On Aug. 19, the California state Assembly approved a resolution to apologize to former Japanese Americans fired by the state in 1942. Following that, the California State Senate passed the resolution Sept. 4. The Assembly Concurrent Resolution 19, authored by Assembly member Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), issues an official public apology to Japanese Americans who were fired from state civil service positions as a result of State Senator John Swan’s Senate Concurrent Resolution 15 of 1942.
“Today’s passage of ACR 19 shows that California not only continues its wonderful tradition of embracing diversity, but that we also have the strength to recognize times in our history where we have fallen short of the promise of liberty for all,” Pan said in a statement. “I am proud to work with the Japanese American Citizens League and other civil rights organizations to provide these Americans with the official apology they deserve and to show that attacks on the rights of citizens must not be tolerated.”
The legislature’s apology follows an apology issued by the State Personnel Board earlier this year, which was spearheaded by Lorna Fong, a retired state employee and lifetime member of Asian Pacific State Employees Association. The Japanese American Citizens League sponsored Pan’s resolution, which was driven by Priscilla Ouchida, the JACL’s executive director.
According to the apology, on Jan. 18, 1942, SCR 15 was adopted to prevent or dismiss disloyal people from attaining civil service positions. The resolution targeted Nikkei and eventually resulted in the firing of more than 300 civil service employees of Japanese descent on blanket charges. Ouchida said she approached Pan to introduce the resolution since he represents the same geographic area that was once represented by Swan.
Overdue for an Apology
Fong’s mother’s family was initially from Placer County and was incarcerated at Tule Lake, Calif. during the war. Her pursuit for an apology started from the research she had been conducting for the concentration camp’s biennial pilgrimage.
“I started working on research as a result of my preparation for the biennial Tule Lake Pilgrimage last June,” she said in an e-mail. “I volunteer as one of the bus monitors for the pilgrimage, and try to provide general information for the pilgrims who travel up to the pilgrimage on the Sacramento bus.”
During her research she discovered two news articles from 1942 describing the firing of state employees of Japanese descent. At the same time she had heard about other apologies being issued around the country, primarily the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors repealing support for the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the congressional apology for the Chinese Exclusion Act, both made in June of last year.
“Given the number of JA state employees who were denied due process and summarily fired, and after reading the story of ex parte Mitsuye Endo, I was moved to try to secure an apology from the State Personnel Board,” she said. Endo, a former California Department of Motor Vehicles employee, served as a test case against wartime incarceration. Her case was eventually decided in her favor, effectively reopening the West Coast to Japanese Americans again.
“It’s a long overdue apology. It’s recognition that the state of California made a horrible error in the unjust and unfair termination of over 300 loyal and dedicated state civil service employees,” she said. Fong said the apology meant a great deal to her as a retired public servant of Japanese ancestry. “Today, I am proud knowing that the board and the California legislature have seen that their actions taken during wartime hysteria were wrong, and that they have taken actions to formally and publicly apologize for their prior decisions.”
Fong initially asked the State Personnel Board to investigate if they had ever apologized. In 1982, the state passed AB 2710, authored by Assembly member Patrick Johnston, which provided up to $5,000 in compensation for the firings, but did not provide an official apology.
Years of Involvement
Ouchida’s involvement with Japanese American state employees spans decades into the past. As a child, Ouchida learned of the firings from her aunt, Janet Masuda. Masuda, a former employee of the Department of Motor Vehicles, asked her to never forget the state employees’ story.
“The importance of the state employee case is that it led to the U.S. Supreme Court case, ex parte Endo, which … resulted in the release of Japanese Americans from the concentration camps,” Ouchida said in an e-mail. “My aunt said that no one knew why the Endo case was filed. I loved my aunt, and when I was 17, I realized that her insistence on telling the story came from a place of great pain. So I began to investigate the story.”
She said her own research began in 1968, a time before she even knew what she was working toward would eventually be called “redress and reparations.”
“In the end, I think it is what my aunt wanted,” she said. “To be fired on charges that portrayed employees as spies was very shameful. The employees were patriotic and loyal, and the shroud they lived under was unjust. These employees had the double whammy of being suspected by both the state and the federal governments. I think she just wanted her honor and dignity restored.”
Ouchida, who worked for Johnston at the time, said the bill was instrumental in garnering support for Japanese American redress, but the apology proved to be too politically difficult to include in 1982.
“The assemblyman and I raised the possibility of an apology with the speaker’s staff,” she said. “(We) were advised to pursue the primary goal of the bill as they felt that if an apology were a provision in the bill, the bill would not pass.”
While AB 2710 did not include an apology, Ouchida said the bill was instrumental for redress. “It is my view that the state legislation transformed the political view of redress from a negative to a positive among democratic elected leaders,” she said. “In my initial conversations with John Tateishi, redress director for JACL, I argued that a state precedent would be important in moving federal redress legislation. … In fact, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in their report cited AB 2710 and other measures that were passed in the wake of AB 2710 as a precedent for monetary payments.”
Ouchida, however recalled the opposition to redress when she was working on AB 2710. “I received hundreds of letters in opposition to the bill, and my parents and I were often stopped and questioned about the wisdom of the bill. People expressed their fears that the bill would result in a backlash, and would result in renewed hostility toward Japanese Americans,” she said. “Lillian Baker, a vociferous opponent of redress, fueled that fear. I was even called a traitor to the Japanese American community.”
By contrast, ACR 19 did not present any legal hurdles for Ouchida, but she said the lessons taught by the apology are still important. “The importance of the resolution can be seen in the comments people post in response to stories on the bill,” she said. “There are still so many misconceptions about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. I even had one person connect the firing of Japanese Americans to communist activity. The education process that occurs every time the issue is discussed is important.”
In a statement, Ouchida said the JACL applauded the passage of the resolution in the Assembly and recalled the passage of AB 2710. “In 1982, dozens of Japanese Americans gathered in the governor’s conference room to witness Gov. Jerry Brown sign the first bill to recognize the World War II injustice that singled out loyal Japanese American employees of the State of California. Many of the employees clutched pink slips they had kept in hopes of vindication,” she said. “Assemblyman Pan has taken the final step in a long struggle to right a wrong.”
The state Assembly approved the resolution, which had 19 coauthors, by voice vote. Details on how the resolution passed the Senate was not available at press time.