This Day in History – August 10: The U.S. Rights a Wrong
By Alison Moore
On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act which issued a formal apology and a sum of $20,000, to every American of Japanese ancestry imprisoned in “relocation” camps during World War II. “Here we admit a wrong,” said President Reagan in his accompanying remarks, “Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
Forty Six years earlier, on February 19, 1942, ten weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which authorized the U.S. to bar individuals from prescribed military areas – and ultimately to remove 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast for the duration of the war.
Beginning in March, 1942, Japanese Americans in cities along the coast were ordered to leave their homes for relocation to camps scattered throughout the desert west and Arkansas. Two-thirds of those ordered to leave their homes were U.S. citizens. Stunned residents hastily packed up their homes and businesses, storing or selling belongings, abandoning crops as they lay in the fields, keeping only those possessions which “they could carry.”
On Terminal Island near Los Angeles “word spread quickly,” writes author and community leader Bill Hosokawa, “and human vultures in the guise of used furniture dealers descended on the island. They drove up and down the streets in trucks offering $5 for a nearly new washing machine, $10 for refrigerators … and the Japanese, angry but helpless, sold their dearly purchased possessions because they didn’t know what to do.”
At war’s end, the camps were closed and people returned to houses and farms occupied by squatters or in terrible states of disrepair. Discrimination was common. For many the experience in the camps was seldom spoken of as people worked to rebuild their lives. But beginning in the 1970s, the Japanese American Citizen’s League, an organization formed in 1929 to expand the citizenship rights of Japanese Americans, began a movement for redress for the injustices and economic losses suffered during internment.
In 1980, primarily through the efforts of the JACL and key Japanese American legislators, Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Eight years later, the report by the Commission, titled Personal Justice Denied, determined that civil liberties had been violated. The Civil Liberties Act grew out of the report, and in 1990 the first checks were handed to formerly imprisoned citizens.
In the Bay Area, Janet Daijogo, a native San Franciscan interned as a child, phoned her mother to hear her reaction to the receipt of the reparation check. “I asked her how that was, [and] she said, ‘Nothing can pay for the humiliation that we endured,’ and she began to cry…which was only the second time in my life I had ever witnessed my mother crying.”
The process of seeking redress became a catalyst for the Japanese American community to express anger kept silent for years. For many of the first generation citizens, the Issei, reparations came too late. But for the second generation Nisei, redress offered a new beginning. Author Delphine Hirasuna notes that what followed reparations signaled a “change in demeanor and attitude among the Nisei [that] was palpable … a community healing itself.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the 2014 The Atlantic magazine article, “The Case for Reparations,” writes, “I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
- Bill Hosokawa, Nisei: The Quiet Americans (New York: Morrow, 1969), pp. 310-11
- Kimi Kodani Hill, Topaz Moon (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2000), p. 14
- Janet Daijogo, Telling Their Stories (Oral History Archives Project, The Urban School San Francisco, 2006) www.tellingstories.org
- Delphine Hirasuna, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005) p. 124
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” (The Atlantic, June 2014) www.theatlantic.com