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From Wrong To Right: A U.S. Apology For Japanese Internment

John Tateishi was incarcerated at Manzanar internment camp in California from age 3 until he was 6.
Chloe Coleman
John Tateishi was incarcerated at Manzanar internment camp in California from age 3 until he was 6.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream for a more equal America. But there's another anniversary looming: 25 years ago this week, the Japanese-American community celebrated a landmark victory in its own struggle for civil rights.

In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. The law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community.

To mark the 25th anniversary of its passage, the Civil Liberties Act was put on display at the National Archives alongside the original Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment. For senior curator Bruce Bustard, it was a powerful juxtaposition of the journey from a wrong to a right.

When she saw the Executive Order in a glass case, Marielle Tsukamoto, who grew up in an internment camp, said she had "shivers up and down [her] back" because she realized the order ruined lives.

To some, it might seem like a bureaucratic government document, but according to Bustard, that's precisely what makes this exhibition such a potent reminder of what federal documents really mean. "They are filled with legalese, and again that to me reinforces the idea that from these sorts of legal decisions that our government makes, these kinds of consequences can happen."

The Japanese-American internment camps were often nothing more than makeshift barracks, with families and children cramped together behind barbed wires. Most of the internees were U.S. citizens from the West Coast who were forced to abandon or liquidate their businesses when war relocation authorities escorted them to the camps.

John Tateishi says the experience was both humiliating and disorienting. "We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country." He says that after the war most families never spoke about it. "There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way."

More than 100,000 people of Japanese heritage from the West Coast were sent to war relocation camps during World War II.
/ National Archives
National Archives
More than 100,000 people of Japanese heritage from the West Coast were sent to war relocation camps during World War II.

But decades later and inspired by the civil rights movement, the Japanese American Citizens League launched a contentious campaign for redress. It divided the community along generational lines. Tateishi became a leader of the movement.

"You have to sometimes bring your community dragging and screaming behind you, but you better have strong convictions that what you're doing is right," he says.

In 1980, Congress responded by establishing a commission to investigate the legacy of the camps. After extensive interviews and personal testimonies from victims, the commission issued its final report, calling the incarceration a "grave injustice" motivated by "racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership."

Japanese-Americans then serving in Congress, including Robert Matsui and Norm Mineta, helped turn that report into legislative language, providing for tax-free compensation and a formal apology. Mineta has served in two presidential Cabinets, but he says that bipartisan effort remains one of his proudest achievements.

"Today I just feel that Congress is so polarized that I'm not sure a grassroots movement like this would have the kind of impact that we see resulting in the signing of the bill by President Reagan in 1988," he says.

Tateishi says the redress campaign was less about the compensation for those who had already suffered and more about the next generation of Americans.

"There is a saying in Japanese culture, 'kodomo no tame ni,' which means, 'for the sake of the children.' And for us running this campaign, that had much to do with it," he saysi. "It's the legacy we're handing down to them and to the nation to say that, 'You can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it — and by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again.' "

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