In 1941, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the US government, citing “military necessity”, imprisoned some 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. Most were US citizens and half were children. The overwhelming majority of these people would spend the next two to five years unjustly deprived of their rights and freedoms and imprisoned without due process of justice. They lost their homes, their livelihoods and their communities.
It was a flagrant violation of constitutional rights that ultimately drove the community to demand redress and redress.
When the camps closed, Japanese Americans were given $25 and a one-way train ticket to rebuild their lives. Faced with urgent short-term challenges – finding jobs and housing, feeding their families and getting their children back to school – few have focused on apologies or reparations. Moreover, many of those who had been incarcerated felt ashamed that as a community they had done something wrong to bring this constitutional violation upon themselves. Many Japanese Americans went out of their way to prove they were 110% American so it would never happen again.
Over the years, however, more and more have concluded that the government must right the wrong set up by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 to “relocate” people of Japanese descent during the war. Slowly, momentum was building to demand redress.
The process took decades. For Japanese Americans, post-war America was still a place of racist legislation and sentiment where barriers constantly cropped up — from discrimination in housing and employment to difficulty getting loans. banks and persistent social hostility. Developing a collective political voice took time.
READ MORE: The thorny history of reparations in the United States
Small social and political steps towards justice
The 1950s marked the beginning of a period of great change in America. As the black civil rights movement gained momentum with school desegregation and the bus boycott, Japanese Americans made their own strides. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act relaxed some longstanding immigration restrictions, allowing Japanese in America to become naturalized U.S. citizens. And in 1959, the Territory of Hawaii was granted statehood and federal representation. Its first representative, Daniel K. Inouye was a decorated 442 World War II veterann/a Regimental Combat Team, a separate Japanese American battalion, which had lost its right arm in action. With such a clear reminder of the valor and loyalty of Japanese Americans now on Capitol Hill, it was now possible that one day the wrongful incarceration of Japanese Americans could be resolved.
The 1960s continued to foment social and political change in the United States. The civil rights and women’s movements have brought to light the problems of persistent inequality. The anti-Vietnam War movement emphasized the importance of dissent as an American value. The emerging ethnic studies movement has inspired young people to explore and celebrate their diversity. Fueled by all of this, young Japanese Americans began to wonder what had happened during World War II and why their parents and grandparents had not resisted incarceration. For most Japanese Americans, however, the pain and shame of the incarceration experience still outweighed the desire for reparation.
The 1970s brought increased political representation. By the end of the decade, the United States Congress included two decorated Japanese war veterans (Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga) and two former American concentration camp inmates, Representatives Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui.
The Japanese-American community remained divided between three perspectives regarding the reparations claim. The first wanted to drop the question. They recognized that Japanese Americans had come a long way since World War II and were no longer seen as the enemy of the nation. Many had established a stable life and wanted to avoid a return to the spotlight. The elderly, in particular, did not want to relive or tell the heartbreaking stories of the past.
The second perspective was looking for a simple excuse. Monetary compensation, they argued, was not only unrealistic, but it diverted attention from the main issue of constitutional violations. Moreover, they considered it insulting to put a price tag on their denied constitutional rights.
The third perspective wanted an apology and monetary payments. They argued that the families had suffered real tax losses – and while the payments would be nominal, they would recognize and address these financial setbacks. The debate between the three perspectives was often heated and, at times, created deep divisions within the community.
Federal Report: “Personal Justice Denied”
Scroll to continue
Finally, in 1978, the Japanese American Citizens League passed a resolution demanding a presidential apology and monetary reparations. In January 1979, their leaders met with Senators Inouye and Matsunaga and Representatives Mineta and Matsui to ask lawmakers to sponsor a bill enacting their demands.
The more prudent political course, Senator Inouye countered, was to create a federal commission to research and investigate the experience of incarceration.
The Commission on Civilian Wartime Relocation and Internment (CWRIC), authorized in July 1980, held hearings in 10 cities and received testimony from more than 750 witnesses, from those who designed and implemented works the camps to those who have spent years incarcerated there. Japanese Americans, some for the very first time, shared moving stories of loss, discrimination and wrongful incarceration. For many who have found the courage to speak out about their stories and their demands for justice, the testimony has been cathartic.
In its 1983 report titled “Personal Justice Denied”, the CWRIC said the camps were wrong and were the result of “racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership”. The report recommended federal apologies and monetary reparations: $20,000 per Japanese American affected by Executive Order 9066 and the creation of a $50 million community trust fund.
Congress votes for reparations
Shortly after the report’s release, bills were introduced in the House and Senate to enact the findings. Over the next five years, Japanese Americans and their political allies actively lobbied for the bill, named HR 442 in honor of Japanese American soldiers of World War II.
After years of political maneuvering, the bill finally reached the floor of the House of Representatives on September 17, 1987, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. The authors of the bill did not frame it as addressing the harm done to Japanese Americans, but rather as addressing the gross violation of the constitutional rights of American citizens.
The House passed the bill with 243 votes in favor, a bipartisan achievement. In the Senate, where Senator Matsunaga had secured 71 co-sponsors, the bill passed with 69 votes in favor on April 20, 1988.
Ronald Reagan Personal Link
The bill needed one more signature — that of President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican whose own administration had worked against redress in the courts and in Congress. While many in the community were skeptical about the president signing the bill into law, proponents of redress pressed on.
Recognized as an effective communicator, Reagan understood the power of stories to touch people’s hearts and move them in a particular direction. But he himself could also be moved.
So the bill’s advocates shared with the president the story of Sgt. Kazuo Masuda, member of the 100and/442n/a RCT who was killed in action during World War II. After the war, when his family was released from the Gila River, Arizona, camp, their attempt to return to their hometown of Santa Ana, California, was met with hate speech, racial taunts and threats of bodily harm. The Army realized it was a public relations fiasco; the family of one of its own fallen heroes could not return home.
The Army organized a contingent of officers to present the Distinguished Service Cross medal to the family of Sgt. Masuda at their residence in Santa Ana. Among the officers was a young white American captain named Ronald Reagan. At a United America Rally after the medal ceremony, Captain Reagan addressed the audience:
The blood that has soaked the sand of a beach is one color… America is unique in the world, the only country not based on race, but on a path – an ideal… Mr. and Mrs. Masuda, as one member of the Americans family, talking to another member, I mean for what your son Kazuo has done – thank you.
Reminding President Reagan of Masuda’s story helped him personalize the issue and align it with his personal value system. On August 10, 1988, he signed the Civil Liberties Act, granting presidential apologies and monetary reparation payments to living people who had been affected by Executive Order 9066. It was a rare and important moment, not only for Americans of Japanese descent, but for the whole nation – to uphold its core constitutional values and right a past wrong.