Japanese American Redress Movement
Japanese American Redress Movement
Japanese immigrants began arriving in the United States in the 1880s. This first generation of Japanese immigrants, called the Issei, found assimilation into the American mainstream difficult at best. Cultural differences, xenophobia, and a quota system for immigrants served to stigmatize and subordinate the Issei. Life was little better for the first generation of ethnic Japanese born in the United States (the Nisei). Some Nisei were sent by their parents to Japan to be educated in the old ways. When these educated Nisei returned to the United States, they were known as the Kibei, and they achieved a degree of cultural status within the ethnic Japanese community. Although the Nisei were American citizens, they faced many of the same barriers to assimilation as their Issei parents. In the eyes of many white Americans, the ethnic Japanese represented an “otherness” that could neither be trusted nor respected. Out of this prejudice grew many forms of discrimination. The Issei, for example, were denied the right of naturalization and the right to purchase land. In 1924, further immigration from Japan was banned under the National Origins Act. This poisonous atmosphere set the sociopolitical stage for the extraordinary level of hostility visited upon Japanese Americans in the aftermath of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After declaring war on Japan, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order that effectively denied the basic right of due process to thousands of Japanese Americans. Issued on February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 directed the secretary of war to identify military areas from which “any or all persons” deemed to be a threat to national security, “by sabotage or espionage,” should be excluded. There was no requirement in the executive order that criminal charges be filed against the accused or that the accused receive a trial prior to his or her exclusion (evacuation and internment) from the designated areas. The right to be formally charged and the right to defend oneself from such charges were supposedly fundamental rights in this democracy. However, pursuant to the executive order, government officials and military personnel rounded up Japanese Americans on the West Coast and in western Arizona. Without indictment, trial, or conviction, they were forced to quickly sell or store their property, for they were taken away with little—and in many cases no—prior notice. They were taken first to assembly centers, and later to one of ten internment camps located in the western United States. More than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, including over 77,000 American citizens, were confined to the internment camps under the authority of Executive Order 9066.
Life in the internment camps was harsh by any measure. The internees lived a highly regimented lifestyle in crowded, dilapidated quarters behind barbed-wire fences and watchtowers with armed guards. These conditions greatly affected the psychological state of the internees. A sense of being a POW or a convicted criminal pervaded the camps. Adding to this sense of incarceration was the attitude of the guards. To generate a little excitement in their monotonous job, the guards would often terrorize the internees by shooting at them. Hence, not only were Japanese Americans uprooted from their homes, deprived of their property, denied due process, and stripped of their freedom, they were also psychologically terrorized—all at the hands of their own government.
The sociopolitical forces that allowed Executive Order 9066 to be used as a means to deprive Japanese Americans of their fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms were later detailed in a congressional investigation prepared by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). Established in 1980 to review Executive Order 9066 and its impact on “American citizens and permanent resident aliens,” the commission conducted a comprehensive series of hearings, which included testimony from over 750 witnesses. The commission concluded that Executive Order 9066 and its execution were not justified by military necessity or national security, despite claims to the contrary by officials in the Roosevelt administration. Rather, they were fueled by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.
This conclusion is supported by the dramatically different treatment ethnic Japanese received in Hawaii after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although residents of Japanese ancestry represented more than 35 percent of the Hawaiian population at the time, only 1 percent of them were detained in the aftermath of the attack. Given the fact that Hawaii was regarded as a strategically important area, the logical assumption would be that ethnic Japanese posed a great danger to national security in Hawaii. But government officials in Hawaii exercised better judgment than their mainland counterparts, due in large part to three factors: a history of greater racial tolerance, a larger percentage of ethnic Japanese in the population, and a restrained military commander who believed in a presumption of loyalty unless there was evidence to the contrary.
Despite the inherent injustice of interning innocent people, especially U.S. citizens, it seemed unlikely at first that Japanese Americans would receive any redress in the postwar years. Increasing numbers of the Nisei and their children (the Sansei, or grandchildren of the Issei) became members of the American middle class. The Issei became eligible for citizenship in 1952, and the ban on Japanese immigration was lifted (although a quota was instituted in its place). In 1959 Hawaii became a state, and Asian American legislators soon arrived in Washington. By the 1960s, Japanese Americans had become the “model minority.” These developments made redress appear unnecessary and unwise.
Yet a sense of injustice remained for many Japanese Americans, especially the Sansei who participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Conflicting attitudes about redress were largely drawn along generational lines. While the Nisei who experienced internment first-hand preferred to move beyond that traumatic experience, their Sansei children wanted to confront the past as a foundation for moving forward. These socially active children of the civil rights era wanted to restore ethnic pride to Japanese Americans. They also wanted to uncover the truth about the internment. As the myriad internal dialogues unfolded, one fact became clear: each group of Japanese Americans viewed internment as the central event in Japanese American history. It has often been said that internment is the event from which all other events in the lives of Japanese Americans are dated and compared.
This sense of shared history brought survivors of the internment forward to testify before the CWRIC. In addition, two sets of lawsuits were filed. The first was a coram nobis (Latin for “error before us’) litigation brought in 1983 by three former internees: Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu. These plaintiffs sought to overturn their convictions, which were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1943 and 1944, for violating the wartime curfew and exclusion orders. The coram nobis lawsuits were successful in overturning these criminal convictions. “The courts issuing the writs declared an injustice and sought to redress it by correcting the historical as well as the legal record on which the Supreme Court had relied in its prior decisions” (Brooks 2004, p. 114).
The second set of lawsuits sought redress for all internees, not just those criminally convicted of violating the wartime exclusion laws. The most important of these cases is Hohri v. United States (1986), in which the plaintiffs sought monetary relief for violations of their constitutional rights and for losses to their homes and businesses. Like similar lawsuits that have sought monetary relief for past governmental injustice, this case was dismissed on grounds that it was barred by the statute of limitations and by the government’s sovereign immunity. The case was finally dismissed in 1988, the same year in which President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act into law.
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 marked the successful culmination of the Japanese American redress movement. Among other things, the act contained: (1) a joint congressional resolution acknowledging and apologizing for the internment of Japanese Americans; (2) a presidential pardon for Japanese Americans who, like Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Korematsu, refused to comply with exclusion orders; (3) the establishment of a foundation to sponsor educational activities; and (4) payment of $20,000 to each surviving internee.
In 1988, when the reparations bill was singed into law, Japanese Americans were less than 1 percent of the population, politically passive as a group, and divided over whether to pursue a legislative or litigeous path to redress. In addition, the redress movement reached its zenith in the 1980s, when the federal budget deficit was nearing an all-time high. By all accounts, the Japanese American redress movement should have failed, not unlike the African American redress movement for slavery and Jim Crow, or, at best, it should have gained only marginal success, similar to the Native American redress movement.
So why was the redress movement so successful? There were a number of factors that allowed Japanese Americans to break through the political barriers that had stymied other groups. First, the redress bill became essentially a “free vote” for members of Congress. This was made possible because veterans groups did not actively oppose the bill, primarily due to the remarkable war record of Japanese American veterans (Nisei soldiers), who fought valiantly for a country that held their relatives and friends captive. Second, Japanese American leaders were able to frame the legislative issue as a deprivation of equal opportunity rather than as a claim for preferential treatment. Third, Barney Frank (D-Mass.) made redress his top priority when he became subcommittee chair in 1987. And finally, four powerful Japanese American Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate vigorously supported the bill, personalizing discussions with narratives of their own war experiences.
Brooks, Roy L. 2004. Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. 1982. Personal Justice Denied. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Hatamiya, Leslie T. 1993. Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and the Passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Hohri, William Minoru. 1988. Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese-American Redress. Pullman: Washington State University Press.
Irons, Peter. 1983. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese Internment Cases. New York: Oxford University Press.
Yamamoto, Eric K., Carol L. Izumi, Jerry Kang, and Frank H. Wu. 2001. Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Law & Business.
Roy L. Brooks