On this Day of Remembrance 2013, everyone is marking the 25th anniversary of winning redress for the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. And rightfully so: it was a community-wide, decade-long campaign that united us around our common experience of mass exclusion and detention.
A big thanks to Takeshi Nakayama for talking to us and capturing the big picture on how redress went down in his “25 Years Since the Civil Liberties Act of 1988: A look back at the historic Japanese American Redress Movement. ” It’s part of a complete Day of Remembrance issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly edited by Kenji Taguma.
The redress legislation was key to the creation of Conscience and the Constitution. To win redress it was strategically important to show a united front as a community. Once redress was secured, we could dig deeper into an examination of our community’s dual response to that mass injustice: collaboration or resistance. And the Civil Liberties Act included the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, which provided the major grant that leveraged our project into one eligible for completion funding by the Independent Television Service and PBS.
We’ll be talking more about the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee and the creation of Days of Remembrance at a panel on July 5, when the Japanese American National Museum comes to Seattle for its 2013 national conference. For now, here’s our section of Takeshi’s feature story:
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.”