The request that Congress pay $1.5 billion as partial compensation to the 60, 000 surviving Japanese-Americans placed in detention camps during World War II may prove more controversial than it first appeared.
Certainly there is ample precedent for payments as restitution for past injustices. American Indians have received cash grants from Washington for land illegally seized. And blacks and women have received payments as redress in court suits charging past discrimination.
The US Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians - established by Congress in 1980 - has urged Congress to pay the compensation and make a formal apology. But the call comes when Congress has been making deep budget cuts. Indeed, Rep. Dan Lungren (R) of California, the only congressman on the commission, voted against the bid for compensation. He reasoned that not only would it be hard to get congressional approval, but also that Japanese-Americans, though victims of injustice, are no more entitled to individual reparations than are US Indians or blacks.
The recommendations also come during a period of rising concern in the US about economic competition from Japan. Occasionally, that concern has erupted into open acts of racial hostility. Asian-Americans in Detroit are urging the US Department of Justice to investigate possible violations of civil rights law in the killing last year of a Chinese-American by an auto worker who thought the victim was Japanese. And many schools and communities have reported other, less blatant instances of discrimination against Asian-Americans.
The Illinois Consultation on Ethnicity in Education, a coalition of Chicago ethnic and education leaders, has taken the lead here in urging that all the facts surrounding the internment be clearly defined in order to quash any backlash against Asian-Americans. Leaders urged, for instance, that the February findings of the federal commission - that the internment was based on ''race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership'' - be well publicized.
Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D) of California, a Japanese-American who himself was placed under military detention when he was 10 years old, attended the Illinois meeting. He stressed that the proposed reparations - amounting to about $20,000 per person - account for less than a third of the material losses actually incurred by those interned.
When reporters suggested there did not appear to be many overt anti-Asian incidents, Mr. Mineta said, ''You don't let this kind of thing smoulder underneath - you have to talk about it.'' He recalls when someone painted the word ''Jap'' on his garage door in California. ''I believe if someone does something like that, you tell the world. . . .''
Mineta says it is not clear whether Congress will hold hearings on the comission's findings or whether the House Judiciary Committee will wait until a specific bill is drafted.