Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Insufficient Atonement—That Time Red-Faced America Paid Reparations to Internees

From George Takei's graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy.

On August 10, 1988, more than 45 years after the start of internment, the United States government authorized reparations payments to Japanese-Americans detained during World War II.

President Ronald Reagan signing the bill apologizing for World War II internment of Japanese-Americans and authorizing largely symbolic reparations.

Ten weeks after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering 120,000 people of Japanese descent—including 75,000 American citizens—into internment camps. The announced purpose was to protect the West Coast from sabotage and collusion with the enemy, but the perceived threat was based more in racial prejudice than military strategy, as the great majority German-American and Italian-American residents were allowed to remain in their homes undisturbed.  And despite the large pre-war German-American Bund with its openly pro-Nazi rallies and proven networks of spies and saboteurs.  

For the length of the war, Americans of Japanese descent and Japanese nationals—many of denied American citizenship based on racially discriminatory quotas—were imprisoned in makeshift internment camps throughout the West Coast and as far east as Arkansas. Interned people were forced to abandon their homes, farms, and businesses, or sell them at rock bottom prices, losing economic stability and generational wealth. The 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision Korematsu v. U.S., upheld Roosevelt’s executive order.

A member of the Nesei 442nd Regiment on guard in France in 1945.

Despite the trauma the great majority of the detainees remained loyal to America and thousands of their young men volunteered for service in the Armed forces.  That included members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment made up of Niseisecond generation American citizens—that became the most decorated unit of it size during the war for its hard-fighting service in Italy and France

After the war, Japanese-Americans returned home to distrust and resentment. Wartime internment traumatized an entire generation of people and continues to impact their descendants

After the war the detainees were often unwanted back in their home communities.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, survivors of internment organized to demand that the United States government address this history.

In 1980, Congress established a commission to investigate the internment camps and their legacy. The report decried Japanese internment as a “grave injustice” and acknowledged that the internment was fueled by “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The decade-long efforts of Japanese American civil rights advocates were realized when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided an apology and compensation of $20,000 to living survivors of Japanese internment. An estimated 50,000 people interned during the war died before the reparation act’s passage.

Although Japanese-Americans were gratified by the acknowledgement of the grave injustice done to them and for the formal apology, the cash settlements were a drop in the bucket compared to actual losses. 

A one day evacuation sale at a Japanese-American owned business.  Many did not even have the timer or opportunity to even attempting to get some value for their abandoned property.

Hard working and industrious Japanese had some of the finest farms on the West Coast, prosperous businesses in towns and cities as well as high-rates of home ownership.  All of that caused resentment and envy by their neighbors, many of whom swooped in to claim their property legally or by winked-at outright theft.  A mere $20,000 came nowhere near making up those losses, especially considering inflation.  And by denying recompense to the tens of thousands who had already died, their heirs were effectively cheated as well.

In the decades after the apology and reparations, a public consensus grew that the internment was one of the blackest episodes in American history.  But new camps—and proposals to actually use former Japanese internment camps—sprang up like mushrooms under the former Cheeto-in-Charge. Trump apologists, right-wing ideologues, and outright White nationalists—not only defend the camps but exulted in them.  And they assailed the birthright citizenship of the Nisei generations.  The Japanese like the millions of Latino American citizens are derided as alien stains on White America.

Always ready to play a xenophobic hand, the former President publicly hyped an executive order to end birthright citizenship.  This Voice of America graphic made clear why he couldn't follow through.

The former Resident shared that view—he threatened to try to end birthright citizenship by fiatexecutive order—and many of his Make America Great Again devotees cheered it on.  Although he never had the chance to follow through, an unthinkable cancer continues to spread.

All because we are already forgetting the lessons of Manzanar.


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