2:24pm

Fri August 9, 2013
Code Switch

From Wrong To Right: A U.S. Apology For Japanese Internment

Originally published on Fri August 9, 2013 3:45 pm

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream for a more equal America. But there's another anniversary looming: 25 years ago this week, the Japanese-American community celebrated a landmark victory in its own struggle for civil rights.

In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. The law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community.

To mark the 25th anniversary of its passage, the Civil Liberties Act was put on display at the National Archives alongside the original Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment. For senior curator Bruce Bustard, it was a powerful juxtaposition of the journey from a wrong to a right.

When she saw the Executive Order in a glass case, Marielle Tsukamoto, who grew up in an internment camp, said she had "shivers up and down [her] back" because she realized the order ruined lives.

To some, it might seem like a bureaucratic government document, but according to Bustard, that's precisely what makes this exhibition such a potent reminder of what federal documents really mean. "They are filled with legalese, and again that to me reinforces the idea that from these sorts of legal decisions that our government makes, these kinds of consequences can happen."

The Japanese-American internment camps were often nothing more than makeshift barracks, with families and children cramped together behind barbed wires. Most of the internees were U.S. citizens from the West Coast who were forced to abandon or liquidate their businesses when war relocation authorities escorted them to the camps.

John Tateishi says the experience was both humiliating and disorienting. "We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country." He says that after the war most families never spoke about it. "There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way."

But decades later and inspired by the civil rights movement, the Japanese American Citizens League launched a contentious campaign for redress. It divided the community along generational lines. Tateishi became a leader of the movement.

"You have to sometimes bring your community dragging and screaming behind you, but you better have strong convictions that what you're doing is right," he says.

In 1980, Congress responded by establishing a commission to investigate the legacy of the camps. After extensive interviews and personal testimonies from victims, the commission issued its final report, calling the incarceration a "grave injustice" motivated by "racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership."

Japanese-Americans then serving in Congress, including Robert Matsui and Norm Mineta, helped turn that report into legislative language, providing for tax-free compensation and a formal apology. Mineta has served in two presidential Cabinets, but he says that bipartisan effort remains one of his proudest achievements.

"Today I just feel that Congress is so polarized that I'm not sure a grassroots movement like this would have the kind of impact that we see resulting in the signing of the bill by President Reagan in 1988," he says.

Tateishi says the redress campaign was less about the compensation for those who had already suffered and more about the next generation of Americans.

"There is a saying in Japanese culture, 'kodomo no tame ni,' which means, 'for the sake of the children.' And for us running this campaign, that had much to do with it," he saysi. "It's the legacy we're handing down to them and to the nation to say that, 'You can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it — and by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again.' "

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

This month, the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Dr. King spoke of his dream for a more equal America. And 25 years ago, the Japanese-American community celebrated a milestone in its own campaign for civil rights. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill compensating Japanese-Americans for being sent to internment camps during World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENT REAGAN)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor for here we admit a wrong. Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.

CORNISH: Two documents that tell the story of the campaign for reparation recently went on display at the National Archives here in Washington. NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: It was after hours at the National Archives as traditional Japanese music filled the rotunda galleries that housed the constitution. Generations of Japanese-Americans stood in from of a different glass display case.

MARIELLE TSUKAMOTO: When I first looked into the case, I had shivers up and down my back because I realized that those orders ruined our lives.

QURESHI: Marielle Tsukamoto was looking at Executive Order 9066 signed by President Roosevelt 10 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It authorized the incarceration of Japanese-Americans. The other document in the case was the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. It is the law that finally acknowledged that those orders were fundamentally wrong. Tom Kumatani grew up in an internment camp and he traveled from Seattle to see the documents.

TOM KUMATANI: It's not just a Japanese-American issue. It's a part of American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are setting a standard for the rest of the world in the treatment of people who may have loyalties to an enemy nation. We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency.

QURESHI: In 1942, the U.S. War Relocation Authority moved more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent behind barbed wires. They were forced to abandon their homes and businesses. Most of them were citizens and many of them were children. John Tateishi was one of them. He says it was humiliating and disorienting.

JOHN TATEISHI: We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt and of having been considered betrayers of our country.

QURESHI: And he says after the war most families never spoke about it.

TATEISHI: There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way.

QURESHI: But decades later, a new generation wanted to challenge the Japanese way. In 1978 the Japanese-American Citizens League launched a campaign for redress. Two years later, Congress responded by establishing a commission to investigate the legacy of the camps.

REPRESENTATIVE DORIS MATSUI: These meetings were held around the country and it was unbelievable what came out of that, the emotion that was probably suppressed for a very long time.

QURESHI: Congresswoman Doris Matsui says that emotional testimony empowered the movement. And when the commission issued its final report, it called the incarceration a grave injustice motivated by racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership. The bill that emerged from that report provided a written apology and $20,000 in tax-free compensation for each victim. It was co-sponsored by Norm Mineta. He served in two presidential Cabinets, but says that bipartisan effort for redress remains one of his proudest achievements.

NORM MINETA: Today, I just feel that Congress is so polarized that I'm not sure that a grassroots movement like this would have the kind of impact that we see resulting in the signing of the bill by President Reagan in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

REAGAN: Thank you all again and God bless you all. I think this is a fine day.

QURESHI: Back at the National Archives, I found 24-year-old Lauren Namba quietly looking at that bill in its glass case.

LAUREN NAMBA: Seeing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which basically granted redress to all of those who survived the experience, it was very moving for me.

QURESHI: And John Tateishi who helped lead the campaign for redress says it really was for Namba's generation.

TATEISHI: There's a saying in the Japanese culture, it says 'kodomo no tame ni,' which means, 'for the sake of the children.' And for us, running this campaign, that had much to do with it. It's the legacy we're handing down to them and to the nation to say that, you know, you can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it. And by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again.

QURESHI: The original Executive Order 9066 and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 will be on display together in the National Archives until August 19. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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