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Asian-Americans brace for 'Pearl Harbor' debut


Joseph Ichiuji is a second-generation Japanese-American who fought in World War II, when his unit in the U.S. Army battled German soldiers in Italy, France and Germany, and helped to liberate a Dachau concentration camp.

So when Ichiuji first saw the previews for the $135 million summer blockbuster movie "Pearl Harbor," memories of the war years came flooding back - but not just those of his hard-fought combat in Europe.

Ichiuji remembers the U.S. government forcing family members to leave their California home and enter an internment camp in Arizona after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Imprisoned simply because of his Japanese ancestry, Ichiuji signed up to fight in Europe to prove his loyalty to America.

Today, Ichiuji is among many Asian-Americans who worry that "Pearl Harbor," which opens tomorrow, will add to the wave of Asian bashing spurred by the recent U.S. spy plane incident in China.

"The reason that we were interned was because we had the face of our enemy and they looked upon all Japanese as enemies," said Ichiuji, 82, a Rockville retiree whose parents had lived in the United States almost 40 years at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.

"People are more aware now that even though we look like the enemy, we're American citizens. But it's hard to distinguish between Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans. I hope they don't bring back the old treatment that we went through in World War II."

Such concerns have led Asian-American leaders, including Hawaii's Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the Japanese American Citizens League and the Organization of Chinese Americans to issue statements of concern that "Pearl Harbor" might incite moviegoers to target Asian-Americans.

The JACL held a news conference in Los Angeles this week to discuss its worries and has arranged for tightened security at its San Francisco headquarters beginning tomorrow.

The Asian-American groups say they are concerned partly because of anti-Asian sentiments expressed in response to recent tensions between the United States and both China and Japan.

Last month, radio hosts in Texas and Illinois called for a boycott of Chinese restaurants - even after listeners pointed out to one station that the restaurants' owners were likely Chinese-Americans and not Chinese nationals.

In March, G. Gordon Liddy used a racial slur on his nationally syndicated radio talk show when commenting on America's apology for a Navy submarine's collision with a Japanese fishing boat.

"Pearl Harbor is one of the most sensitive issues for Japanese-Americans - not because there's any guilt or anything, but there's always a misunderstanding about who and what we are as citizens of this country," said John Tateishi, 61, the JACL's executive director.

"There's not a December 7 in my entire life since World War II that I haven't dreaded the day. When I was a kid, I never wanted to go to school on that day because students were going to taunt us and we ended up getting in fights. ... You never know what this kind of movie is going to provoke."

Columbia retiree Julia Kuroda, 85, said she's concerned about how the younger generation, who might not know all the facts about World War II, will respond to the movie.

"Pictures are very powerful," said Kuroda, who was sent to an internment camp in California just weeks after she gave birth to her first son in January 1942. "It's very important the manner in which a movie like this is made."

A product of Disney Studios, the three-hour-long "Pearl Harbor" is essentially a love story of epic proportions set during World War II. Ben Affleck stars as a young, talented U.S. pilot who falls in love with the same nurse (Kate Beckinsale) as his best friend (Josh Hartnett).

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, maker of such box office hits as "Armageddon" and "Remember the Titans," the movie mainly focuses on the relationships between the three leads. But it also includes a 40-minute bombing scene that's powerful, graphic and haunting.

Andrea Marozas, Walt Disney Studios' senior vice president of corporate communications, said the company was sensitive to Japanese-American concerns.

"We feel that we addressed this issue appropriately in the development of the film," Marozas said. "It's evident in the final product."

Tateishi, who has seen the movie, says he is pleased overall with it. He met with Bruckheimer during the movie's production and said the producer was "very, very sympathetic." But Tateishi also said he'd hoped that producers would include more scenes showing Asian-Americans as civilians so viewers would see Asian faces in the movie in roles other than those across the enemy line.

"After all," he said, "this [story is set in] Hawaii, where the majority of the population is Asian."

Instead, in one of the movie's more emotional moments, the camera pans to innocent children engaging in quintessentially American activities just before the bombing. The faces featured are all Caucasian. As Japanese planes fly ominously above, the screen shows Caucasian boys playing baseball, Boy Scouts hiking and little girls in Sunday dresses skipping along a pavement.

"At that time, there weren't that many Caucasians living in Hawaii, but all the Hawaiian people in the movie are white," said Giles Li, spokesman for the Organization of Chinese Americans, a national activist group.

"It paints a picture of Asians vs. white people, and they add Cuba Gooding Jr. [who plays a Navy cook] in there for a little color. It's almost as if it was a war that took place between the races."

The movie does include Asian-American civilians in three scenes. In a bar scene, a waitress and bartender are of Asian descent; in a hospital, an Asian-American doctor tries to tend to a wounded soldier who yells, "Don't touch me, you Jap!"

Then there's a scene that Tateishi had asked Bruckheimer to remove from the film, in which a Japanese-American dentist in Hawaii receives a call from Japan. The caller, speaking in Japanese, asks whether there are ships in the harbor. The dentist doesn't appear to know who the caller is, but looks out the window and says he sees ships.

"That scene really bothers me, because what will happen is, people are going to think that Japanese-Americans were involved somehow," Tateishi said.

Bruckheimer told the Los Angeles Times this week that he tried to work with Tateishi on his concerns.

Tateishi "had very legitimate concerns and we wanted to honor them," Bruckheimer told the Times. "If we feel suggestions don't hurt us artistically, then we try to make changes."

Asian-American activists, however, say that no matter what the producers did, some moviegoers might want to target Asian-Americans after watching "Pearl Harbor" - simply because they often are still regarded as foreign.

"If you don't look like you're typically American, which is white, then people think you look like you're from the other side of the world," said Li, whose group watches out for issues affecting all Asian-Americans.

"No matter how long your family has been in this country, you'll always be treated like you're not American," Li added. "That's why we always have to be on guard."

Still, those who lived through Pearl Harbor and felt the brunt of the ensuing anti-Asian-American sentiment say they see hope in the fact that America has progressed to where there are Asian-American groups that can help prevent a new backlash.

"Things are very different today," Kuroda said. "But I think we need to keep educating people."

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