25 YEARS SINCE THE CIVIL LIBERTIES ACT OF 1988: A look back at the historic Japanese American Redress Movement


This year marks the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which awarded reparations and an official apology to tens of thousands of Japanese Americans who were held in American concentration camps or whose civil liberties and human rights were violated in other ways by the United States government during World War II.

A DAY WELL REMEMBERED ­— President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 on Aug. 10, 1988 in Washington, D.C. courtesy of Densho, Kinoshita Family Collection

The movement by activists to gain redress for victims of U.S. government oppression began in earnest during the late 1970s. Among the groups launching the campaign for redress were the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the Seattle chapter of the JACL, the National Council for Japanese American Redress and the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations.

Commission Strategy
The National JACL’s strategy was to have Congress establish a commission to study the forced removal and incarceration of all persons of Japanese descent and make recommendations on whether to award compensation to the victims.

The JACL, under National Redress Committee Chairman John Tateishi, launched a national campaign in 1978, introducing legislative initiatives to seek redress that culminated in 1988 with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act that included monetary reparations and an apology from the president and Congress.

Tateishi, 73, who was incarcerated with his family at Manzanar from ages 3 to 6, recounted that the JACL’s redress program began with a resolution introduced by Edison Uno at the JACL 1970 convention in Chicago. At the 1978 convention in Salt Lake City, the JACL adopted the guidelines of $25,000 per individual and a trust fund.

“I saw nothing happening in the community and knew if there were going to be a campaign, it would be by the JACL,” Tateishi reported. “It was under my chairmanship that the JACL decided to seek a federal commission strategy, which was an unpopular decision both within the JACL and in the community, but I felt it was our only option if we were serious about succeeding.”

The JACL pushed Congress to enact a bill creating the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Tateishi noted. “As everyone now knows, the strategy ended up being incredibly successful and it generated enormous publicity at each stage of its process — the D.C. hearing, community hearings in L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Cambridge. (It) produced a 400-page official report with findings and conclusions that the internment was unjustified and the result of a racist policy, and provided recommendations which we then used to introduce as a bill seeking reparations.”

By 1978, the JACL membership as a whole strongly backed compensation, evidenced by the mandates and resolutions passed by chapters and districts, he emphasized. “In this sense, the JACL membership was much more progressive on the redress issue than the community as a whole.”

It was true that many of the old guard JACLers, including wartime spokesperson Mike Masaoka, opposed monetary compensation, while others strongly supported compensation, stated Tateishi. “I know Masaoka is always seen as the bad guy — and rightfully so in some cases — but ironically, it was Masaoka who, in 1976, gave his support for compensation as essential to the meaning of the campaign.”

Tateishi credited a Chicago JACLer with playing a crucial role in persuading Midwest Congress members to vote for redress. “From the beginning of our lobbying — which was for the commission bill — Bill Yoshino worked in tandem with me and operated the JACL’s grassroots effort while I was lobbying the Congress in D.C. … He was critical to the entire campaign.

“The redress campaign was successful because of the JACL’s involvement; or to put it the other way, it never would have happened without JACL,” Tateishi declared. “It was our decision to seek a commission strategy … It was our responsibility to convince the commissioners to provide meaningful recommendations; it was our efforts to lobby the redress bills once the commission issued its recommendations … The Nikkei congressional members (Daniel Inouye, Spark Matsunaga, Norman Mineta, Robert Matsui) worked closely with us from the beginning, and together, we supported each others’ efforts.”

What’s Not to Hate?
In the Northwest, the Seattle JACL chapter’s Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee (SERC) wanted Congress to enact redress legislation without having to wait for a commission to study what was obvious to them.

Frank Abe, whose father was incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyo., while his Kibei Nisei mother spent the war years as a schoolgirl in Japan, said of the Nikkei incarceration, “The false imprisonment stole the life and vitality of the Issei. The loss of civil rights crushed the optimism and spirit of the Nisei. The business and property losses disinherited an entire generation of Sansei. What’s not to hate about it?”

The Seattle activists had “the ability to bring the issue out of our inner circles and out into the public arena,” he noted. “The SERC had the ideas created by Boeing engineers like Henry Miyatake, Chuck Kato, Ken Nakano, and the Issei stock analyst, Shosuke Sasaki. Frank Chin had the knowledge of how to work the news media.”

The SERC staged the first two Day of Remembrance events in 1978 and 1979, noted Abe, producer of “Conscience and the Constitution,” a documentary about the largest organized resistance to the Japanese American incarceration. “SERC provided the framework through which the Issei and Nisei could finally step out in public en masse, out of the closet so to speak, and simply speak to the anger they’d bottled up for 40 years … So we arrived at the idea of re-creating the eviction from Seattle.”

The first Days of Remembrance “were designed as a visual piece of public education for the news media; and something about the staging struck a nerve,” Abe commented. “We got sympathetic coverage. The story got picked up nationwide by the Associated Press and the Nikkei vernaculars.”

Miyatake and Kato said their congressmen, Mike Lowry and Brock Adams, owed Japanese Americans “a chance to make their case,” Abe related. “Mike Lowry was so moved by seeing the crowd assembled in the Sicks Stadium parking lot for the caravan to Puyallup that he, on the spot, vowed to introduce a redress bill in the House, and he did (on Nov. 28, 1979).”

The Lowry bill called for an official apology and individual payments of $15,000 plus $15 for each day served in camp, but it never advanced out of committee.

NCJAR Files Lawsuit
SERC members believed they could get an individual payments bill passed in 1979, Abe said. “But we didn’t have the kind of national organization and the lobbyist in D.C. like the JACL had. So we figured we’d just start our own national organization.”

After meeting with William Hohri, who came from Chicago, the group decided to create an organization with the single purpose of passing a direct redress bill, said Abe, who came up with the name, National Council for Japanese American Redress, with Hohri as national spokesperson.

NCJAR’s position was that the Japanese American community suffered great injury, and pursued a class-action lawsuit to seek remedies for the damages caused by the government’s violation of their constitutional rights.

Once the Lowry bill got co-opted by the Commission bill, Hohri advocated launching a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, funded by supporters contributing $1,000 each for the legal fund, Abe recalled. “I remember thinking he was nuts, but the lawsuit may have been what finally convinced some Congress members it would be cheaper to pass a redress bill with a $20,000 award, than risk an adverse court judgment for many times that amount.”

Significantly impacting the redress campaign on four different fronts was Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a self-taught researcher who, with help from her husband Jack, uncovered documents at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. that were crucial for the coram nobis team in prevailing over the government, as well as for the NCJAR lawsuit, Hohri v. the United States.

The documents Herzig-Yoshinaga found indicated that government lawyers lied to the Supreme Court when they claimed that, because the Nikkei were potentially disloyal, the forced removal and incarceration of all persons of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast was of military necessity.

The Sacramento-born, Los Angeles-reared Nisei was incarcerated during World War II in concentration camps at Manzanar, Calif., Jerome and then Rohwer, both in Arkansas. Moving from New York, her postwar residence, to Virginia, Herzig-Yoshinaga decided to explore what the National Archives might have about her family records in the camps. As her interest grew, and with encouragement from Michi Weglyn, author of “Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps,” she said, “I went to look through the official papers with a vengeance.”

Hired by the CWRIC as their primary researcher, Herzig-Yoshinaga forwarded those documents to special counsel Angus MacBeth, who supervised the writing of “Personal Justice Denied: REPORT OF THE COMMISSION ON WARTIME RELOCATION AND INTERNMENT OF CIVILIANS,” the report based on the information Herzig-Yoshinaga had gathered, mostly from the National Archives and some other depositories. The report concluded that the wartime exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans was based on racial prejudice and failure of political leadership, and recommended monetary compensation for each victim.

While working for CWRIC, Herzig-Yoshinaga kept doing research for NCJAR’s class action-lawsuit, and also, for the coram nobis cases. “Peter Irons, who was part of the coram nobis team, had found a lot of the material under the Freedom of Information Act,” she disclosed. “I helped him get copies of those papers that were critical … to the entire redress movement.”

The Supreme Court held off on deciding whether to hear Hohri v. U.S. until Congress passed the redress bill, Herzig-Yoshinaga explained. “And then, because Congress already passed the redress bill, the court denied hearing it.

“I think we could have won that case,” the Nisei researcher opined. “Hohri’s lawyers, Ellen Godbey Carson and Benjamin Zelenko, had written a fantastic brief that actually defined the 22 causes of action — meaning 22 violations of the Constitution against us — for which they were claiming $10,000 for each violation. That would have amounted to $220,000 per victim and would have cost the government about $22 billion. The basis on which the brief was drawn was the same evidence that the coram nobis case was based. Had the Supreme Court heard the case, it’s hard for me to imagine they could have denied compensating the Nikkei.”

After the CWRIC ended its work in 1983, Herzig-Yoshinaga worked as a researcher for the Department of Justice’s Office of Redress Administration to help identify individuals eligible for redress.

Fueling the Redress Fire
Dale Minami, 66, a San Francisco-based civil rights lawyer, led the legal team of young Nikkei that overturned Fred Korematsu’s wrongful conviction. Korematsu, a young Nisei from San Leandro, Calif. had been convicted of defying the government’s wartime policy of ethnic cleansing — ordering anyone of Japanese blood to evacuate the military zone. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court, in one of its most controversial decisions, upheld Korematsu v. United States.

Relying on the findings of law professor Peter Irons and Herzig-Yoshinaga, Minami, whose family was incarcerated at Rohwer, formed a legal team of young Nikkei working pro bono, in reopening the Korematsu v. U.S. as a coram nobis (a petition to correct a great injustice, to undo government injustice) case in San Francisco in the early 1980s. He also helped establish legal teams in Seattle for Gordon Hirabayashi and in Portland for Minoru Yasui — both had also defied the government’s exclusion orders. “It was our chance to retry history and educate Americans about how there was no legal basis for the Nisei resisters’ conviction,” commented Minami.

More than 40 years after the convictions of Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui, this newly uncovered evidence proved that the government had defrauded the Supreme Court by suppressing, altering and destroying critical documents showing that Japanese Americans were not a danger to national security. It undermined the government’s justification of military necessity for the incarceration and contradicted its arguments made before the Supreme Court in the original cases. Korematsu (in 1983) and Hirabayashi (in 1988) were vindicated when the courts vacated their tainted convictions. Yasui died in 1986 before the court decided on his appeal.

Minami said he “felt confident from the beginning that we would prevail … Winning this case was important in educating the American public about the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and it fueled the fire for redress.”

Coalition Building
Although NCRR was founded in 1980, Alan Nishio, a Manzanar-born co-founder of the organization, and other activists had begun talking to groups interested in redress as early as 1978. After a meeting in Los Angeles, they decided to form a national coalition based on the common principle of fighting for reparations.

Nishio, now 67, who didn’t learn until he was an adult about the wartime Japanese American experience, stated, “We felt that to vindicate our community and set a precedent regarding civil liberties, we had to demand monetary compensation.”

NCRR wanted to build a coalition to work with JACL and NCJAR and others, and to involve ordinary people in a grassroots effort to lobby Congress for redress legislation. “We thought it was important that we not try to create competing organizations,” Nishio said. “We felt that we would not win redress unless our community was united.”

NCRR activists worked tirelessly in a grassroots effort to educate and involve members of the Nikkei community on the importance of speaking out at the CWRIC hearings, getting involved in the redress campaign and contacting their congressional representatives, he added.

Going to Washington, D.C. with a 120-member grassroots delegation in 1987 to lobby for the redress bill was very important, Nishio emphasized. “These were not people who would naturally be going to Washington, D.C. to lobby for anything, so they were a little intimidated. What was nice was that you could see the confidence build as they met with congressional leaders.”

Passage of the redress bill in Congress was the campaign’s highlight, but even after President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act on Aug. 10, 1988, the legislation still needed to gain funding, Nishio remembered. “It took the efforts of Sen. Daniel Inouye and others to get an entitlement provision, to be able to appropriate the money to pay redress.”

Working with the Issei who survived to see the passage of the redress bill was a bright spot, Nishio continued. “They felt vindicated at that point. They could see that what had happened to our community was not their fault. It was the government’s fault, misleading the public.”

Nishio agreed with Tateishi’s assertion that redress never would have happened without the JACL. “They had a national network and did a lot of good work. But would redress have occurred if JACL was the only organization doing work? I’d have to say, absolutely not. John and I have talked about this in the past and I think he agrees. We worked together as a community to win redress. Without JACL’s lead and organization, it would have been difficult. But it would also have been difficult without NCRR, NCJAR, the coram nobis team, senators Inouye and Spark Matsunaga … or if we didn’t have Bob Matsui and Norm Mineta in Congress. We wouldn’t have won redress without Aiko Herzig discovering the documents in the National Archives … Along with many other people and organizations, JACL was critical to the redress campaign.”

RIGHTING A WRONG — On Oct. 9, 1990, Hisano Fujimoto, 101, of Lombard, Ill., receives her redress check from Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in Washington, D.C.             photo by Takeshi Nakayama/Rafu Shimpo
RIGHTING A WRONG — On Oct. 9, 1990, Hisano Fujimoto, 101, of Lombard, Ill., receives her redress check from Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in Washington, D.C. photo by Takeshi Nakayama/Rafu Shimpo

NCRR Co-chair Kay Ochi, who was in Washington, D.C. to attend the awarding of compensation checks on Oct. 9, 1990 to the first eligible Nikkei, stated, “After the decade-long redress campaign, being in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice, surrounded by 442/100 Regimental Combat Team veterans, Congressional members and dozens of Japanese Americans to witness the first checks was more than a dream come true. Like many, in 1980 I didn’t think that we would ever win redress, but the fight for justice was necessary,” Ochi stated.

Seeing Attorney General Richard Thornburgh kneel down to hand the eldest Japanese Americans their apology and redress checks “was truly one of my life’s greatest moments,” Ochi continued. “It was, however, bittersweet. I thought about the eldest JAs who had passed away before knowing about the government’s apology and whose families would not receive the deserved reparations. We in NCRR were keenly aware of those who would not get justice.”

According to Ochi, a Nov. 1, 2002, memorandum from the Office of Redress Administration indicated that the total number of Japanese Americans paid $20,000 under the Civil Liberties Act was 82,220.

When the Civil Liberties Act funds were depleted, the 1999 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act paid for 44 additional Japanese Americans and 645 Japanese Latin American members of the Mochizuki class-action lawsuit settlement. Those Japanese Latin Americans received $5,000 each through the settlement and the 1999 additional funding.

Under the Civil Liberties Act, 152 Japanese Latin Americans were found eligible and received $20,000 each. Those paid under the 1999 supplemental funding included 44 more Japanese Americans and the 645 Japanese Latin Americans. Thus, the total number of Japanese Americans compensated is 82,264. The total number of Japanese Latin Americans paid is 797, though awarded different individual amounts.

Japanese Latin Americans
The campaign for redress still has unfinished business: Japanese Latin Americans who were abducted from their homes and brought here in a scheme orchestrated by the U.S. government — for use in a hostage exchange program with Japan — still have not been adequately compensated.

Some 2,264 persons of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes in Peru and 12 other Latin American nations, brought here in U.S. Navy ships and held in internment camps like Crystal City, Texas.

The campaign to redress these JLAs attracted attention when they began speaking out at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings in 1981, stated Grace Shimizu of Campaign for Justice: Redress Now for Japanese Latin Americans, their support group. “We were supporters of redress for Japanese Americans because the early draft of Civil Liberties Act included JLAs.

But when the final Civil Liberties Act came out in 1988, we were not included, we were considered illegal aliens.”

However, those JLAs who gained retroactive permanent resident status did qualify for redress, said Shimizu, a native Californian whose father was one of those kidnapped Peruvians. “There’s a portion of JLAs that did get redress under the CLA. Even within one family, some people got redress and some didn’t. It shows the unfairness of the way redress was conceived and administered.”

In 1996, the newly-formed Campaign for Justice launched redress efforts, which included a lawsuit and at least two pieces of legislation, Shimizu stated. “We also submitted a petition in 2003 with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States (OAS). We are still waiting for a ruling.”

In 1996 Carmen Mochizuki and other Nikkei Latino abductees filed a federal class-action lawsuit, Mochizuki et al. v. United States, seeking redress for their ordeal. In 1998, the plaintiffs reached an agreement where the U.S. would apologize and award $5,000 to each eligible JLA.

The Mochizuki settlement was a “very controversial offer,” Shimizu said. “The majority of us — including people in Peru, Okinawa, Japan, as well as the mainland U.S. and Hawai‘i — decided to accept the settlement offer with the understanding that we would pursue legislative remedies as well. There were about 17 others that decided to opt out of the settlement agreement because they were opposed to it on principle.”

Right now, there’s no legislation in the works in Congress, Shimizu complained. “We’re devastated by the passing of Sen. Inouye, who was our champion in the Senate. We’ve had a number of legislative attempts without success, mostly because of opposition by Republican members of Congress.”

Shimizu noted the parallel between the wartime abduction of JLAs to the post-9/11 U.S. policy of “rendition” targeting suspected Muslim terrorists, kidnapping them from different countries, taking them to “unknown places, subjecting them to whatever kind of treatment” the U.S. deemed necessary.

The government continues this policy of rendition, indefinite internment without trial, without charge, Shimizu alleged. “We’re very concerned that may be a consideration of why they refused to adequately apologize to the Japanese Latin Americans.”

For that reason, the Campaign for Justice will focus on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Shimizu said. “We only have an international forum now available to us to get justice. We will be asking them to please make a positive ruling.”

One response to “25 YEARS SINCE THE CIVIL LIBERTIES ACT OF 1988: A look back at the historic Japanese American Redress Movement”

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