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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Some fear 'Pearl Harbor' may spark anti-AJA backlash

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By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

There's a scene in the movie "Pearl Harbor" that makes John Tateishi worry that a new generation might learn to hate Japanese Americans.

A Honolulu dentist, a Japanese American, gets a call from the Japanese Consulate and answers that — indeed — American ships are berthed in Pearl Harbor. The conversation actually took place on the eve of the Japanese attack that launched America into World War II.

But the movie neglects the fact that both the FBI and Naval Investigative Service concluded it was an innocent conversation and no espionage was intended.

Tateishi, national executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, has been protesting the scene to "Pearl Harbor's" producers for more than a year. He has since alerted all 112 local chapters around the country to be on guard for a backlash against Japanese-Americans.

"This is the blockbuster movie of the year," Tateishi said. "We need to make sure it doesn't inflame a dangerous anti-Asian backlash."

But at the same time that Asian American advocacy groups worry about a new round of racism, the movie "Pearl Harbor" also provides them a chance to tell the stories of Japanese-American sacrifices following the attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

"Absolutely," said Dennis Ogawa, a University of Hawai'i American studies professor who has been teaching a course titled "The Japanese-American Experience in Hawai'i" for 32 years. "A movie like this is an opportunity for people to reflect on the war years and provide an opportunity to talk to some of the (Japanese American) veterans and get their view point. The younger generation will be drawn to movies, rather than a book or a class on Japanese Americans."

Ogawa was born in the Manzanar internment camp after the Pearl Harbor attack and worries about the movie's power to demonize the Japanese and possibly Japanese Americans.

"Images of Japanese planes flying over kids playing baseball and a woman hanging laundry creates this image of an alien force destroying our way of life and that's always bothersome," Ogawa said. "It's like Martian invaders attacking Earth. It's the same sort of evil, sinister perception, almost like 'Jaws' sneaking up when you least expect it. It's that notion, that characterization, that we need to be sensitive to."

A June 2 forum at the Japanese Cultural Center in Honolulu will present "the other side of the story," said Art Koga, treasurer of both the national JACL and the Honolulu chapter.

The panel will include Japanese Americans who fought in World War II despite racism, and others who were placed in internment camps because of government fears they would become spies, which turned out to be groundless.

"We can't just sit back and be movie critics," Koga said. "We want to present the impact of the war on Japanese Americans in Hawai'i."

Representatives for the producers and distributors of "Pearl Harbor" were traveling back to the Mainland yesterday following the Hawai'i premiere and were not immediately available for comment.

Tateishi, in the meantime, was busy trying to spread the JACL's concerns around the country. One interview, in particular, merely reinforced his point.

He got up early to give in interview to the Fox network in New York and was surprised by the reaction of one of the hosts.

After outlining his concerns about the way "Pearl Harbor" portrays Japanese-Americans, Tateishi heard the host mutter: "I don't understand why they want to boycott when they started all of this in the first place."

The co-host tried to cut off the interview and go to a commercial, but Tateishi would not let the comment go unchallenged.

"It's that kind of attitude," he said, "that resulted in 120,000 Japanese Americans being rounded up and imprisoned in the first place."

Dan Nakaso can be reached by phone at 525-8085, or by e-mail at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com