Japanese-American challenges World War II internment policy

In 1942 Gordon Hirabayashi served two years in prison for challenging the World War II evacuation and internment orders against 120,000 Japanese Americans. He has continued to challenge that policy, and now, 43 years later, the reopening of his case brings added momentum to the Japanese redress movement. Mr. Hirabayashi seeks more than the overturning of his conviction. He reopened his case last week to present newfound evidence rebutting the ``military necessity'' cited by the United States in justifying the mass internment. The case is being heard this week in federal court in Seattle.

``All through the war I was never referred to as a citizen,'' he testified Monday. ``I was always a `non-alien.' ''

His case is one of three upheld by 1943 US Supreme Court rulings which have been criticized for allowing government internment based solely on race. The cases were reopened because of the new information suggesting that the US supressed and altered evidence on the military need to intern Japanese Americans.

In the last year, Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu have had their convictions overturned in federal courts in Oregon and California, but Hirabayashi is the first to succeed in gaining a full hearing to determine whether he received a fair trial. Although Assistant US Attorney Victor Stone, defending the government, has offered to vacate the conviction and asked for dismissal of the case, US District Court Judge Donald S. Voorhees has said the hearings are necessary. (Mr. Stone refuses to discuss the government's case until after the trial.)

The fact that this case will be fully heard buoys the optimism of the leaders of the Japanese-American redress-and-reparations movement. Although the movement has had a series of successes recently, a Hirabayashi victory could inspire support for extensive reparations bills that have languished in Congress for four years.

(While there is a philosophical connection between the Hirabayashi case and the redress movement, the Committee to Reverse the Japanese American Wartime Cases, which provides legal help to Hirabayashi, makes a distinction between the two. The redress-and-reparations movement seeks to obtain an apology and compensation for wrongs done to Japanese-Americans during World War II. But Hirabayashi's case is not a request for apology or for compensation, but to request to present new evidence so the record can be corrected.)

Key to Hirabayashi's case are documents accidentally discovered by Peter Irons, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego. He had been seeking material for an unrelated book under the Freedom of Information Act.

Don Tamaki, a San Francisco lawyer assisting in Hirabayashi's case, says the documents generally support the notion that the US premise for mass internment of Japanese-Americans after the Pearl Harbor bombing was wrong. For example, Mr. Tamaki says, reports at the time from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Communications Commission, and Army intelligence turned up no evidence of shore-to-ship communications -- the type it was believed saboteurs in the Japanese community might use.

Further, Tamaki quotes one passage from the newfound 1942 naval intelligence report that is the basis for Hirabayashi's argument: ``The entire Japanese problem has been magnified out of its true proportion, largely due to the physical characteristics of the people . . . it is no more serious than the German or Italian population.''

``The principle was that in a time of war, an entire racial group could have its entire rights taken away without due process,'' Tamaki says, noting that the underpinning of the Hirabayashi case is that the facts for the government's case were wrong to begin with.

``This case underscores the need for redress and reparation, because the Japanese-American citizens were wrongfully denied their rights,'' emphasizes Ronald Takaki, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Until 1979, Japanese-American redress was limited to the 1948 Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act, explains John Tateishi, national redress director of the Japanese American Citizens League. Under that legislation, Japanese-Americans recovered $38 million from the federal government for property losses estimated at roughly $400 million when they were forced to leave their homes.

In 1979 the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was created by the US government to study the possibility of reparations. Since then, Mr. Tateishi says, California and several Western cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle have paid money to former public employees fired because of their race and the internment.

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