Looking back at the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

A. H. Nishikawa tells his personal story as he looks back at the drive to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which acknowledged the fundamental injustice of the relocation of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

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President Reagan signs the act in 1988

On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a historic bill into law, which called for a letter of apology and a redress check from the United States government to be presented to Americans of Japanese descent who had been incarcerated during World War II in internment camps without involving any due process of law.

This was the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (often referred to as the Redress Act).

In 2013, we mark the 25th anniversary of this Act, the passage of which came against remarkable odds, and only after multi-year grass roots efforts by a very small American ethnic minority (only about 0.3 percent of the U.S. population), which pursued it as a “matter of principle for all Americans.”

The historical background

A day after the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii by the Japanese Imperial Navy, the United States declared war against Japan.

Some 3,000 Japanese aliens in the U.S. who had been under FBI surveillance were apprehended, detained, and eventually interned in Department of Justice camps (like that in Crystal City, Texas),  according to Geneva Convention rules.

These aliens included Japanese-language teachers, martial arts instructors, leaders of Japanese community organizations (including priests and ministers), heads of business organizations, and the like—anyone deemed to have leadership roles in the Nikkei (Japanese-American) community and perceived a threat to U.S. security.

President Franklin Roosevelt, with his military and political advisors, then undertook an analysis of the civilian Nikkei population living on the West Coast.

Despite conflicting security information, and probably in response to public expressions of panic, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which authorized the removal of Japanese aliens and non-aliens from the West Coast of the U.S.

My brothers and I, along with my parents, all born in America, were designated “non-aliens,” which enabled the U.S. government to avoid publicity about incarcerating “citizens” without due process of law.

Along with some 110,000 Nikkei residents of California, Oregon, and Washington, of which some 70,000 were U.S.-born citizens, we were forcibly moved from our homes to temporary detention camps and eventually to concentration camps (WRA, War Relocation Authority) scattered in isolated areas of some seven states away from the West Coast.

This incarceration of mostly American citizens didn’t comport with the Geneva Convention on war, even though the government referred to the process as “internment,” which was intended to legitimize the action and soften perceptions of this egregious abrogation of constitutional rights of these citizens.

Our family spent over three years in a camp in Poston, Arizona, from July 1942 to September 1945.  Our residence was Room A, Barrack 2, on Block 18, well behind barbed wire fences and watch towers.

It was the case of Ex Parte Endo,  in which the U.S. Supreme Court in December 1944 found that the federal government had no legitimacy in incarcerating Nikkei and ordered that we all be released.  The war continued, but Nikkei began to leave the camps after January 1945.

The post-war fight for recognition

After the camps closed,  the Nikkei population were scattered around the U.S. mainland.  While many people returned to the West Coast states, hundreds settled in Midwestern as well as Eastern cities like New York and Philadelphia, where Quakers helped in the resettlement.

A few years later, some modest bills were passed by Congress to recompense Nikkei for wartime losses.  However, the trauma of the camp experience kept the Nikkei community silent and focused on “moving ahead with life” by becoming more “Americanized.”

That was my family’s experience as I grew up in California.

In the 1970s, well after the start of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war protests, a consciousness about the incarceration experiences began to emerge and expand in the Nikkei community.

Younger Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) began to ask their parents and grandparents about the camps—and wondered why they had been silent so long.

In parallel with other Nikkei groups (which organized to pursue judicial remedies for the World War II incarceration of citizens), the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization founded in 1929, began to develop a legislative strategy for redress.

At its 1978 national convention, the National Redress Committee was established after considerable debate.  Within the JACL and the wider Nikkei community, opinions varied widely as to whether redress should include an apology only from the government or also include monetary compensation.  Given the small population of Nikkei in the U.S., there were many skeptical voices arguing that pursuing redress was a waste of time—that the odds of succeeding were miniscule.

The strategy first involved passing a bill in Congress to establish a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), and to gather and document facts relating to the World War II experience.  This was signed by President Jimmy Carter in July 1980.

The CWRIC (which included Philadelphia Judge William Marutani) conducted hearings in nine cities and collected testimony from over 750 witnesses, as well as records from previously secret federal documents concerning World War II.  In 1982, it published a report, Personal Justice Denied, which concluded that Executive Order 9066 was “not justified by military necessity” and was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

With the CWRIC report as the factual grounding, the JACL increased its efforts to seek redress in the Congress.  But the going was rough.

Details on strategic approaches varied widely and disagreements were heated.  By 1985, a new affiliate, the JACL-LEC (Legislative Education Committee, a separate non-profit, advocacy/lobby organization) was established with Grayce Uyehara (a long-time Philadelphia area resident) as Executive Director.  A recently retired social worker, she was no professional lobbyist.  Yet by her dogged persistence and long-time involvement in the Nikkei community, along with personal connections around the country, there developed an affective grass-roots campaign.

Uyehara and other JACL redress leaders initially had little knowledge of legislative politics and lacked inside connections at the Capitol.  This was remedied when Grant Ujifusa, coauthor of the Almanac of American Politics, joined the JACL-LEC as strategy director.  Ujifusa’s long involvement with this bible of Washington politics, gave the Redress team entrée to members of Congress of both parties and independents.

It was important to frame Redress as an issue affecting all Americans and not as a special interest matter for a small ethnic minority, since “injustice anywhere leads to injustice everywhere.”

With support from African-American, Jewish, Latino, and other groups in Congress and elsewhere, including Republicans and Democrats, H.R. 442 was passed on August 4, 1988.

Six days later, it was signed by President Reagan.  And history was made to redress an abrogation of constitutional rights inflicted on a community of Americans for “having looked like the enemy.”

Hiro Nishikawa is a native of San Francisco and a sansei.  During World War II as a four-year old, he and his family were sent to Arizona and incarcerated for the duration of the war.  He has been active on the boards of the Philadelphia JACL and he gives talks to college classes and high school students as well as general audiences about the history of Japanese-Americans incarcerated in WWII concentration camps. 

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