Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

WW II concentration camps

Japanese Americans demand reparations

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 4, February 15-28, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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On February 19, special Days of Remembrance programs will be held in Japanese communities to mark the 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066 which authorized the forced evacuation and incarceration of 110,000 Japanese people on the West Coast in ten U.S. concentration camps for the duration of World War II. A key topic at this year’s programs will be the reparations and redress issue.

The demand for reparations (monetary compensation for losses and damages suffered) and redress (the righting of a wrong) has been a burning issue in the Japanese community. Although reparations cannot make up for past or present oppression, Japanese Americans have the right to collect damages for the loss of land, businesses, livelihoods and other personal losses caused by the government’s racist incarceration. A conservative estimate by the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco placed the property loss at $400 million. This figure did not include losses due to injury, death, psychological trauma, or loss of income.

The concentration camp experience is like a wound which has never healed. “Four years of economic void. Ten years of economic disruption,” said an elderly Japanese man. “I had to start all over again from scratch – homeless and jobless, with a family of four.”

A mass demand

Such sentiments have spurred a mass movement for reparations targeting the federal government, which colluded with large corporate agricultural interests and reactionary groups to engineer one of the most massive and blatant violations of civil rights in U.S. history.

Reparations is not only supported by the Issei and Nisei (first and second generation Japanese Americans) who endured the camps, but also by Sansei and Yonsei (third and fourth generation Japanese Americans) who were too young to experience the camps. The issue brings together young and old in a common struggle against both past and present national oppression of the Japanese national minority – against their exploitation as contract laborers; the unequal treatment and racist discrimination against Japanese in housing, jobs and social services; and the denial of the full use of the Japanese language and culture.

Within the reparations movement, many activists are discussing important questions about how to view the two redress bills currently before Congress, how to wage a mass campaign to win support within the Japanese community, and how to take the issue into all sectors of U.S. society. What is a correct strategy for winning reparations?

Two redress bills

Under the U.S. bourgeois legal system, individuals have the right to sue for damages and clear their names when falsely accused or arrested. For 110,000 Japanese Americans who were sentenced to four years of imprisonment without formal charges or trial, the demand for reparations and redress seeks fulfillment of a democratic right denied for 38 years.

Although redress has been discussed for many years, it was not until fall 1979 that the leaders of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) worked with Japanese American legislators to introduce Senate Bill 1647 and House Resolution 5499 calling for the establishment of a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. This bill would authorize the president to appoint a 15-member commission to conduct nationwide hearings to determine whether the government’s actions were justified by military necessity, and if not, to recommend redress. There is no guarantee that the commission would recommend reparations, and may instead opt for redress in the form of an official apology.

The commission bill is a big step back from the original JACL membership demands made in 1978 at the biannual JACL convention for $25,000 for individual reparations, a community fund, and overturning the Supreme Court decisions sanctioning the evacuation.

Another bill, House Resolution 5699 – endorsed by the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR), a group of activists in Seattle and Chicago – calls for $15,000 per individual interned, plus $ 15 per day that he or she was held. If the person is deceased, the money would go to the heirs.

The NCJAR bill correctly places the burden of responsibility on the government to provide reparations. It taps the sentiment that reparations are needed now – while the survivors of the camps are still alive.

However, there is a major omission in the NCJAR bill. Community organizations such as the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO), the Committee Against Nihonmachi Evictions (CANE), and the Tule Lake Committee (TLC), along with many individuals who . advocate reparations, believe that a community fund is an essential part of reparations. A community fund could be used to build needed housing and to fund social, cultural and educational programs to help rebuild the Japanese communities shattered and dispersed by the camps and further destroyed by urban redevelopment.

Despite its limitations, the NCJAR bill should be supported because it upholds the mass demand for direct monetary payment. However, it has little chance of passage. Congress favors the commission approach, which is obviously less costly to the U.S. ruling class.

Hearings could begin by winter 1980, and it will be important to educate and mobilize the community to attend and make it clear that Japanese Americans want nothing less than full reparations and complete exoneration. If the commission decides after the designated 18-month period that reparations do not need to be granted, mass organizing must continue to push for full implementation of reparations.

At the commission hearings a number of views could come out. It will be important to refute mistaken ideas that raising the issue of reparations will only incite a reactionary backlash at Japanese Americans, or that Japanese Americans have achieved economic success and don’t need reparations. Other ideas which preach total reliance on politicians and the capitalist system to end national oppression must also be opposed.

Unite to win reparations

Winning reparations will take a protracted struggle. Within the Japanese national minority, a united front must be built around demands for individual monetary payment, a community fund, and repeal of the Supreme Court decisions legalizing the evacuations. This united front should include workers, shopkeepers, students, youth, the elderly, professionals and others.

Though there may be differences on other matters, unity can be forged between the NCJAR and JACL members who uphold the original demand for reparations, community based organizations like LTPRO, CANE and TLC, and many other groups and individuals.

The campaign must also reach out to different classes and sectors of U.S. society, and to people of other nationalities. It will be especially important to win support from the U.S. multinational working class. The issue can be raised in union locals and caucuses, starting first in places where there are some Japanese workers, and trying to win support for mass rallies at the commission hearings, endorsement of the reparations demand, and for fund raising and educational efforts. The reparations issue can be raised in a similar way in community and student organizations, and can also be linked to the danger of such concentration camp repression being used against other nationalities and against progressive forces in the future.

Building broad multinational unity in support of the Japanese people’s demand for reparations greatly strengthens the demand and can educate many people in the process. Organization and support of the masses of people is the main way to take up the protracted struggle for reparations and to win the demand.