In 1941, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, citing “military necessity,” imprisoned some 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. Most were U.S. citizens and half were children. The overwhelming majority of these individuals would spend the next two to five years wrongfully stripped of their rights and freedoms and incarcerated without due legal process. They lost their homes, their livelihoods and their communities.
It was a gross violation of Constitutional rights that eventually prompted the community to demand redress and reparations.
When the camps closed, Japanese Americans were given $25 and a one-way train ticket to go and re-establish their lives. Faced with pressing short-term challenges—finding jobs and housing, feeding their families and getting their kids back in school—few were focused on an apology or reparations. Plus, many who’d been incarcerated suffered a shameful sense that, as a community, they had done something wrong to bring this Constitutional violation upon themselves. Many Japanese Americans endeavored to prove themselves 110 percent American so that this would never happen again.
As years passed, however, more concluded that the government needed to right the wrong put in motion by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 to "relocate" people of Japanese descent during the war. Slowly, momentum built to demand redress.
The process took decades. For Japanese Americans, post-WWII America was still a place of racist legislation and sentiments where barriers arose constantly—from housing and employment discrimination to difficulties getting bank loans to lingering social hostility. Developing a collective political voice took time.
Small Social and Political Steps Toward Justice
The 1950s began a time of great change in America. While the Black civil rights movement gained steam with school desegregation and bus boycotts, Japanese Americans made their own strides. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act loosened some longstanding immigration restrictions, allowing Japanese in America to become naturalized American citizens. And in 1959, the territory of Hawai`i gained statehood—and federal representation. Its first representative, Daniel K. Inouye was a WWII veteran of the decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese American battalion, who had lost his right arm in battle. With such a clear reminder of the valor and loyalty of Japanese Americans now in the Capitol, the possibility now existed that someday the wrongful incarceration of Japanese Americans could be addressed.
The 1960s continued to foment social and political change in the U.S. The civil rights and women’s movements spotlighted issues of enduring inequality. The anti-Vietnam War movement underscored the importance of dissent as an American value. The emerging ethnic studies movement prompted young people to explore and celebrate their diversity. Fueled by all this, young Japanese Americans began to wonder what happened during WWII and why their parents and grandparents had not resisted the incarceration. For most Japanese Americans, though, the pain and shame of the incarceration experience still outweighed the desire for redress.
The 1970s brought increased political representation. By the end of the decade, the U.S. Congress included two decorated Japanese American war veterans (Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga) and two former inmates of American concentration camps, Reps. Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui.
A Community Conflicted About Redress
The Japanese American community remained divided among three perspectives regarding seeking redress. The first wanted to let the issue go. They recognized that Japanese Americans had come a long way since WWII and were no longer viewed as the enemy of the nation. Many had established stable lives and wanted to avoid a return to the spotlight. The elderly, in particular, did not want to relive or retell the heart-wrenching stories of the past.
The second perspective sought a simple apology. Monetary compensation, they argued, was not only unrealistic, but it distracted from the main issue of the constitutional violations. Plus, they saw placing a price tag on their denied constitutional rights as insulting.
The third perspective wanted an apology and monetary payments. They argued that families had suffered real fiscal losses—and while the payments would be symbolic, they would acknowledge and address those financial setbacks. The debate between the three perspectives were often heated and, at times, created deep divisions within the community.
A Federal Report: 'Personal Justice Denied'
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Finally, in 1978, the Japanese American Citizens League passed a resolution demanding a presidential apology and monetary reparations. In January 1979, their leadership met with Senators Inouye and Matsunaga and Representatives Mineta and Matsui to request that the legislators sponsor a bill enacting their demands.
The more prudent political path, Senator Inouye countered, was to create a federal commission to research and investigate the incarceration experience.
The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), authorized in July 1980, held hearings in 10 cities and received testimony from over 750 witnesses—from those who designed and implemented the camps to those who spent years incarcerated in them. Japanese Americans, some for the very first time, shared moving stories of loss, discrimination and wrongful incarceration. For many who found the courage to voice their history and their demands for justice, the testimony was cathartic.
In its 1983 report titled “Personal Justice Denied,” the CWRIC stated that the camps were wrong and the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” The report recommended a federal apology 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 into 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 the Japanese American soldiers of WWII.
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 bill’s authors framed it not as addressing the wrongs done to Japanese Americans, but rather as addressing the egregious violation of constitutional rights of American citizens.
The House passed the bill with 243 aye votes, a bipartisan achievement. In the Senate, where Senator Matsunaga had secured 71 co-sponsors, the bill passed with 69 aye votes on April 20, 1988.
Ronald Reagan’s Personal Connection
The bill needed one more signature—that of President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican whose own administration had been working against redress both in the courts and in the Congress. While many in the community were skeptical the President would sign the bill, redress supporters pressed on.
Known 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, a member of the 100th/442nd RCT who was killed in battle during WWII. After the war, when his family was released from the camp at Gila River, Arizona, their attempt to move back to their hometown of Santa Ana, California was met with hate speech, racial taunts and threats of bodily harm. The Army realized this was a public relations fiasco; the family of one of its own fallen heroes could not move back home.
The Army arranged a contingent of officers to present the Distinguished Service Cross medal to the family of Sgt. Masuda at their Santa Ana residence. 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:
Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all of one color… America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but on a way—an ideal… Mr. and Mrs. Masuda, just as one member of the family of Americans, speaking to another member, I want to say for what your son Kazuo did—thanks.
Reminding President Reagan of the Masuda 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 a presidential apology and monetary redress payments to those living individuals who had been affected by Executive Order 9066. It was a rare and important moment—not only for Japanese Americans, but for the entire nation—to uphold its core constitutional values and to right a past wrong.