For decades, those who were locked up in American wartime concentration camps knew it was wrong. It took a Boeing engineer from Seattle and a cohort of civil liberties friends to stand up and seek re-dress.
In part 4 of the series "Prisoners in Their Own Land," KING 5's Lori Matsukawa explains how those who were locked up in American wartime concentration* camps knew it was wrong for decades. But what to do about it? It took a Boeing engineer from Seattle and a cohort of civil liberties friends to stand up and seek redress. But he almost didn't do it.
It was, at the time, a pretty gutsy move for Japanese Americans in Seattle to ask the government to apologize and pay the individuals it had locked up during the war.
Tom Ikeda, executive director of history website Densho, theorizes it came down to one man who pushed the idea: Henry Miyatake, who was 13 when he went to Minidoka
“He was this Boeing engineer,” said Ikeda. “Really smart.”
But it took the threat of a layoff to get him motivated. His managers told Miyatake they wouldn’t lay him off. They would just pay him half his salary to do the same amount of work.
“Henry said, 'You can't do that, I'm not going to take that,'" recalled Ikeda. “But his manager said, 'Yes you will. You're Japanese American. And I know what happened in World War II. And the Japanese Americans just took it and didn't complain. And so the same way with the other Japanese American engineers, we know if we give you just half your salary, you guys will just take it.'”
Miyatake and the Seattle Japanese American Citizens' League (JACL) went to work, using flip charts to educate the public and their fellow incarcerees about the fight ahead. Amazingly, some in the community resisted.
“Some have likened it and have mentioned that it is somewhat like being raped,” William Marutani said in 1988. “You know it was wrong, but you've been raped, and you don't like to tell people about the fact that you've been raped.”
Former Governor Mike Lowry was a freshman congressman who floated the first redress bill. It went nowhere, but Lowry said he never regretted it and lobbied his fellow lawmakers to get behind it.
“The redress makes the point that there was a wrong and it's the federal government's responsibility to correct that wrong,” Lowry said.
Fortunately, there were four Japanese American lawmakers in Washington, D.C., who would help craft a path to redress: Congressmen Bob Matsui and Norm Mineta and Senators Spark Matsunaga and Daniel Inouye, himself a WWII vet.
They helped create a Federal "Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians," which went to several cities including Seattle, to collect testimony and information about the massive denial of civil liberty.
For some who testified, it was the first time they had talked about their incarceration in almost 40 years.
“The feeling of being pointed out as the enemy during a crucial period of my life and without a chance to defend myself caused many psychological wounds from which I feel I have never recovered,” Sam Shoji told the commissioners in 1982.
In its final report, the commission concluded the incarceration of Japanese Americans was not based on “military necessity,” but was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Still, for some members of the Washington state delegation, redress was a hard sell. Cherry Kinoshita was in a group who made a last pitch to holdout Republican Congressman Rod Chandler.
“When I shook his hand, I made one last try. I said, 'Congressman Chandler, when it comes to the vote please remember that, if nothing else, it's the right thing to do,'” said Kinoshita.
When the House finally voted on September 17, 1987, Kinoshita laughed when Congressman Chandler took the floor.
“(He said) I thought about this for a long time. In my mind, I had to do it (approve the bill) because … it's the right thing to do!”
The signing of the redress bill by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 capped more than 10 years of hard work. It provided $20,000 to each survivor, a public education fund, and a formal apology.
At the signing, the president said, “No payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important with this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here, we admit a wrong.”
The president also recalled the words he himself has used to eulogize a fallen Japanese American hero, who was buried with full military honors on orders of his commander, Gen. Joe Stillwell, even though the soldier's hometown residents opposed it.
President Reagan continued: “One young actor said, 'Blood that has soaked in the sands of a beach is all of one color.' The name of that young man ( I hope I pronounce this right) was Ronald Reagan."
JACL President Priscilla Ouchida reacted, “Today is a vindication for Japanese Americans, for the Constitution and for all Americans.”
The government began issuing checks to the oldest survivors first. When asked what he thought of redress, one elderly gentleman said, "It takes a great country to admit it made a mistake."
Part 5 on Friday: The internment story continues to inspire a new generation of performers and artists. How re-telling this chapter in history presents a chance to teach and prevent repeating a grave injustice.
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*Internment Camp vs. Concentration Camp
Some viewers may be wondering what to call these wartime camps. The words "internment camp" are considered imprecise by scholars, since those were used for holding dangerous aliens and prisoners of war. I use the words "concentration camp" in my reports because that's what the people I interviewed called them and, by definition, that's what they were, according to history website DENSHO: “Prison camps outside the normal criminal justice system, designated to confine civilians for military or political purposes on the basis of race and ethnicity." This is not meant to take away from what happened to Jews and others in Europe, who were imprisoned in "concentration camps," which some now acknowledge was a euphemism for Nazi "death camps." - Lori Matsukawa