Japanese American History

Japanese American Redress

For Japanese American organizations and civil rights institutions across the country, 2008 is a very important year because it marks the twentieth anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on August 10, 1988, this legislation provided an apology and compensation to the thousands of Japanese Americans whose constitutional rights were violated during their World War II forced exclusion and mass incarceration.

Between 1942 and 1945, thousands of Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast and parts of Hawai‘i and approximately 120,000 were detained in concentration camps or Department of Justice camps built in some the country’s harshest, most undesirable landscapes. This was a deeply traumatic experience for the Japanese American community. Some communities had as little as 48 hours notice to prepare for their removal, causing many Japanese American families to suffer enormous monetary losses by having to abandon or sell businesses, homes, and belongings at far below market value. Other families carried deep emotional scars from the shame of being marked as disloyal, from the upheavals of exclusion and incarceration, and from the pressures of having to rebuild their lives after the end of World War II.

The decades following World War II marked a period when members of the Japanese American community worked hard to re-establish businesses and careers—some from scratch—and to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives. Having just endured the stigma and humiliation of incarceration, most Japanese Americans sought to keep a low profile and avoid being singled out again. This was also understandable given the high levels of anti-Japanese sentiment that persisted after the war. Therefore, the country remained silent when it came to the issue of providing redress and reparations to Japanese Americans for the gross violation of their constitutional rights during incarceration.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s ushered a significant change in the nation’s political climate when it came to combating racial discrimination and acknowledging the rights of minorities. The 1960s and 1970s also marked the coming of age for the sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans), many of who were born during or after incarceration, and therefore too young to have experienced its worst ordeals.

Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sansei and younger nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) mobilized efforts to seek a formal apology and compensation from the Federal Government for their unjust actions during World War II. This turned out to be far from easy however, for several reasons. First, they were working against precedence in compelling the government to formally acknowledge past wrongs and provide redress, not to mention the possibility of forcing Americans to confront past inequities against other groups. Second, they faced opposition from outspoken critics who either did not believe in the necessity of reparations or denounced the incarceration experience as falsehood, not to mention politicians and judges who did not believe in redress. Even the Japanese American community stood divided on the issue, with some calling for restitution and others opposing the effort for a variety of reasons (i.e. feelings that any form of reparations and assignation of monetary value would trivialize the sufferings of the experience, fears of racist backlash, apprehension that any redress efforts could succeed). Third, even those in agreement of pursuing redress harbored different ideas of how they should proceed.

Eventually, the proponents of redress divided into two main groups. The first favored seeking redress through the legislative branch, while the second felt that redress should be sought through the judiciary. The group in favor of legislation was led by the Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL), which stood as the Japanese American organization with the most political clout. One of the most important steps that the JACL took was to arrange a meeting in 1979 with Senator Daniel Inouye, Senator Spark Matsunaga, Congressman Norman Mineta, and Congressmen Robert Matsui, the four Japanese American members of the U.S. Congress at the time besides Senator S.I. Hayakawa who was not invited because of his known opposition to redress. Having their support would be crucial if the effort to obtain redress from the legislature was to succeed. During this meeting, all four members of Congress agreed that seeking redress was important and affirmed their desire to help achieve the goal. However, Senator Inouye suggested that it would be better to form a congressional commission to investigate the government’s wartime actions and recommend any actions that should be taken to address any damages. Although this additional step would push back the redress timeline—then a daunting prospect, given that former inmates were passing away at a rapid rate—Senator Inouye argued that it was a necessary one in ultimately convincing the government and the public of the validity of the redress cause. As a result, members of the JACL agreed to proceed according to Senator Inouye’s recommendation, instead of pushing for a redress bill right away.

Meanwhile, another group was spearheaded by William Hohri of Chicago, who launched the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) in 1979. Hohri disagreed with JACL’s decision to lobby for a study commission and felt that the best way to seek redress was through the federal court system. As a result, he filed a class-action lawsuit containing 22 causes of action against the federal government in May 1983 on behalf of 25 Japanese American plaintiffs and the NCJAR. In all, the lawsuit sought $27 billion in damages ($10,000 per internee). NCJAR promoted awareness on the redress issue and mobilized the Japanese American community which contributed to the successful drive for Congressional action. A third group, the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, also formed at the same time, seeking to pursue redress by lobbying Congress directly.

With Senators Inouye and Matsunaga leading the way, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians Act (CWRIC) that President Jimmy Carter would sign into law on July 31, 1980. This bi-partisan commission consisted of distinguished figures from diverse backgrounds set out to conduct a series of hearings from July to December 1981. NCRR and JACL were instrumental in recruiting and preparing individuals to speak at the hearings. In all, CWRIC called over 750 witnesses from throughout the country to testify about their wartime incarceration. Ultimately, these hearings would not only convince CWRIC that gross constitutional violations had been committed and that redress was necessary, they also served as an important cathartic experience for many former inmates who had kept silent about their wartime experience for decades. CWRIC would release a 467-page report in 1983 recommending the federal government to issue a national apology, compensate each surviving eligible individual $20,000, and set up an educational and humanitarian foundation, among other measures. Hindsight would show that the establishment of CWRIC and its public hearings was critical in paving the way for redress legislation and bolstering its credibility.

After a series of votes in Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives both passed legislation to accept the findings of the CWRIC Report and implement redress measures. The bill on redress was finally signed into law by Ronald Reagan on August 10, 1988 and named the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Civil Liberties Act acknowledged the federal government’s wrongdoings against Japanese Americans during World War II through a formal apology. In addition, the act also appropriated over a billion dollars in compensation to be paid to each surviving internee ($20,000 per individual), as well as an educational trust fund the promote awareness of the World War II internment and prevent similar injustices from recurring in the future.

Ultimately, the success of redress was attributed to several factors including changes to the nation’s political climate, mobilization efforts from the Japanese American community, and the actions of key Japanese American politicians, organizations, and individuals. Today, many organizations and communities continue to commemorate the experiences of World War II and subsequent victory in redress around February 19 of each year, also known as the Day of Remembrance. This marks the date in 1942 when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the unconstitutional exclusion of Japanese Americans. Observing this important day helps serve as a reminder of past injustices against civil rights, and that we must continue to take action and speak out against constitutional violations whenever they occur.

February 2008



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