Celebrating the Righting of a Wrong

Japanese American Act Is Remembered

Posted July 30, 2008 at 5:28pm

Norm Mineta was a 13-year-old Boy Scout living in a Japanese American internment camp when he met Alan Simpson.

The two boys were assigned to share a pup tent after Simpson, also a Boy Scout, visited Mineta’s internment camp for a jamboree.

Almost a half-century later, both men would introduce the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, calling for a formal apology and reparations for Japanese [IMGCAP(1)]

Americans who were interned during World War II. Mineta sponsored the legislation as a House Member from California, Simpson as a Senator from Wyoming.

The legislation granted every surviving internee approximately $20,000 in compensation and stated that the government had acted on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” when authorizing the internment camps.

In honor of the legislation’s 20th anniversary, the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation will host two events today and Sunday.

Tonight from 6 to 8 p.m., Senators and House Members are invited to attend a reception with light refreshments in Room HC-5 of the Capitol.

On Sunday from 2 to 3:30 p.m., the NJAMF will host a public ceremony at the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism.

The nonprofit NJAMF strives to educate the public about the Japanese American internment experience during World War II, when more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated into internment camps.

Frank H. Wu, co-author of “Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment,” says multiple families often lived in a single room inside ramshackle wooden buildings in the camps. The buildings lacked insulation, providing no refuge from the cold or heat.

Mineta, who was interned at Heart Mountain camp near Cody, Wyo., remembers how difficult it was to adjust to the extreme Wyoming weather.

“The day we got to Wyoming was really hot … but by December it was just freezing cold,” Mineta said. “For a Californian who was used to a temperate climate, we were just colder than blazes.”

Despite the injustices committed against Japanese Americans, the Civil Liberties Act faced tough opposition in Congress in 1988.

“Some said nothing should be paid to Japanese Americans until the Japanese paid their prisoners of war,” Wu said. “People still confused Japanese Americans … with the Japanese empire.”

Determined to prove their patriotism, Wu says Japanese Americans were reluctant to talk about internment and did everything they could to fit in.

“They did not even tell their children about it,” Wu said. “When their parents mentioned camp, they thought they were talking about summer camp.”

Craig D. Uchida, the chairman of the board for the NJAMF, agrees that most Japanese Americans did not talk about what they endured during the war until after the Civil Liberties Act passed Congress in 1988.

“The act was recognition that this was a dark page in American history and the Japanese American community did not need to hide and be shameful about what happened to them,” Uchida said. “Japanese Americans could then stand up.”

The fact that the U.S. government acknowledged its mistakes is what restored many Japanese Americans’ faith in America.

“The greatness of our country is that it can admit a wrong and make redress,” Mineta said.

“The government has never apologized for a ton of things they have done,” Uchida added. “The whole notion that the government and the president himself apologized — that was a big deal.”

Although the government acknowledged that internment was wrong, incidents of racial profiling have occurred among other cultures since 1988.

“In a way, I experienced some of it again on Sept. 11, 2001,” said Mineta, who was secretary of Transportation at the time. “There were a lot of people who were saying that … Arab Americans and Muslims should not be allowed to fly. When we have incidences like Sept. 11 and other tragedies, the thing we have to protect ourselves from doing is jumping to some conclusions that are easy, maybe simple, but wrong.”

Both NJAMF events will feature Mineta — who served as secretary of Commerce under the Clinton administration, secretary of Transportation for George W. Bush and a California Congressman for more than 20 years — as the main speaker and Uchida as the master of ceremonies.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), who was born in an internment camp, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who grew up in an internment camp, and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who served in World War II’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team (the most highly decorated military unit in history that was composed mostly of Japanese Americans), are all expected to speak at the reception in the Capitol.

During the Sunday event, members of the Japanese American Veterans Association will lay a wreath at the memorial to honor the Japanese American men and women who served in World War II.

Later in the program, 10 children representing the 10 internment camps will present 25,000 paper cranes of various colors and sizes in conjunction with the Japanese American Citizens League and the Cranes for Compassion Project.

Speakers will include Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki of Japan, Wu and representatives from the Japanese American Veterans Association, the American Jewish Committee and the JACL.

Admission is free and approximately 150 people are expected at the memorial, which is located at the intersection of Louisiana and New Jersey Avenues and D Street Northwest.