A Personal Reflection: Japanese Americans in the Age of Reparatory Justice
By Susan Hayase. Posted October 7, 2022.
Preamble: Many people are familiar with the standard narrative about the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans by the U.S. government during WWII. Far fewer know anything about the legislation providing for a token compensation and an apology to surviving former incarcerees enacted in 1988, although some might be tempted to inaccurately celebrate Japanese American redress as a simple success story that closes the chapter on Japanese American history.
Because the movement for reparations for slavery has momentum today, it’s important to discuss what it could mean for the descendants of the enslaved as well as others living in the system that created slavery and enshrined its legacy in laws, practices, and prejudice. We need to ask ourselves: what would it take to repair the many wounds inflicted by the legacy of slavery? Is there anything useful we could learn from a re-examination of Japanese American redress/reparations?
It makes perfect sense to me that Japanese Americans are organizing our community in support of reparations for slavery and its legacy. Reparations is a powerful antidote to systemic injuries, and the systemic injuries of the unspeakable brutality of generations of chattel slavery in the United States have made inevitable a white supremacist legacy that continues to injure the descendants of the enslaved as well as many others. Reparations for the legacy of slavery is long overdue, it is deserved, and it must happen in order for our nation to be a real democracy.
The more I learn about the methods, ideas and systems used to oppress the descendants of the enslaved the more arguable it is to me that the legacy of slavery and the distortions done to American democracy by that damnable legacy, distortions of equality under the law and of constitutional guarantees — made inevitable the racist forced removal and indefinite incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII as well as many other racist, exclusionary, and inhumane policies before then and since then.
My own personal experiences with Japanese American redress/reparations during the late 70s through the 90s has drawn me towards reparations for slavery, personally and politically. For me, redress/reparations wasn’t just “an issue” that I could choose to be involved with or not. It was something that consumed me in my young adulthood because it offered the possibility of connection to the community from which I had been purposely estranged by government policy. Redress/reparations was an outlet for righteous anger, the revealing of hidden histories, and redemption for myself and family from the scars incurred by both the resistance and the knuckling under that a life under racism evokes. The Japanese American redress/reparations movement was my school, and the in-many-ways-unexpected signing of our redress bill was a diploma of sorts that promised me I could never again unsee the need for justice or repair.
Today, so many reparations projects have blossomed all over the country encompassing research, litigation, and legislation – targeting local, state, and national government, aimed at corporations whose gargantuan wealth is rooted in profits from slavery, and among elite universities built by slave labor. This is inspiring and an indication that we are undergoing a political transition to a more forward-looking time that is open to the idea and reality of reparatory justice – rehabilitation, restoration, and repair in place of old concepts of punishment, as well as mediating the complex relationship between individuals, the collective, and the state. I and many other Japanese Americans, for whom reparatory justice is part of our history, have been involved with the support of two efforts of major significance: HR40 – The Commission to Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act, which is waiting to be brought to the floor of the U.S. Congress for a vote, and the task force created by California AB3121, which has been empaneled and is halfway through its process.
Unsurprisingly, the existence of the Japanese American redress/reparations bill, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988(CLA ’88), is being recognized as an interesting and significant signpost on the road to the realization of reparations for slavery as well as a moment in history in and of itself. It’s appropriate and timely to discuss why that’s so, from the viewpoint of someone who cut her political teeth on the grassroots movement for Japanese American redress/reparations.
I would like to provide some thoughts on the CLA ’88 bill from our vantage point today. Many of us have been fighting against inequity and civil liberties violations for a long time, but it would be wrong to not notice significant changes in the political environment that have emerged fairly recently. Although reparations for slavery have been an issue in the Black community for generations, it seems like there is a real upwelling of reparatory justice bursting out of the ground, right under the feet of the grassroots today.
We are in an Age of Reparatory Justice
The current national political climate is highly charged and contentious, and there is a lot at stake. The backlash against the civil liberties gains of the 60s/70s has reached a crescendo with the rise of violent extremism and white supremacy. The opposition to this extremism is commonly seen as a continuation of grassroots organizing and advocacy, mainly social justice activism and especially anti-racist activism. What I have started to see are the common and increasingly vibrant threads of reparatory justice that run through some of the most riveting struggles and campaigns today.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the nationwide protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd have validated and accelerated calls to justice, to redesign the criminal justice system, to reform, replace, or defund the police, to seriously address the systemic roots of crime and challenges to public safety. In San Jose, this led to political struggle over who would lead this effort – city bureaucrats or people and organizations in the community who have been on the frontlines of this effort for decades, who represent those needing repair – and resulted in detailed recommendations for repair by the Reimagining Public Safety Advisory Committee. More broadly, these types of struggles nationwide have been rightfully put into the context of repairing the legacy of slavery.
This process has accelerated public learning about the history of racist and sexist oppression in this country and has spurred the moves to pull down Confederate flags and statues and to rename institutions, buildings, and programs that bear the name of white supremacists in the interest of healing. In San Jose for example, the middle school named after the first governor of California, Peter Burnett, was enthusiastically renamed the Muwekma Ohlone Middle School after a public education campaign revealed Burnett to have been one of the most prominent architects of the bloody genocide of California Indigenous people during the beginnings of the statehood era, and in acknowledgement of the fact that the school, along with the city, rests on the unceded territory of the Muwekma Ohlone people. More and more, the answer is “NO!” to the question “should public funding continue to honor racism, cruelty, and violence?
In San Jose, the city made national and international news last September (2021) when the city council and mayor adopted a resolution taking full responsibility for the racist and exclusionary actions of San Jose leaders in the 1870s that culminated in the sponsorship of an anti-Chinese convention, calling for the expulsion of Chinese workers and which resulted in the 1877 arson and complete destruction of the Market Street Chinatown, the largest of five in the city. By contrast, previous efforts in the 1980s to commemorate that historic moment had only noted the “fire of suspicious origins” as if it was impossible to understand. The form of the recent resolution, with its detailed and historically accurate acknowledgement of the wrongs committed goes a long way to heal generations who have been forced to remember and declare the true history of the Market Street Chinatown without any recognition of this by the city government.
Most recently, San Jose area Japanese Americans joined with over 70 environmental and other community organizations in California and the SF Bay Area to rally to protect Juristac, the sacred lands of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in Southern Santa Clara County from permanent devastation by a proposed 400 acre, 250 feet deep sand and gravel quarry. Aside from the untenable environmental destruction in an age of planetary disaster, we have found that we support the efforts of the Amah Mutsun people in pursuit of their healing after many displacements and the restoration of the land they were displaced from as the only acceptable land acknowledgement that can be made by Santa Clara County.
Japanese Americans and reparations for slavery.
I’ve been personally interested in reparations for slavery since our own redress/reparations movement in the late 70s, through the 90s. One reason is because detractors have used many of the same racist arguments against both efforts and have denigrated the very idea of reparations. Racists mocking reparations has long been an attempt to fortify the feeling that white supremacist physical and political violence with impunity is a permanent, indelible aspect of American politics. Mockery of reparations has always been meant to deter and discourage us from seeking justice.
Another reason is because I’ve always felt that our failure to win reparations for the heirs of deceased former incarcerees was a deeply significant loss. Opposition to reparations for heirs is a fear of reparations for slavery by those in power. I felt that winning reparations for every single Japanese American incarcerated and making it inheritable by descendants would go a long way to ensure that the government couldn’t just delay until former incarcerees were all dead, thereby releasing the government from any accountability. The accusation that the grievance was so long in the past and that nobody alive had been directly impacted was one that had long been used against reparations for slavery. I think that Japanese American redress/reparations was unable to win redress for heirs because there was a fear in Congress that our bill would create a precedent for reparations for slavery.
While we didn’t win reparations for heirs, I strongly believe that what we did win — an official accounting and apology and token compensation to surviving incarcerees – DID create a meaningful precedent. Soon after the enactment of our bill, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, Congressperson John Conyers, Jr. (D-Michigan), who was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, introduced HR40 in 1989, a bill strategically designed to re-create the commission process, only this time putting hundreds of years of chattel slavery and the legacy since then on public trial. Many Japanese American redress/reparations organizers stood up to endorse HR40 then and at different points since.
In early 2019, my organization, San Jose Nikkei Resisters, a multigenerational grassroots community organization in the Japanese American community in San Jose and Santa Clara County, began a series of community discussions with the goal of uniting the Japanese American community in support of HR40. My initial concern in starting these conversations was in fear of journalists rightfully approaching members of the Japanese American community for comment as a people who had achieved some kind of redress/reparations – and then having an unfortunate PR failure of someone making a foolish and divisive statement, a model minority knee jerk reaction. What if an unthinking Japanese American tried to disparage anybody’s reparations but our own (and there have been individuals expressing that close-minded view)? My feeling was that Japanese Americans need to be ready to be called upon and that the way to do it was to remind everyone, including those too young to remember, of our own historic efforts to win redress/reparations for the WWII concentration camp experience and to re-commence the study of reparations for slavery in our current multi-generational formations.
These conversations led to a joint statement in 2019/2020 by San Jose Japanese American organizations in support of HR40. These organizations were: San Jose Nikkei Resisters, the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, the Asian Law Alliance, the Japanese American Citizens League (San Jose, Silicon Valley, and Sequoia chapters), and Japantown Community TV. Later, leaders of the historically Japanese American Wesley United Methodist Church and the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin joined in other statements of support for HR40.
Subsequent developments have seen this effort expand to other cities in which there are Japanese American political organizations, work with the national HR40 coalition of 300+ member organizations and individuals and to the recent creation (2022) of the National Nikkei Reparations Coalition which includes member organizations such as Nikkei Progressives (Los Angeles), Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (Los Angeles), Tsuru for Solidarity, Japanese American Citizens League chapters in Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere. Organizing support for HR40 in Japanese American communities through education, workshops, articles, and advocacy has spread to increased interest in the hearings of the California Reparations Task Force (created by AB3121), and San Jose Nikkei Resisters is a member of a local group, the Reparations Advisory and Action Coalition, convened by the African American Community Services Agency in San Jose.
Learning from the Global Reparations Movement has led to a Re-assessment of JA redress/reparations
The efforts of Japanese Americans to organize in support of other reparations efforts represents many things. It is definitely a part of the natural solidarity for the Black Liberation Movement, which has played a major role in our own redress/reparations efforts as well as in the broad movement for civil rights and the multi-racial youth struggles for Ethnic Studies that created the political context for our own efforts. But it’s also, possibly accidentally, part of the liberation and self-healing being undertaken by JA communities. These beginnings of our healing-by-doing also instigates changes in the ways that many of us are looking at our own redress/reparations struggles with the benefit of the evolving nature of reparations in this age of reparatory justice.
One of the imperatives for Japanese Americans embarking on support for reparations for slavery in the meetings that preceded the formation of the NNRC was to educate ourselves. It was an eye-opener and a gut-check to discover the work of the global reparations movement as expressed in the United Nations definitions of reparations declared in 2005. Although the U.S. reparations for slavery movement is very diverse, these principles are being upheld by a broad sector of organizations and activists. I have to admit that my first reaction to these principles was both joy and grief – joy that human endeavor had advanced the intellectual and moral basis of that work and also grief as a realization of the inadequacy of our own redress/reparations movement that had taken place before this foundation in principles had been established. It was grief for what we had not known we could demand and grief for what we most likely could not have won in any case.
What are the principles of the global reparations movement as expressed in the 2005 United Nations General Assembly Resolution? (excerpt)
In accordance with domestic law and international law, and taking account of individual circumstances, victims of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law should, as appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the violation and the circumstances of each case, be provided with full and effective reparation, as laid out in principles 19 to 23, which include the following forms: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition. (See the full document – Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law)
The JA redress/reparations bill promised a public apology and acknowledgement of governmental wrong-doing (which was deeply satisfying and a vindication for many former incarcerees and families) and it provided for a token $20,000 individual monetary compensation to every former incarceree who survived to the date of the bill’s signing: August 10, 1988.
Unfortunately for many Japanese American families including my own, so many of our family members did not make it to that date. None of my grandparents and two of my uncles did not make it. Edison Uno, an educator who was very early in articulating the need for redress, and his sister Amy Uno Ishii, a committed activist for redress – did not make it. Ed Kitazumi of San Jose, who rallied for the JACL and others to pick up the mantle for redress any chance he got the microphone – did not make it. Members of the famous segregated 442nd/100th Regimental Combat Team who were killed in action during WWII did not make it. The almost two thousand who died in the concentration camps, including seven deliberately killed by guards with impunity, did not make it. We grieve for them. Our victory is bittersweet.
In San Jose, my organization, the Nihonmachi Outreach Committee, was a founding member of the NCRR (National Coalition for Redress/Reparations) in 1980. We were based in the Japanese American grassroots and we organized among working class former incarcerees and descendants. One of our principles of unity was that we demanded “Restitution to the community.” This was in recognition that the forced removal and incarceration hadn’t only been an assault on families and individual rights but that they had decimated living and breathing communities in which religion, culture, and commerce took place. Forty-three thriving Japantowns before WWII were reduced to only three that could survive after camp, and two of those were further gouged with housing and small businesses dispossessed by urban renewal and redevelopment. All three have suffered from escalating gentrification. We did not win restitution to the community in our redress/reparations bill, and our communities are fighting to survive today.
In 1980, when we developed our NCRR principles of unity, we didn’t think to include rehabilitation as a demand. Today, that seems like a ridiculous omission. In my grief and shame, the only excuse I can offer is that we were only then crawling out of the abyss of cultural and identity erasure after deliberate governmental policies of forced assimilation that were passed down in our daily rice and okazu (side dishes.) Our dysfunction had been normalized. Our organizational disunity had been neatened into cultural proclivities. Our out-of-context anger had been psychologized into personality traits. We knew we hurt because we saw the tears on the cheeks of those facing their anger after 35 years as we worked to mobilize our people to testify at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) in the summer of 1981, but we could only benefit from the indirect therapy that came from nurturing the community’s inner connections between people, families, and factions.
It angers me, but I think that we could not have won reparations in the form of rehabilitation in 1988 because the Model Minority Strategy that used and exploited the WWII experience of Japanese Americans was too strong, too deeply embedded in the national psyche. Too many years of government and media praise for former incarcerees’ “lack of bitterness” and the popularity of too many books like “The Quiet American” by Bill Hosokawa worked to make our need for healing invisible as well as counter to some of the sentiments that made our redress bill palatable to some lawmakers. But, the upshot of this failure to win reparations for healing from the trauma of the concentration camps is that Japanese Americans must continue to struggle mightily to heal ourselves, and in this age of reparatory justice, we should acknowledge that we need help, too.
Significantly, we did not win the “guarantee of non-repetition.” Although the powerful desire for this guarantee was fuel to the fire of former incarcerees’ cry of “don’t let this happen to anyone else” our 1980s selves could not imagine how to accomplish this crucial task in the political environment of the time in which political, electoral, and judicial realms were overwhelming white. The demand to “overturn the legal basis of the camps” was a part of this approach to non-repetition, but it seemingly could not be accomplished in the legislation.
Despite the fact that I was pursuing political education in the racism and class exploitation of the system as a young person in my mid-twenties, I remember secretly hoping that the logic of a redress/reparations victory drawing an invincible line in the sand would be enough. I wasn’t alone. Many before and since have hoped that “public education” would be the cure for what we may or may not have realized was deeply embedded white supremacy in all of our political institutions. And this hope has been crushed, over and over again with acts like Trump’s Muslim Ban and migrant detention without due process. This realization is one thing that has kept many of us politically active over many decades and through different stages of our lives – it’s not just solidarity, but it’s taking a long and strategic view of what it will take to win non-repetition of oppression that keeps us going.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the $20,000 individual monetary compensation to former incarcerees was symbolic and only a token of the property, civil liberties, and human rights losses suffered by Japanese Americans, and that we accepted this concession out of pragmatism knowing that the clock was ticking and that the Issei and older Nisei were dying every day, and that political victory was not assured. And, it’s imperative for anybody thinking that the case of Japanese American redress/reparations was tidily closed in 1988 to note that Japanese Latin American redress/reparations was denied by the U.S. government that kidnapped them from their homes, schools, and businesses in Latin America, seized their passports, declared them illegal aliens and then proceeded to use them for POW exchange with Japan, without regard for their humanity. It’s a travesty that they are still unredressed.
What is the call to action in an age of reparatory justice?
Inspired by the age of reparatory justice, we can see the promise of a growing movement to repair and restore and rehabilitate those who have been harmed as well as fixing, recalibrating, and re-designing the systems that have harmed us. We can see much more clearly than many of us could in our youth that a determined fight for reparations, broadly defined, means the possibility of putting to rights the imbalance of power that has led to climate disaster – corporations enriching themselves at the expense of the hope of future generations’ ability to survive on earth. Seeing the legitimacy of the call for reparations of those formerly colonized nations whose labor and resources were ripped out in order to fuel the assaults on the planet must be tied to the beginnings of the end of that rapacious, extractive, and exploitative system.
We should notice the renewed efforts of Indigenous peoples and other oppressed peoples, including Black communities and Asian American communities to uncover the truth about our own fraught histories in the U.S. and to win the right of descendants of historic peoples to tell and interpret our histories and to win the right to have control over the places in which our place-based history takes place. This is already underway in struggles like that of the Montpelier Descendants Committee, descendants of the people enslaved by founding father James Madison, demanding an equal seat at the table of the Montpelier Foundation which controls Madison’s historic estate and which curates the exhibits there. It’s underway in the challenging struggle engaged in by the Wakasa Memorial Committee and the Topaz Museum Board over the curation and disposition of a major archaeological find on the site of one of the ten War Relocation Authority concentration camps at which Japanese American James Wakasa was shot to death by a guard. It’s underway by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in Santa Clara County who are organizing their people and youth to recover culture and history that was lost through forced assimilation and generations of displacement, and it’s exemplified by their efforts to protect and return to Juristac, a sacred place.
The principles of reparatory justice — restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition – should be in the forefront of our minds when we re-imagine how to fix systems that no longer work for the welfare of the people.
Broader, not narrower, definitions of what constitutes reparatory justice must be envisioned, invented, experimented, and nurtured. All of our most powerful visionaries – artists, musicians, writers, poets, and scientists – must be freed to take advantage of that solidarity in the soil of the grassroots movement and produce new ideas and approaches.
As a Japanese American, one thing that I think is indispensable is to be very clear about how we are still fighting, still in the fight, and working shoulder-to-shoulder to pass the baton to those who will still be here after we’re gone. Shoulder-to-shoulder is what we need. It beats standing on the shoulders of dead people. Shoulder-to-shoulder means that we are all generations of all backgrounds. No more cliques or insularity. Japanese American history is not over. Our history is not preserved in amber as a curiosity. We’re still learning and struggling to survive and to heal ourselves and our communities. Many of those who helped me as I joined the struggle are not with us now, but I can still hear their voices. It makes sense to me that we are still fighting in this blossoming age of reparatory justice.