The Japanese American Incarceration: The Journey to Redress
By William Yoshino and John Tateishi
(Excerpted from an article in Human Rights from the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, American Bar Association, Spring 2000)
Thirty years after the closing of the camps, Japanese American set out to rectify the injustices committed against them during World War II. In 1978, JACL launched a campaign for redress calling for restitution in the amount of $25,000 per internee, an apology by Congress acknowledging the wrong, and funds to establish an educational trust fund.
The fundamental strategy of the campaign focused on the loss of individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and enumerated in the Bill of Rights. With a population that was only one-half of one percent of the total population of the country, it was clear that Japanese Americans alone could not win this campaign. The strategy, therefore, was to wage a far-reaching campaign utilizing the media to educate the public about the WWII incarceration and to build coalitions of groups willing to support the legislative effort.
Within six months, articles about the Japanese American internment found their way into the major newspapers, and network television aired stories locally and nationally. In the midst of this media campaign, JACL made a critical decision to forego direct appropriations legislation at the outset in favor of legislation to establish a blue ribbon federal commission to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese American. While not a popular decision among Japanese Americans generally, it proved to be critical. Although Japanese Americans know well the extent to which they had suffered and been denied their rights, the American public and members of Congress knew little, if anything, about the incarceration.
Strategically, JACL formed coalitions with civil rights groups and others to seek passage of legislation that would create a federal commission to examine the government’s actions in 1942. In 1980, a year after the legislation was introduced in Congress, and exactly two years after launching the redress campaign, JACL and the Japanese American community celebrated the successful passage of a bill to create the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). The President and Congress appointed a nine-member panel that included Arthur Goldberg, Father Robert Drinan, and former senator Edward Brooke. A year later, the first of eight CWRIC hearings was held in Washington, DC, followed by hearings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Boston, and a final hearing in the nation’s capital. In December 1982, the Commission issued its findings to the Congress and the president. Titled “Personal Justice Denied,” the report concluded that Japanese Americans were unjustly forced from their homes and incarcerated, and the underlying causes of this action were “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Six months later, in June 1983, the CWRIC recommended as remedies an apology by Congress and the president, monetary compensation of $20,000 to each surviving victim of the government’s 1942 orders, and the creation of an educational trust fund.
Taking the language of the Commission’s recommendations, the Japanese American members of Congress, Sen. Daniel Inouye, Sen. Spark Matsunaga, Rep. Norman Mineta, and Rep. Robert Matsui drafted legislation seeking $1.2 billion to provide for the individual compensation and the trust fund. This bold move was supported in a broad grassroots campaign by the Japanese American community throughout country. JACL, with its 110 chapters and a membership of 32,000, was joined by others in the Japanese American community to persuade individual members of Congress to support the redress legislation.
The first appropriations bill was introduced in 1983; however, it wasn’t until 1987 that the way was cleared for Congress to finally act on the measure. The opponents of the redress legislation felt it was inappropriate for one generation to punish the mistakes of a previous generation. They also felt that $20,000 was an arbitrary figure and that in light of the federal deficit, appropriating $1.2 billion would be fiscally irresponsible.
As efforts were under way in Congress, there was also a critical struggle taking place in the federal courts to address the Supreme Court decision in the wartime cases of Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Korematsu. Filed as a Writ of Error Coram Nobis, three separate legal teams sought to address the cases that upheld the government’s race-based actions. Invoking this legal device, the coram nobis teams successfully challenged the government when, in 1983, the federal court vacated Fred Korematsu’s wartime conviction, followed in the next three years with the vacating of Minoru Yasui’s conviction in 1985 and Gordon Hirabayashi’s in 1986.
Having nullified congressional objection to redress legislation on the grounds that the government’s actions were upheld as legal by the U.S. Supreme Court, proponents of the legislation intensified their efforts to seek passage of the redress legislation in Congress. In a 243-141 vote in September 1987, the House of Representatives approved the redress legislation, The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a similar measure in April 1988, and on August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill authorizing redress payments for Japanese Americans.
The skill and influence of the Japanese American members of Congress had much to do with the success of this legislative campaign. The success of this effort is also attributable to the persistence and national lobbying campaign organized by JACL. In the end, however, redress was won because Congress was convinced that this country had a moral obligation to correct constitutional abuses.
Not all the issues related to the government’s actions in 1942 were resolved with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, however. In 1998, JACL joined with other community groups in supporting the case of Mochizuki v. United States, 43 Fed. Cl. 97 (1999), which sought redress for the Japanese who were forcibly brought to the United States from Latin American countries during the war in exchange for U.S. citizens caught in Japanese-controlled war zones. Over 2,200 Japanese Latin Americans were deported from thirteen Latin American countries only to be incarcerated in the U.S., with the cooperation of the U.S. State Department. During their imprisonment, primarily at Crystal City, Texas over 800 were exchanged but only 100 were ultimately returned to their countries of origin in Latin America. A final settlement was reached, which provided $5,000 per surviving victim plus an apology from Congress and the President.
As a final item of unfinished business, JACL recently embarked on an effort to preserve the ten World War II internment campsites. Through a White House initiative as part of the Administration’s 2001 budget, the ten sites will each be given landmark status and placed under government ownership.
Should the initiative pass, places like Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Topaz, Amache, Jerome, and Rohwer will forever stand as reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency. But they will also stand as reminders that a great democracy willing to acknowledge and correct past injustices, stands as a beacon of hope to all people throughout the world.