The redress and reparations movement, begun by students, activists, and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), together with pilgrimages to Manzanar and other concentration camps, led to a change in attitude among Japanese Americans regarding the World War II concentration camps. Prior to the 1970s, most Japanese Americans believed their wartime experience was better forgotten and remain buried in the past. Most felt ashamed by their victimization, and
were uncertain about their standing as U.S. citizens. The redress and reparations movement, however, changed that attitude by allowing Japanese Americans to claim their rights as U.S. citizens.
Those claims led to President Gerald Ford's Presidential Proclamation 4417, which formally revoked the wartime Executive Order 9066 that enabled the mass, forcible removal and confinement of Japanese Americans along the West Coast. Ford's Proclamation came on February 19, 1976, the 34th anniversary of EO 9066 and in the year of the nation's celebration of its 200th anniversary. In this “honest reckoning,” Ford declared, we must remember “our national mistakes as well as our national achievements.” We now know, the president continued, “not only was the evacuation wrong, but Japanese Americans were and are loyal Americans” (Daniels, 331).
In 1970, the JACL passed the first of several resolutions calling on the government to acknowledge “the worst mistakes of World War II.” Edison Uno, an activist and delegate, proposed that the JACL begin a movement for redress and reparations. A year later, Uno joined in the JACL's successful campaign to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act (1950), which directed the Justice Department to establish concentration camps for persons suspected of engaging in “or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or sabotage.” After Uno's untimely death, Clifford Uyeda chaired the JACL national committee on redress, and at the JACL national convention in 1978, the committee proposed a plan for redress or monetary compensation for the wartime losses and Uyeda was elected national president of JACL. John Tateishi headed the JACL's redress committee, and while other redress activists sought redress through the courts and the Congress, the JACL supported the establishment of a commission to investigate whether the U.S. government had committed a wrong against Japanese Americans during World War II.
President Jimmy Carter and the leaders of Congress named and appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) in 1980. The commission's seven original members were Joan Bernstein, chair and former general counsel of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Daniel Lundgren, vice-chair and congressman; Edward Brooke, a former U.S. senator; Arthur Flemming, chair of the Civil Rights Commission; Arthur Goldberg, a former Supreme Court justice; Hugh Mitchell, a former U.S. senator; and William Marutani, a federal judge and the only Japanese American on the panel. Later, Ishmael Gromoff, a Russian Orthodox priest and Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, were added to the commission.
The commission held hearings in Washington, D.C. and other cities around the country. Those hearings galvanized Japanese Americans, requiring many who had suppressed memories of the camps to come to terms with that dark past. The hearings allowed formerly silenced victims to speak publicly for the first time about the traumas and losses inflicted upon them by their government. Those testimonies, along with those by officials who had supervised the removal and detention, were overwhelmingly in favor of redress or an apology from the government and were critical of the loss of civil liberties. A few, notably Karl
Bendetsen and John McCloy, continued to justify their actions during the war on the basis of “military necessity.” Abe Fortas, at the time undersecretary of the Interior Department and supervisor of the War Relocation Authority after February 1944, expressed the majority view: “I believe that the mass evacuation … was a tragic error,” he said. “I cannot escape the conclusion that racial prejudice was its basic ingredient…. I think that it is clear—perhaps it was always clear—that the mass evacuation order issued by General DeWitt was never justified” (Daniels, 337).
Japanese Americans made the experience personal. “I am the wife of Albert Kurihara who cannot be here today due to a stroke he suffered last week,” Mary Kurihara explained to the commission in 1981. “My husband is now in the hospital, but he still really wanted to testify. Albert has asked me to deliver his testimony.” Kurihara was born in Hawai'i and was sent to Santa Anita assembly center and Poston concentration camp during the war. “I remember having to stay in the dirty horse stables at Santa Anita,” Kurihara wrote. “I remember thinking, ‘Am I a human being? Why are we being treated like this?’ Santa Anita stunk like hell.” From Poston, he was released to do “hard seasonal labor” harvesting sugar beets, “work which no one else wanted to do,” and even after camp, “I was treated like an enemy by other Americans. They were hostile, and I had a very hard time finding any job…. This was the treatment they gave to an American citizen!” he exclaimed. “I think back about my younger brother, Dan, who was in the 442nd Regiment. In combat to defend his American native land, Dan suffered a bullet wound that damaged one-fourth of his head and caused him to lose an eye…. Every time I think about Dan …, it makes me so angry. Sometimes I want to tell this government to go to hell. This government can never repay all the people who suffered. But, this should not be an excuse for token apologies. I hope this country will never forget what happened,” Kurihara concluded, “and do what it can to make sure that future generations will never forget” (Okihiro and Myers, 244).
The CWRIC issued its report, Personal Justice Denied, in December 1982. In it, the commission concluded: “The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it—detention, ending detention and ending exclusion—were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance of Japanese Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan. A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II” (Personal Justice, 1982, 18).
In June 1983, the CWRIC published its recommendations, which included a joint resolution of Congress signed by the president recognizing “that a grave injustice was done and offers the apologies of the nation for the acts of exclusion, removal and detention” (Personal Justice, 1983, 8). The commission also
recommended presidential pardons for wartime convictions, Congressional restitution of lost positions, status, and entitlements, and reparations of $20,000 to each survivor of the exclusion orders and funds for the “general welfare” of the Japanese American community. Those findings and recommendations led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and the achievement of redress and reparations for Japanese Americans.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Okihiro, Gary Y. and Joan Myers. Whispered Silences: Japanese Americans and World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.
Personal Justice Denied. Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982.
Personal Justice Denied. Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Part Two. Recommendations. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983.