Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War Two demand that the federal government take account of their suffering and make reparations.
In the 1960s and '70s, large numbers of Japanese Americans started demanding redress for the incarceration they or their family endured during World War II. On college campuses, Japanese American students were joining the civil rights and anti-war movements. They were signing up for classes in a new area of academic research: Asian-American Studies. In some cases, this was the first time they learned about what their parents had experienced during the incarceration. Some criticized their elders for never speaking about the injustice, and for not doing more to fight back. They began calling on Japanese Americans to talk about the history of the camps.
At the same time, some Japanese Americans began making annual pilgrimages to camps where they or their family had been imprisoned. The second and third generation of Japanese Americans — known as the Nisei and Sansei — became principal organizers. In the early years, these get-togethers played a key role in building a movement for reparations. It was a place where activists could talk strategy and recruit support. In time, Japanese Americans would demand compensation and a government apology for the suffering of former prisoners.
The government actually offered reparations in 1948. But it wasn't much. Congress passed a law that offered limited compensation for the financial losses suffered by Japanese Americans. But the terms of the law were narrow. The camps had closed three years earlier. Former incarcerees were required to provide sworn testimony and receipts as proof of lost property. There was no money for the loss of income or potential business profit. Many families actually paid more in legal fees than they got in compensation.
As the movement for reparations gained momentum, some Japanese Americans worried it would stoke anti-Japanese racism and incite a backlash. Other Japanese Americans opposed the redress movement because they felt financial reparations would cheapen their sacrifice. They argued that no amount of money could heal the ordeal of imprisonment during World War Two.
The reparations movement took a big step forward in 1980, when Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Its goal was to investigate the incarceration and its aftermath. In 1981, the commission held 20 days of public hearings in 10 cities. More than 750 people testified about being incarcerated. Many Japanese Americans who testified had never told their stories before. Not even to their children. Some older people spoke in Japanese and had an interpreter.
One of the commission's jobs was to examine a key question: Was the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt justified in removing all Japanese Americans from the West Coast during the war? After reviewing troves of archival documents uncovered during the investigation, the commission determined that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was not caused by military necessity. It was caused by racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.
The commission made a series of recommendations. Among them, the president of the United States should issue a formal apology, a foundation should be established to educate the public about the history of the incarceration, and the federal government should pay $20,000 to each surviving prisoner.
President Ronald Reagan signed what became known as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, largely enacting the commission's recommendations. Its purpose was to formally acknowledge and compensate for the actions of the U.S. government against Japanese Americans during World War II.
A number of Japanese American civic groups that pushed for redress, such as the Japanese American Citizens League, are still active on the national stage. They speak out in defense of other minorities that have come under attack. That includes American Muslims since 9/11 and other immigrant groups in the era of Donald Trump.