Why . . . and What For?

October 20, 2014 • Columnists, Tateishi

By John Tateishi

I began this column asking the question whether anyone else has noticed that the JACL is the favorite whipping boy of the JA community and often of Asian American academicians.

But I think the more relevant — and more interesting — question is, “Why?” What is it about the JACL that bugs so many people in the community? I can think of a number of specific things that occurred during my tenure running the redress campaign because of decisions I personally made and god knows there were plenty of times then. And I can also think of things that may have bugged the community when I was the national director.

But that isn’t what’s got me wondering. It’s the “Why” question.

I mean, why do the JACL’s critics keep pounding away at decisions made 60, 70 or even almost 80 years ago? What is it that makes the JACL’s critics feel compelled to keep writing about the JACL’s old sins? Over and over and over?

And for what purpose? What’s their objective? What do they hope to accomplish? Get at the truth, get to the proverbial bottom of things? What possible new information or insight can there possibly be after so many others have exposed and revealed so often in so many different ways?

And really, does anyone really care?

Maybe what they seek is to try to discredit the JACL and render it persona non grata(ITAL) among Asian Americans and those handful in mainstream America who might be interested?

What’s with all the muscle flexing that goes into bashing the organization? Does it make the JACL’s critics feel refreshed and whole? Does it fill a void in their lives to take their shots at the organization? Or give them a sense of power over the organization, maybe even give them a sense of superiority?

I sincerely hope not because that’s pretty sad.

It’s like they see evil lurking deep in the bowels of the organization and want yet again to expose the truths about the JACL. It’s like flogging a dead horse that, in their minds, just won’t die and go away.

If their purpose is to condemn the JACL for its past, that’s rather pointless because everyone already knows all about it. Besides, what the JACL is today is not what it was some 80 years ago. Besides, all the decision-makers and leaders from the days who seem to be the critics’ favorite targets are long gone, and you’d be mistaken to think that any of this current criticism of the JACL’s past is of such burning interest to us or to anyone else.

There are those, like the resisters, the No-No Boys, the renunciants and others, who may have legitimate gripes against the JACL for what happened to them personally in the environment of WWII. No question about that. But didn’t we deal with these issues during the redress campaign when we hashed all of this out and by a formal public apology to the resisters?

But they are not the ones I’m talking about. It’s the others who seem unable to get over the organization’s past.

It’s a pretty big stretch, it seems to me, to judge behavior or attitudes found in the JACL back in, say, the 1930s by today’s standards. It was such a different time, and social conditions for Asians in this country were nothing like they are today (that’s even true about the ’60s and ’70s). To talk about things like assimilation and patriotism and to criticize the JACL for advocating either or both reflects an inability to recognize the difficult social circumstances of the times for Asians. It would be like criticizing blacks for being so acquiescent in the pre-civil rights South or like criticizing the Chinese community on the West Coast for wearing “I Am Chinese” lapel buttons after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Assimilation, patriotism, accepting your social status, disassociating and distinguishing — those were all survival mechanisms, ways to get through your day without being hassled or threatened with harm.

It’s easy enough to look back over a span of time and judge someone’s behavior if you haven’t walked in his or her shoes. Of course the JACL and the community strove to assimilate and show that they were as American as anyone else. But in doing so, they were no different than any other immigrant group in this country. By the second generation, assimilation and acceptance are important to all newcomers.

So, it comes back to the question, “Why?” Why is the JACL such a favorite target? Don’t tell me controversial decisions of the past. We’ve been over that so many times that it’s boring, quite frankly. And don’t tell me urging the Nisei to be more American (whatever that meant), because if that’s the criticism, show me an immigrant community that didn’t hold those things as important to their becoming Americans.

Now, if those same critics want to take on the JACL for what it is or isn’t today, that’s a different matter. Or, if they want to take me on for my leadership during redress or post-9/11, as the saying goes, bring it on!

John Tateishi is a former JACL national director.

Originally published on March 21, 2014

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