Reconcile & Repair–Precedent: Nikkei

Picking up from last Friday:  We’ve succeeded at reconciliation and reparations before—for Japanese Americans.

Korematsu v.United States

Forty-one years ago, Chester James Antieu—my Constitutional Law professor and the most unassuming rabble-rouser of the intellect I’ve met, before or since—presented us with a guest lecturer, Lenny Weinglass.  (He did all the heavy lifting defending the Chicago Seven defendants while Kuntsler courted the cameras.)  He, in turn, introduced his own guest: Fred Korematsu.  Said Weinglass:

This gentleman can tell you all you need to know about the fragility of the privileges and immunities of citizenship, guaranteed by our Constitution.

And he did.

Korematsu was the lead plaintiff in Korematusu v. U.S., filed on behalf of himself and all other Japanese-American citizens who were ordered interned from February 19, 1942 until after World War II, pursuant to Executive Order 9066.  In 1944, the Supreme Court held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed his individual rights, and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent.  The Court limited its decision to the validity of the exclusions ordered by the President, adding:

The provisions of other orders requiring persons of Japanese ancestry to report to assembly centers and providing for the detention of such persons in assembly and relocation centers were separate, and their validity is not in issue in this proceeding.

I’m fairly certain that didn’t make Fred feel any better—his conviction for refusing, at age 23, to report to an internment camp was upheld.  In 1983, key documents that government intelligence agencies had hidden from the Supreme Court in 1944 were discovered, which consistently showed that Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify mass incarceration.  Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court in San Francisco on November 10, 1983.  He remained a civil rights activist, for which he was finally honored late in life.


Following evacuation orders, this store, at 13th & Franklin Streets, was closed. The owner, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed the “I AM AN AMERICAN” sign on the store front on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor.
(Photographer: Dorothea Lange—Oakland, California, March 3, 1942. UC-Berkeley Bancroft Collection)

Box Score: Two-thirds of the almost 120,000 persons of Japanese descent who were rounded up and relocated behind barbed wire—and who lost their property and most of their possessions—were citizens of the United States.

Redress/Reparations: History

Congress’ first attempt to compensate former internees for their losses occurring as “a reasonable and natural consequence of the evacuation or exclusion, the “Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act of July 2, 1948,” was a failure.  Few of the internees themselves had been able to preserve detailed tax and financial records during the evacuation process and, by then, the IRS had already destroyed most of their 1939–42 tax records.  Against 26,568 claims totaling $148 million, by 1956 about $37 million was approved and disbursed.

In 1980, after four years of concerted effort by a coalition of survivors and heirs, the Congress authorized and President Jimmy Carter appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to conduct a comprehensive review of the whole sordid episode—including earlier, failed governmental attempts to give affected Nikkei relief—and to “recommend appropriate remedies.”  In its report, “Personal Justice Denied,” the Commission found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty and was troubled by its inability to locate reliable data on actual economic loss.  Helpful governmental records had either been destroyed or simply weren’t kept.  Their report recommended a payment of $20,000 to each individual internment camp survivor.  On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed H.R. 442, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.  Its principal legislative sponsors were:

  • The late Hawaiian Sens. Spark Matsunaga and Daniel Inouye, both of whom were wounded in World War II while fighting in the U.S. Army’s segregated—and much-decorated—442nd Regimental Combat Team, whose motto was “Go For Broke!”
  • The late Reps. Robert Matsui and Rep. Norman Mineta—who later served as Mayor of San Jose; Secretary of Transportation; and Secretary of Commerce; and for whom San Jose’s airport is named—both from California, the sons of Japanese immigrant parents, and interned with their families as children.  (Rep. Doris Matsui, her husband’s successor in the House, was also interned as a child.)

One account attributes the Chief Executive’s change of heart to, among other things, maturing public attitudes, coordinated public pressure, and the support of his Vice President, George H. W. Bush.

The official apology contained in the Act, as adopted, reads:

The Congress recognizes that, as described in the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry by the evacuation, relocation, and internment of civilians during World War II.

As the Commission documents, these actions were carried out without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage documented by the Commission, and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.

The excluded individuals of Japanese ancestry suffered enormous damages, both material and intangible, and there were incalculable losses in education and job training, all of which resulted in significant human suffering for which appropriate compensation has not been made.

For these fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of these individuals of Japanese ancestry, the Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation.

Even after the Act was signed into law, authorizing a total of $1.25 billion for distribution, securing full funding proved difficult.  In its final year, the Reagan Administration budgeted only $20,000,000 for redress payments—enough to pay 1,000 individuals.  In 1990, a bill spearheaded by Sen. Inouye required that all reparations payments would be made within three years.  On October 9, 1990, the first nine checks were issued to survivors.  When it was discovered that there existed about 80,000 eligible, more funds were appropriated by the Civil Liberties Act Amendments of 1992—a half-century after Executive Order 9066 was issued.  In all, by 1999 disbursements were made to 82,210 Japanese Americans or their heirs at a cost of $1.6 billion.

Moral authority is a powerful thing.  Nao Takasugi was an internee as a 19-year-old and, after earning an undergraduate degree from Temple and a Wharton M.B.A., a successful Oxnard businessman, where he served as Mayor and City Councilman for 10 years.  He was elected to the Assembly in 1992 and served three terms.  For those of us who had the opportunity to work with him, he was a man of unimpeachable integrity—and few words, except as required.  The Los Angeles Times reported on the Assembly’s consideration of a Remembrance Day resolution in 1997, where his passion and eloquence caused his moderate Republican colleague, Brooks Firestone, to stand down and abstain.  (Firestone expressed fear that “America’s losses at the hand of Japan will be forgotten.”)  GOP Assemblyman Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks—who was at the time and remains now, elected to the Congress from Northern California, five steps to the right of Attila the Hun—disagreed with Firestone’s trying to send a broader message about Japan’s role in the Pacific conflict.  He said:

Japan’s involvement has nothing to do with loyal American citizens who happen to be of Japanese ancestry.

Fifty-five years before, the late Senator Ralph Dills, then an Assemblyman, was the only member of our Legislature to vote against internment.  (He represented the city of Gardena; it and other parts of his district had a substantial Japanese-American population.  Apparently, familiarity also breeds respect—perhaps even affection.)

I don’t recall if it was that debate, one before that, or during Assemblyman Takasugi’s final year, but there was another memorable aspect: its conclusion. More conservative members of his minority caucus also complained about its lack of “balance.”  He was recognized and said, simply:

Mr. Speaker and Members: I…was…there.

There may have been additional discourse, but it’s beyond my memory.

Next Friday: Natives, Braceros, and Plutocrats.


FootnoteNine years ago, I was inspired by Remembrance Day and the photographs of Dorothea Lange at the Oakland Museum, to write a screenplay that connects victims of World War II to those of September 11.  It’s called YonseiHere’s my brief video introduction:


You can read Yonsei here.

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