By John Y. Tateshi (Click here to view the entire issue)
The Japanese American redress campaign was predicated on a basic principle that the Constitutional rights of American citizens and legal resident aliens of Japanese ancestry were violated when, at the outbreak of World War II, the United States government forcibly excluded Japanese Americans from their homes and placed them into involuntary detention without the benefit of due process. Some 35 years later, efforts were undertaken to rectify the injustices that stripped Japanese Americans of their properties, their livelihoods, and their dignity as Americans.
It was a singular moment in the Constitutional history of the United States: it was the only instance in which American citizens and legal residents were denied en masse the assumption of innocence and the Constitutional rights of freedom. The basic guarantees of individual protections sanctified by the Bill of Rights were denied to Japanese Americans during WWII, setting the stage for a battle 35 years later to rectify the injustices of the internment.
The strategies for the effort were based on these facts and developed in the early days of the public campaign. It was decided that a legislative campaign would lit serve the goals of reparations, primarily because it was felt that the Congress would be more amenable to providing compensatory redress than would the courts, regardless of the fact of a conservative President in the White House and Republican control of the Senate.
A legislative campaign, it was recognized, could be fought in the media and the public arena, where a carefully designed grassroots effort could be launched across the country. The strategy in the fast two years was to mount both a legislative and educational campaign designed to establish a public debate through the media while gaining legislative support through the network of national civil rights coalitions and by establishing a grassroots effort. This early strategy was critical because Japanese Americans lacked both political clout and numbers. If the campaign could not be fought in the media, there appeared little hope to gain public support and legislative approval.
Rather than attempt compensatory legislation at the outset, the campaign was designed around a two-phased approach. We sought legislation to establish a federal commission whose mandate was to investigate the events surrounding the WWII internment and provide the Congress with its findings and recommendations. The second phase sought compensatory legislation based on the findings and recommendations of the commission. The thinking behind this strategy was that a federal commission would provide an unbiased and objective fact-fording investigation. Japanese Americans knew that they were the victims of injustice during WWII, but the majority of Americans were either ignorant about the incident or were convinced that the internment was justified. The commission’s responsibility was to make a determination based on facts. It was less than a calculated risk, for we were convinced uncovering the facts could lead to only one conclusion. Just as important, it was clear that public hearings conducted by the commission would draw attention to the WWII internment, furthering both the educational and legislative goals of the campaign.
The findings of the commission were, as expected, unequivocal in its condemnation of the government’s actions, which the commission stated were based on race, prejudice, and a lack of political leadership. The commission recommended reparations of $20,000 per surviving victim, which became the basis for the compensatory legislation introduced in Congress in 1982 and approved by the President in 1988. The stunning success of the campaign in the face of formidable opposition both by the public and in Congress was the result of the efforts of thousands of Japanese-Americans who would not relent in their conviction that the injustice committed against them was a betrayal of the very principles for which they were fighting. For them, the fight was not for money. Instead, it was to set right an injustice left uncorrected, and it was for their sense of place in America.
The lessons drawn from the Japanese American redress issue are varied and numerous. Whether those lessons can serve African American reparations remains to be seen. The WWII internment was a singular event at a given moment in the history of this nation, and while the victims were traumatized by their dishonoring as Americans, they somehow found the means to put the episode aside and get on with their lives.
One is inevitably left wondering how African American reparations can possibly rectify the inhumanity of slavery and the legacy of injustice left in its wake. For Japanese Americans, the symbolic payment of $20,000 for the loss of freedom precludes forever any future claims for redressing the wrongs of the internment. The damage done to African Americans over many generations cannot be swept away by a simple clearing of the collective conscience of a nation. Promises are too easily broken, and promises will no longer be sufficient to address the profundity and lasting effects of slavery.
John Y. Tateishi was born in 1939 in Los Angeles and spent three years at the Manzanar concentration camp in the Owens Valley in California. He served as the National Redress Director for the Japanese American Citizens League and was the chief legislative strategist for the redress campaign. He is currently a public affairs consultant.