The history of the Japanese American movement for redress poses a number of complex political and philosophical questions. How can present generations bear responsibility and make amends for the sins of their forefathers? How can one adequately measure individual and/or communal suffering in monetary terms? How can the payment of reparations be successfully administered to all who were incarcerated or personally affected by historical trauma? What counts as sufficient apology for the systematic destruction of individual liberties and human rights? For decades following World War II, community organizers, activists, lawyers, and politicians pursued various paths to attain justice. While their beliefs often diverged, and their efforts to address these questions took disparate forms, the Japanese American community eventually achieved its common goal to attain restitution for the crimes committed against them during World War II.
On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law HR 442, otherwise known as the American Civil Liberties Act. This unprecedented legislation offered an official apology for the physical, emotional, and financial injuries that Japanese Americans incurred during the war and pledged to pay $20,000 to every survivor of the concentration camps. The act publicly recognized the illegality and immorality of the government's system of exclusion and incarceration, admitting to the grave injustice “done to both citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry.” In turn, and perhaps more surprisingly, the act confessed to the fact that these wartime crimes were motivated “largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In addition to offering restitution, the act created a fund to support educational endeavors to ensure that these injustices would never be repeated. Two years after the act was passed, Japanese Americans began to receive checks of restitution accompanied by a letter from President George Bush acknowledging their losses and paying homage to those painful memories that can never fully heal. Unfortunately, for most issei who had already passed away, this apology came much too late.
The first national call for redress came in 1970 when activist Edison Uno introduced a resolution at the national convention of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Founded in 1929, the JACL had during World War II served as an official governmental liaison with inmates, held desirable positions in the concentration camps, and fueled Japanese American efforts at resettlement and integration after the war. Their early pro-American conservatism, however, gave way in the 1960s to direct criticism of the government's actions. With Uno's leadership, the JACL began surveying the community and holding public forums in which
members could share their views about seeking redress. The overwhelming response was in support of pursuing some movement, particularly in terms of monetary compensation. By 1976, the JACL had acquired essential allies, including the first Japanese American U.S. congressman formerly held prisoner in the camps, Norman Mineta from California. Thanks to Mineta's political savvy, that same year the JACL created a national committee specifically focused on the issue. By the fall they had unanimously adopted a resolution calling for financial reparations. While the JACL did much to increase visibility and popularity for the cause, organizers soon realized that their movement would eventually have to find a more powerful stage to air their concerns: the nation's capital.
In 1979, the JACL worked with key congressional leaders, including Congressman Mineta and Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, to propose a presidential commission to study the federal government's wrongdoings during the war and publicly document the atrocities and hardships internees faced. After the bill was passed in Congress, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) in July 1980. Leaders in the JACL saw this as a key avenue to achieve firm factual grounding for their legislative goals for redress. Over the next three years, the commission oversaw research and investigative work to compile evidence of possible misdeeds. Its most important action, however, occurred between July and December 1981, in which the CWRIC held 11 official televised hearings in 10 cities throughout the United States. Over 750 witnesses delivered emotionally moving testimonies to their experiences in the camps, including Yuji Ichioka, who was six at the time of incarceration. Ichioka, like many, expressed his sense of relief in sharing his experiences: “to me, [the hearings are] a collective cartharsis … we're saying we're tired of deferring to white people, basically. We've shown too much respect, too much deference for too long.” The commission's administration of these hearings provided an important venue for Japanese Americans to stand together as a united community. Their publicity also importantly raised awareness for the cause with the American people, a critical step toward successful federal legislation. On June 16, 1983, the commission released its findings in an influential report entitled Personal Justice Denied, which recommended that Congress appropriate monies to provide $20,000 to each victim of the concentration camps.
Between 1982 and 1988, legislators and lobbyists worked together to make good on the commission's recommendations. As the movement for national redress continued, a number of alternative redress movements developed concomitant to these mainstream congressional efforts. In California and Washington, former state employees of Japanese descent successfully lobbied for redress payments for unlawfully being terminated from employment during the war. A parallel movement also emerged to achieve redress in the federal court system. The National Council for Japanese American Redress, an organization often antagonistic to the more established JACL, administered a fund-raising campaign to actively pursue lawsuits against the federal government. Their goal was to move for a Supreme Court reversal of the orders of exclusion and sought $24 million in monetary damages. While the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against their suit in
June 1987, the research and evidence for the government's withholding of information during the war proved vital in the final push toward the passing of HR 442. After almost two decades of steady work, the Japanese American community witnessed the passage of the Civil Liberties Act. By this time, lobbyists and congressional leaders had created a capacious bipartisan coalition that included both Republican and Democratic leaders, and received allegiance from key non Japanese American organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars. On September 17, 1987, the House of Representatives passed HR 442 by a vote of 243 to 141. In April of the following year, the Senate approved their own version of the bill, to a margin of 69 to 27 votes. After President Reagan signed the act into law in 1988, the final hurdle came in the form of budget appropriation.
The diligence and dedication of countless individuals and community organizations undoubtedly were the primary ingredients for achieving national redress. Nevertheless, there were other sociohistorical factors that influenced the creation of a viable public policy of Japanese American reparation. Firstly, during the late 1980s there was a keen sense of urgency for the legislation to be complete due to the issei generation's increasing age; this could be the last chance the nation had to bear witness to their suffering. Secondly, the end of the century witnessed a global movement for human rights, in which numerous nations were pressured to enact political efforts of restitution, not only including the United States, but also Germany, South Africa, and Australia. Finally, by the mid-1980s there had arisen a substantial cultural archive of fiction, film, histories, and visual art that attested to the pain and horror of life in the camps. Thanks to the decades-long activism and political strategizing, the Japanese American community and the American public at large had begun to believe that the concentration of American citizens during World War II was not simply a misfortune, but an illegal system of racial persecution and demolishing of this community's inalienable rights.
Despite the apparent success of the Civil Liberties Act, many Japanese Americans still question the value and long-term effects of redress. In part, the legislative promise of the act fell short, where many of those touched by the system of internment were left out of the benefits of its administration. In the end, 82,219 of more than 120,000 internees received redress payments; only 28 refused their checks. The majority of these recipients had been forcibly excluded and confined in the camps. Many victims remain invisible to its promises—Japanese Americans who resided in Hawai'i during the war as well as a number of Japanese Latin Americans still are denied the reparation they rightly deserve. Although some might argue that the Civil Liberties Act brought legislative closure to Japanese Americans’ confinement during World War II, for many who endured this dehumanizing system of racial persecution, the wounds can never be redeemed.
Jenny M. James
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Murray, Alice Yang. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Takezawa, Yasuko I. Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.