RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Time of remembrance


bioline_Chizu OmoriLast year, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, the order that authorized the incarceration of more than 110,000 American Japanese during World War II. This year, it is the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the legislation that mandated the issuing of a governmental apology and token redress of $20,000 to all surviving former camp inmates. I think we can look back with some satisfaction and amazement that we were able to win this case. It sure didn’t look like it when the movement for redress got going in the 1970s and 80s.

I happened to be living in Seattle at that time, and a group of determined individuals up there kept pushing the Japanese American Citizens League to begin a campaign. One person, Henry Miyatake, devoted years of his life researching and assembling a case for us. A Boeing engineer, Henry had the smarts and stick-to-it bulldog capacity to get a group together to mount a fight. He also persuaded a candidate for the House of Representatives, Mike Lowry, to introduce the first redress bill if he was elected. I was lucky to know these people and to be there at the beginning of the effort.

There wasn’t much support for this, even among members of our own community. “Why are you doing this, this unwinnable fight?” they said. Some didn’t want any attention called on us, fearing a backlash from the American public. Others claimed that it was beneath our dignity to ask for money, since we are such a proud people and it just was beneath us. etc., etc. It didn’t look very promising.

Then, there was the lawsuit, Hohri v. U.S., suing the government for all the violations of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I accidentally became one of the named plaintiffs in this class action suit. This case seemed more of a winner since it was going to be presented by a crack team of lawyers and was to be grounded in building a legal case. It was well organized and run by a group in Chicago, led by William Hohri, who was extremely smart and also dedicated. We actually reached the Supreme Court and our case was argued April 20, 1987. I was privileged to sit in the court and observe the proceedings. The case was declared moot when Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act. It’s too bad, because we would have won $110,000 per person with this lawsuit.

And, of course, there were the coram nobis cases being fought in the courts, to overturn the three convictions of Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui. A band of dedicated lawyers, led by Peter Irons and supported by research done by Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and Jack Herzig, devoted years to this effort. They triumphed in 1987 as these cases were “vacated,” a term that I still don’t quite understand.

All in all, in thinking back about those years, I now understand that these efforts were amazing, a truly remarkable achievement. We challenged the government, and we won. I think it was something that had hardly ever happened before.

Well, for me, learning about our history and what had happened to all of us became the obsession of my life. In Seattle, a study group was formed, and I was asked to find an original so-called loyalty questionnaire.

My good friend Aiko sent me a couple of originals, and a large amount of original documents, which dealt with the government’s program assessing the questionnaires. This was the “aha” moment for me, like light bulbs going off in my mind.

It became apparent to me that these were stories that most people didn’t know, that some major crime had been committed. How can the government force a group of people to submit to such a questionnaire and then arbitrarily decide who was “loyal” and who wasn’t? Where in our law books is it written that you can do this?

My sister Emiko Omori is a filmmaker. We decided that we needed to make a documentary about our history. So, we worked for about nine years and completed “Rabbit in the Moon” in 1999. Again, many told us that no one was interested in this subject, and, in the words of one of my relatives, “Who cares?” Over time, it turns out that many cared. Our film is still being used in classrooms, and we are still being invited to speak about it before students and other groups. And I see renewed interest in this history. The scary thing is that a precedent was set, that our incarceration was an intentionally manipulated fraud. We now know that something like this could happen again, particularly now. This is because we have a president who doesn’t seem to know our Constitution and seems to care less about such niceties like freedom of the press and civil rights. We need to be very wary of our current situation. We need to use our knowledge and our experiences to see to it that no other group is scapegoated and treated like we were in 1942.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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