Japanese-Americans seek redress for WWII internment

On May 16, 1942, at 9:30 a.m., we departed . . . for an unknown destination. To this day, I can remember vividly the plight of the elderly, some on stretchers, orphans herded onto the train by caretakers, and especially a young couple with four preschool children. The mother had two frightened toddlers hanging onto her coat. In her arms, she carried two crying babies. The father had diapers and other baby paraphernalia strapped to his back. In his hands he struggled with a duffel bag and suitcase. The shades were drawn on the train for the entire trip. Military police patrolled the aisles.

- Grace Nakamura, personal testimony,

Los Angeles, Aug. 6, 1981

Ten weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first scenes of a grim drama unfolded for many Japanese-Americans who were uprooted from their homes and forcibly placed in detention camps for the duration of the war. Many lost their homes and their businesses, and suffered humiliation living under armed guard and behind barbed-wire fences. The hastily constructed ''relocation centers'' were located in mountain and barren-desert areas of the West, where the harsh climate and inadequate housing created physical hardship.

In 1980, as the result of a bill sponsored by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a national civil rights organization with 114 chapters, Congress appointed a commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding the internment of over 120,000 Japanese-American citizens and permanent resident nationals during World War II and to recommend an appropriate redress. The commission is slated to reveal its recommendations for redress and reparations later this month.

As the basis of the investigation, the nine-member Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Japanese Citizens heard ''poignant, searing'' testimonies from more than 750 witnesses, including evacuees, former government officials, public figures, and historians. Published last February, their report , ''Personal Justice Denied,'' includes excerpts of oral and written personal testimonies and information from archival research.

While the reparations issue has been raised periodically during the last decade, over the past five years it has gained momentum in both congressional and other spheres.

''It's hard to get something to a national level when you represent less than 1 percent of the population,'' says Mr. Wakabayashi, JACL national director. The organization decided it was important to establish an educational base through the investigative commission before attempting a direct financial-compensation bill.

As a result of the hearings, ''There's been a growth of consciousness about the camps,'' says Mr. Wakabayashi. ''It was important to have Japanese-Americans publicly stand up and say this was wrong.''

Mr. Wakabayashi sees the reparations issue as both a matter of principle and of practical importance for the 60,000 to 70,000 survivors of the camps.

''The amount of money has to be significant to indicate US commitment to Japanese-Americans as first-class citizens,'' he says. ''But regardless of what the commission finds, a victory already in our hands has been an assertion of our dignity.''

Sitting in the modern, skylit headquarters located in San Francisco's Nihonmachi (Japan town), Mr. Wakabayashi looks back over the events of the past few years.

''1981 was a very emotional year for the Japanese-American community,'' he says, recalling stirring sessions as local community members and colleagues rehearsed their speeches in preparation for the actual hearings. ''The first time through, every one of them broke down and cried and couldn't complete their testimony.''

According to Mr. Wakabayashi, the hearings not only provided an emotional release for individuals but aired a sensitive issue suppressed by the Japanese-American community as a whole. While survivors harbored their own often-painful memories, until the 1981 hearings there was little understanding of their collective experience.

About 13 years ago, the JACL organized a pilgrimage to one of the camp sites. ''The reaction in the community was 'Why are you bringing this up?' '' says Mr. Wakabayashi. ''There is a great deal of shame and embarrassment regarding this topic. Parents didn't talk about it in a substantial way with their children. The pilgrimage brought younger people's questions to the fore.''

Through the 60s, says Mr. Wakabayashi, young Japanese-Americans were starved for information about the camps. Over the past few years, the ethnic-studies movement has brought more information to light.

At the outset, the evacuation decision was largely a result of anti-Asian sentiment and a fear of invasion on the West Coast. In an atmosphere of war hysteria and political pressure, following a string of Japanese victories in the Pacific theater, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the removal of ''any and all persons'' from designated areas (the West Coast) to ensure military security.

As officially understood, the order was directed specifically toward Japanese-Americans, despite the fact that there was not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage, or other war-related crime committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or resident Japanese national on the West Coast. Further, mass detention for suspected disloyalty or ''protective purposes'' was not carried out against US residents of German or Italian descent, or even against Japanese-Americans in Hawaii.

When the war broke out, the Issei, or first-generation immigrants who were ineligible for citizenship, were immediately classified as enemy aliens. Many of them had experienced overt racism in this country and took practical steps in anticipation of arrest, explains Mr. Wakabayashi. His own father carried a packed suitcase to work. Many believed they would be killed.

For the Nisei (first generation of ethnic Japanese born in the US), who had grown up in this country, the evacuation shattered their perceptions of America based on ideals of liberty and justice.

Despite the deep-rooted sense of injustice felt by many who experienced the evacuation and detention, Mr. Wakabayashi does not detect a feeling of revenge among Japanese-Americans: ''I hear anger, but not bitterness. We just don't want it to happen again.''m

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