Calif. State Personnel Board apologizes for WWII firing of Nikkei employees

Supporters gather after the State Personnel Board meeting Jan. 10. (From left to right): Dean Lan (APSEA), Fumie Shimada (Florin JACL), Miko Sawamura (National/Sacramento JACL), Lorna Fong (resolution leader), Marielle Tsukamoto (Florin JACL), David Unruhe (NCWNP JACL), Dan Tokutomi (APSEA), Andy Noguchi (Florin JACL) and Helen Fong (APSEA). Not pictured: Maeley Tom (State Personnel Board).

Supporters gather after the State Personnel Board meeting Jan. 10. (From left to right): Dean Lan (APSEA), Fumie Shimada (Florin JACL), Miko Sawamura (National/Sacramento JACL), Lorna Fong (resolution leader), Marielle Tsukamoto (Florin JACL), David Unruhe (NCWNP JACL), Dan Tokutomi (APSEA), Andy Noguchi (Florin JACL) and Helen Fong (APSEA). Not pictured: Maeley Tom (State Personnel Board).

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Tear-choked stories of past injustices moved the California State Personnel Board to unanimously vote to apologize for its 1942 firing of 265 employees of Japanese ancestry at its Jan. 10 meeting in Sacramento.

The Japanese American Citizens League and Asian Pacific State Employees Association, guided by the efforts of Lorna Fong, a recently retired state worker, championed the plight of these former employees who were unjustly labeled “disloyal” and then shipped off to America’s World War II concentration camps.

This apology followed the 1982 passage of Assembly Bill 2710 by then-Assemblymember Patrick Johnston, which offered $5,000 in redress payments to each of 88 state employees who formally appealed their firing. Current JACL National Executive Director Priscilla Ouchida then served as Johnston’s legislative aide, helping to shepherd AB 2710 into law.

An apology wasn’t included in the original legislation.

Fong testified that one of the few surviving state workers is Sally Taketa, age 94, of Sacramento. Taketa was a junior clerk at the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Social Welfare who had dropped out of college to help support her family. When state officials came to fire Taketa in 1942, her co-workers/friends “hid her under a desk and helped her escape out of a back door,” Fong said.

“I’m happy. Finally! It’s important that recognition is made to those of us who were fired,” Taketa told Fong and Miko Sawamura, National JACL vice president of general operations, in an interview prior to the hearing. Taketa was unable to attend the meeting due to a broken hip.

Fong revealed how she came to take up the cause to secure the apology. Fong’s mother was one of thousands incarcerated in the Tule Lake, Calif. concentration camp. Fong, who has volunteered for the annual Tule Lake Pilgrimage, saw an old newspaper headline, “200 Japs Fired” and decided something had to be done to right this wrong.

State Personnel Board Vice President Kimiko Burton empathized with the misery of loyal Americans who had been unjustly accused. As she dabbed at the tears in her eyes during the emotional testimony, she shared how she and her family members in Hawai‘i had recently learned of similar concentration camps there.

Board member Richard Costigan remarked that he served on the board of the California Museum just a few blocks down the street, which features the “Uprooted” exhibit about the Japanese American experience. The award-winning exhibit and tours co-sponsored with local Lodi, Placer County, Sacramento and Florin JACL chapters draw three to four thousand Northern California students each year, according to the museum.

Sawamura testified about the turbulent period and resistance by Japanese Americans. In 1942, the Sacramento JACL organized support for the state employees. The State Personnel Board at the time criticized the JACL for holding meetings “at the home of an ‘enemy alien.’” Racist U.S. laws at the time barred Issei immigrants from becoming citizens.

Florin JACL Civil Rights Co-Chair Fumie Shimada commented after the meeting on the importance of this long-overdue apology in a modern period of 9/11 backlash against Muslim, Sikh, Arab, and South Asian American communities. “We can’t just think of the past. We have to learn the lessons of the past to help us today,” Shimada said.

In her remarks, Fong credited Maeley Tom, current State Personnel Board member, for providing invaluable support and assistance on the apology resolution. Tom served as board president last year, rotating out for the 2013 year.

As a follow-up to the State Personnel Board action, on Feb. 19, California State Assemblyman Richard Pan will also introduce a resolution, sponsored by the JACL, for an apology on the 71st anniversary of the Executive Order 9066, which ultimately led to the mass incarceration of some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast into American concentration camps.

Others testifying at the meeting included: Jeff Uyeda of APSEA; David Unruhe, governor of the Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific (NCWNP) JACL District; and NCWNP Civil Rights Co-Chair Andy Noguchi.

Letters of support came from: California State Assembly member Mariko Yamada, the National JACL, APSEA, the California Department of Human Resources and the following JACL chapters and districts: Berkeley, Watsonville–Santa Cruz, Contra Costa, Sacramento, Pacific Southwest and NCWNP.

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