Japanese American Claims Act

Passed in 1948, the Japanese American Claims Act enabled Japanese Americans to lodge claims against “damage to or loss of real or personal property” as a result of “the evacuation of the Japanese people from the West Coast.” The Act was a victory for the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which had lobbied successfully for its passage.

However, the Act failed to establish that the mass removal and detention of Japanese Americans was an injustice or even an impropriety. Instead, the government merely conceded, in the words of a Senate report, “The Government did move these people, bodily, resulting losses were great, and the principles of justice and responsible government require that there should be compensation for such losses” (Daniels, 296).

A House of Representatives committee added, “the loss was inflicted by a voluntary act of the Government without precedent in the history of this country. Not to redress these loyal Americans in some measure for the wrongs inflicted upon them would provide ample material for attacks by the followers of foreign ideologies on the American way of life, and to redress them would be simple justice” (Daniels, 297).

Japanese American losses, the government agreed, involved hurried sales of personal items to meet “evacuation” deadlines, vandalism to and theft of property and buildings, and the complications of having to manage business affairs while being excluded from certain zones and confined in concentration camps.

Despite the Act, Congress allocated just $38 million to compensate all claims, and claims were limited to a few categories and required proof that were too often missing because of papers lost or destroyed during the forced removal. Moreover, the Act did not cover inflation and the rise in land values, anticipated profits and losses, and interest gains. In all, Japanese Americans filed some 23,000 claims, totaling $131 million in damages under the 1948 act. The Justice Department, in charge of handling those claims, processed them agonizingly slow, trying to ensure that the government was not “cheated” by its victims.

During 1950, Justice processed only 210 claims, and awarded compensation to a mere 73 people. Understandably, claimants settled for less. For instance, a 92-year-old issei agreed to accept $2,500 for his $75,000 claim because he believed he would not live long enough to see any of his compensation. In another case, the government cut an award in half because the Japanese American claimant was married to a white woman and in Washington state property was held jointly. Despite that interpretation, the white woman had accompanied her husband and their small children into a concentration camp, and was still denied compensation for her part of the losses.

Redress, thus, was partial. An estimate put the total Japanese American loss in 1945 dollars at $203 to $251 million. The 23,000 claims under the 1948 act, accordingly, were modest, not accounting for all of the losses suffered by over 120,000 Japanese Americans or for their lost opportunities because of confinement during the boom years of World War II. Because of those shortcomings and the injustices of the concentration camps, Japanese Americans launched a redress and reparations movement after the last claim under the 1948 act was settled in 1965. The movement resulted in the Civil Liberties Act (1988).

Gary Y. Okihiro


Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.