talk shows trying to explain away the historical inaccuracies of what they were trying to do. Im glad that they just steered clear of that.
Pearl Harbor focuses on those who gave their lives on December 7th. Japanese Americans also want people to remember what happened after that day and to learn from that history. But thats a complex reality that Hollywood would have a hard time selling to the public says John Tateishi of the Japanese American Citizens League.
JOHN TATEISHI: People dont seem to want to know about. It is not one of our moments of glory in this country where the government was willing to abrogate the rights of American citizens and the country but its something that I think we need to be reminded of constantly and we certainly as an organization have dedicated ourselves to doing that and making sure this country never forgets about the internment.
But at least for this weekend, many moviegoers probably will forget.
For NPR News, this is Beth Accomando in San Diego.
Updated: May 24, 2001