Historical Overview

Executive Order 9066

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Japan launched an attack on the United States at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii. The attack quickly led to America's entry into World War II. It also produced a host of punitive wartime measures on the home front aimed at residents of Japanese ancestry. Within months of the attack, such measures by the U.S. government would result in the incarceration of over 120,000 citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry.


Since the late 19th century, a steady stream of Japanese immigration flowed to the shores of Hawaii and the West Coast of the U.S. mainland. By 1940, their ranks totaled nearly 275,000. A wide-range of nativist sentiment greeted the immigrants upon their arrival, and in places like California, where economic competition in agriculture and other industries proved acute, the reaction was nothing short of overt and, at times, violent racism. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks, such fears and anxieties reached fever pitch. Business and citizen groups from western states intensely lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the removal of residents of Japanese descent, both foreign born (Issei, first generation) and American citizens (Nisei, native-born second generation). On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt assented to the demands and issued Executive Order 9066.


The Presidential Order authorized the forced removal of all persons deemed a threat to U.S. national security from the West Coast. While not specifically identified in the text of 9066, the order overwhelmingly applied to residents of Japanese ancestry. Within a month, the West Coast was divided into military zones and General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command issued Public Proclamation No. 4, which began the evacuation and detention of Japanese residents on a 48-hour notice. By the fall of 1942, over 120,000 men, women, and children were forcibly relocated to ten internment camps, officially termed "relocation centers," in the West. Nearly 70,000 of those incarcerated were American citizens.


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In The Wake of Internment

The trauma caused by internment is difficult to comprehend or quantify in its totality. After living in cramped quarters surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guard towers for over two years, the incarcerated Japanese Americans and legal residents were largely released by 1944. Most returned to the towns they had previously called home, only to be met with continued suspicion and hostility. Harassment, discriminatory housing policies, as well as acts of violence pushed many families to relocate outside the West, just as racist employment practices worsened an already dire economic situation. The speed of evacuation forced many families and businesses to sell their property well-below market value. Based on government figures, total property loss was estimated at $1.3 billion, loss in net income around $2.7 billion.


The injustice of internment was not ignored by the Japanese American community. In the decades that followed World War II, various citizen groups lobbied the U.S. government to secure compensation for the incarcerated. In 1948, such efforts gained some traction with the passage of the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act. The Act, with amendments in 1951 and 1965, provided some compensation for property loss. Yet in the eyes of the community, the program, which was overseen by the Department of Justice, was hampered by bureaucratic red tape. By 1950, the Department had heard only 200 of the over 23,000 claims filed. In all, the government paid out $38 million in settlements—a mere fraction of the actual property loss suffered by the Japanese American community.

Calls For Justice

The various movements for civil rights and ethnic pride during the 1960s and 1970s breathed new life into efforts within the Japanese American community to seek justice for wartime incarceration. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which had worked on behalf of the community since the 1920s, was one of several groups that stood at the forefront of such efforts. In the late 1960s, JACL leaders organized a successful campaign to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act, the federal law which authorized mass detention of suspected subversives without trial. Community activism and JACL lobbying efforts also led to Executive Order 9066 being officially rescinded by President Gerald Ford in 1976.


Building on this success, the JACL formed a Redress Committee to advocate for a program of federal compensation. To be sure, their efforts were not new as various proposals for compensation had circulated in the Japanese American Community for years. By 1979, however, congress proved a bit more receptive to the idea. In Washington, committee leaders met with Representatives Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui of California and Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii. If the movements for civil rights and social justice of the previous decade didn't alter the political landscape in congress toward such a proposal, having four representatives of Japanese descent certainly did. Instead of reparations, the four congressmen advanced the idea of creating a federal commission to investigate the causes and consequences of wartime incarceration. As they saw it, a federal commission would be an important first step in the long march toward redress. With the JACL committee in agreeance, Senators Inouye and Matsunaga introduced Senate Bill 1647 to establish the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law.


Creating Public Understanding

For the next two years, the newly created CWRIC conducted one of the most in-depth examinations of Japanese wartime internment to date. Scores of personal papers, government documents, and other archival sources were collected by the bipartisan commission, as was nearly every scholarly publication on the topic. More importantly, the commission conducted 20 days of oral testimony in cities across the U.S., from Boston to Los Angeles. Of the 750 witnesses that spoke before the commission, more than 500 former detainees testified. For many, it was the first time they had ever discussed their wartime experience in front of their children, let alone in public. The emotional accounts, as recounted in media outlets throughout the country, not only galvanized support for redress within the Japanese American community, but among large segments of the American public.


Not everyone, however, sympathized with the former internees. In fact, there were those who denied the injustices of wartime internment. Lillian Baker, a revisionist author and activist from Southern California, stood as a case in point. An outspoken critic of Japanese American redress, Baker founded the Anaheim-based group, Americans For Historical Accuracy, in 1976 to oppose the growing movements for reparations. She claimed the camps were "a military necessity" filled with "enemy aliens loyal to the Emperor of Japan." At the same time, she maintained that many in the camps were there "voluntarily," that there were "no machine guns in the guard towers," and the barbed wire fences "were to keep the cattle out, not the people in." She also insisted that the famed pictures taken by Dorothea Lange at California's Manzanar camp were "doctored." During her testimony in front of the CWRIC in Los Angeles, over 200 Japanese Americans walked out in silent protest amid what a JACL newsletter at the time described as her "hysterical diatribes against evacuees." Her testimony aside, Baker is perhaps best remembered for the police escort she received out of the hearing after trying to incite an altercation with former internee and World War II veteran, James Kawanami, during his testimony. Kawanami served as president of the Southern California 442nd Veterans Association. The 442nd ranked as one of the most decorated units in World War II, and was composed entirely of Japanese American soldiers, many of whom were freed from the camps to serve in the war effort.


The arguments of critics like Lillian Baker held little sway with the Republicans and Democrats on the CWRIC. In 1983, the Commission published its report, titled, Personal Justice Denied, which conceded the injustices suffered by those of Japanese ancestry during the war. According to the Commission, such actions by the government did not result from a "military necessity" but from "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." In the end, the report recommended a three-prong plan of redress: a presidential apology; the establishment of a foundation to educate the public; and a $20,000 payment to each surviving detainee.

CWRIC Hearing in Los Angeles, 1981

Lillian Baker altercation with James Kawanami

Competing Visions of Redress

While the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians proved successful, not everyone within the Japanese American community backed the creation of the commission, nor JACL's leading role in the redress movement. One group of critics in Seattle and Chicago formed the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) to pursue a different path. Instead of the CWRIC, the group placed their support behind Washington Congressman Michael Lowry's reparations bill, which called for payments to former detainees in the amount of $15,000 as well as $15 per day of incarceration. The bill was unsuccessful and never got out of committee. NCJAR then filed a class action lawsuit in 1983 seeking $220,000 per victim for constitutional violations, loss of property, as well as pain and suffering. After a long and complicated route through the legal system, the suit was dismissed by the US Supreme Court.


Another organization that formed was the National Coalition of Redress / Reparations (NCRR). Founded in Los Angeles and primarily led by Sansei (third generation) activists, NCRR sought to offer an alternative to JACL leadership in redress. While the group initially preferred reparations legislation over the creation of the CWRIC in 1980, they led an impressive grassroots campaign to have better representation of the Japanese American community in front of the commission. Here, they sought to diversify the group of former internees testifying by circulating leaflets and holding workshops that encourage working-class and non-English speakers to participate. In fact, NCRR's activism and lobbying played a pivotal role in the addition of an evening hearing in Los Angeles and the use of Japanese translators at the two hearings in California.


Civil Liberties Act of 1988

In wake of the 1983 Commission report, the Japanese American community urged congress to implement the recommendations of the CWRIC. Congressman Norman Mineta from California agreed to take the lead and sponsored HR 442, a bill specially numbered to honor the famed Japanese American 442nd Regiment of World War II. The political landscape of Washington, however, did not prove favorable to the bill, which spent many years in a partisan tug-a-war between the Democratic majority of the House who largely supported the legislation, and the Republican majority of the Senate who opposed it on "government spending" grounds. Reaching across the aisle, Mineta found an ally in Republican Senator Alan Simpson. The two had actually met decades earlier when Simpson's Boy Scout troop visited Mineta and other Japanese American scouts interned in Wyoming's Heart Mountain Relocation Center during the war. Over forty years later, the two men reconnected and pledged to work together to pass HR 442. With the help of California Senator Pete Wilson, Simpson began to whittle away the Republican opposition in the Senate while Mineta and others sought to buttress support in the House. By 1987, their efforts along with majority changes in the Senate finally ushered the bill to vote.


The lobbying and grassroot campaigns waged by groups like JACL and NCRR in support of HR 442 matched the political muscle of Mineta, Simpson, and other congressional allies. Representatives of both groups maintained a steady presence in the corridors of congress, with NCRR alone making over a hundred visits to Capitol Hill. They organized community events, letter campaigns, and continued to spotlight the bill in the media. By 1987, more than 200 organizations, ranging from veterans groups to state legislatures, endorsed the redress bill. After years of protest and debate, the political tide had finally turned. On August 10, 1988, HR 442—officially titled The Civil Liberties Act of 1988—was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.


The passage of HR 442 was a historic achievement predicated on decades of activism, community organization, and political advocacy. Just as the CWRIC recommended, the bill created a foundation to educate the public and provided for both a presidential apology and $20,000 payment. Yet little did supporters know that the real work of redress had just begun. Passing legislation was one thing; implementing the policies of the redress bill would prove a complicated venture all its own. The government body charged with overseeing this unprecedented process was a unit in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice that came to be known as the Office of Redress Administration.

Alan Simpson and Norman Mineta

President Regan signing HR 442