Think reparations are impossible? The story of Japanese Americans proves otherwise

Kay Ochi still remembers the small, brown envelope her family received from the US Department of Justice more than 30 years ago.

It looked like any other piece of official government mail, with a Washington DC postmark. But inside was a printed letter, signed by President George HW Bush – and two checks for $20,000, one for each of her parents.

couple in black and white

Her parents were among the 82,000 Japanese Americans who received redress after being forced into concentration camps during the second world war under the guise of national security, in one of the darkest chapters in modern US history. The payments were the culmination of a hard-fought, 20-year movement, driven by sansei, or third-generation Japanese Americans, like Ochi seeking justice for their elders.

Ochi’s parents needed the money – incarceration had stalled their careers – and they used it for a new roof, to update their kitchen, then shared some with their four daughters. But it was about more than money.

“We were vindicated,” said Ochi, now 76. “It began to lift the weight most of us have carried around.”

The checks made Japanese Americans one of the only ethnic groups ever to win reparations from the US government. Now, decades later, their victory is taking on new weight as Black Americans fight for reparations of their own.

Proposals to compensate descendants for the lasting harms of slavery and discrimination are under way across the US, most notably in California, where a first-in-the-nation taskforce recently recommended a formal apology, cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people, and other policies to address enduring discrimination. But those efforts have also invited a vocal backlash and will face a prolonged battle to win over public and political support.

Many veterans of the Japanese American movement for redress are getting back into the fight for reparations. Once again, they say, it’s the right thing to do. And it’s a matter of reciprocity: the Japanese American movement was heavily inspired by the civil rights movement, and Black members of Congress were key allies in persuading the government to back it. These activists are bringing a rare message to the movement: one of hope.

“The Japanese American experience can be pointed to, can be used, to show that reparations are possible,” Ochi said. “It’s happened here – it’s possible and it’s necessary.”

portrait of ochi and framed letter

Shining a light on atrocities

While the story of what happened to Japanese Americans during the second world war is now well known, for decades it was barely discussed.

Like many in her generation, June Hibino grew up only hearing her parents briefly reference the concentration camps. They were among the 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the west coast rounded up and put into concentration camps that spanned from California to Arkansas, over claims of espionage and disloyalty to the US. Many survivors didn’t want to talk about their trauma, and parents often wanted to shield their kids from the racism they experienced.

It was the redress movement that shone a light on this atrocity for the community – and the nation. The push for reparations began as early as 1970, when the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) called for legislation that would make amends to those incarcerated during the war. But it wasn’t until the early 1980s, when hundreds of survivors and their families testified at federal commission hearings across the country, that the movement gathered momentum.

June Hibino testifying at an August 1981 commission hearing at Golden Gate College in San Francisco.

Getting involved with the redress movement years after college prompted Hibino to finally talk to her parents about what had happened to them. She then testified on their behalf at an August 1981 commission hearing at Golden Gate College in San Francisco.

She spoke of the harvest her family lost on their farm; of her father, whose studies at the University of California, Berkeley, were cut short and never resumed; and of her grandmother, who got sick with an infection a few months into incarceration and died alone in the hospital, the government not allowing her family to visit her on her deathbed. And she spoke of the continuing racism she faced as a third-generation Japanese American.

“For my parents, for my people, I demand monetary compensation,” she said then. “And as a sansei, I demand the truth be brought out for all to know. Reparations is our right – and it’s been 40 years late in coming. And anything less would be nothing but a token and a whitewash.”

She described how listeners were on the edge of their seats as survivors spoke of things they hadn’t even shared with their own families. “People broke down in tears,” Hibino, now 70, told the Guardian. “Others were so angry, they pounded the table, because they were finally being allowed to say what happened to them.”

June Hibino in her home and a family photo.

Ochi, a member of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR), one of the major Japanese American groups pushing for reparations, remembers feeling stunned. “How could all of this have been kept so quiet, untold, for four decades?” she said. It wasn’t until then that she realized the extent of the community’s suffering, as well as their losses – of businesses, homes and land, of freedom and dignity. They were all stories that hadn’t been documented.

“We as a community had to write our own history,” Ochi said.

Taking the fight to Washington

Now the truth was finally out in the open, but winning reparations also meant fighting in the courts and in Congress.

On one front, a team of lawyers set out to topple the legal justification for the concentration camps. They reopened the case of Fred Korematsu, who in 1942, when the roundup of people of Japanese descent began, defied military orders and went into hiding, eventually getting arrested and tried. His case went to the supreme court, which upheld the constitutionality of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, Dale Minami, Don Tamaki, Peter IronsKorematsu v. the United States photo archive

But four decades years later, lawyers found documents that proved the government had lied and suppressed evidence about the supposed military threat posed by Japanese Americans. Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in 1983, undercutting one of the main objections to redress – that wartime incarceration had been constitutional.

“That was the last piece of the argument against reparations. It boosted the movement,” said Don Tamaki, one of the lawyers on the case who recently served on California’s reparations taskforce as the panel’s only non-Black member. His own parents had been incarcerated in Topaz, Utah. “We were on a mission,” Tamaki said of the Korematsu case. “We were out to vindicate our families.”

left: portrait of tamaki today. right: family photo in black and white

On another front, a federal commission studying incarceration concluded in 1983 that it was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership”, further boosting the case for reparations. Norman Mineta, a Japanese American congressman from San Jose who was incarcerated as a child, co-sponsored a new redress bill in Congress, and hundreds of Japanese Americans flocked to Washington DC to advocate for it.

There was urgency to pass it: the community wanted to ensure that elderly survivors received compensation before they died.

Ochi, who flew to Washington to support the bill, remembers walking on Capitol Hill, handing out press packets and lobbying members of Congress. Most mainstream news organizations weren’t covering the movement, so she’d call Japanese American newspapers on the phone to give them the day-by-day account.

Just before the House voted on the bill, a delegation of 141 Japanese Americans arrived in Washington, Miya Iwataki, an organizer with NCRR, remembers. “We had gardeners, truck drivers, doctors, attorneys, college students, professors, veterans, little kids, moms, Issei [first-generation immigrants to the US],” she said.

The movement was also multi-racial. One key legislative ally was Mervyn Dymally, a Black congressman from Los Angeles, Iwataki said. She had met him years before, when she went to a town hall in his district. She pressed him on redress, and he admitted he wasn’t familiar with the movement – but asked her to tell him more. Later, he hired Iwataki as his press secretary.

Dymally, who introduced a different redress bill in 1982, had helped facilitate early lobbying delegations to Washington, Iwataki said, introducing activists to other congressmen, making appointments, letting them use his office as a headquarters, and even arranging for them to stay at the homes of legislative staff. Dymally was chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, so the CBC was “among the first” to sign on to any reparations bills, Iwataki said, with Black California congresspeople including Ron Dellums also playing a critical role.

Finally, seven years after the first commission hearings – and 46 years after incarceration began – Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which offered an official apology “for these fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights” and set up a small fund to pay for public education efforts about this history and $20,000 redress checks to living survivors.

“A lot of times people look at that iconic photo of President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act, surrounded by beaming legislators, and think that’s representative of the redress and reparations movement,” Iwataki said. “But it’s not. It was a movement – and a victory – for and by the people.”

Ronald Reagan signs bill

‘It took 20 years to shift the thinking’

It was a major victory, but the work to educate and advocate never stopped.

These days, Iwataki spends her time organizing and traveling the country, attending reparations conferences, trying to learn as much as she can about the movement for Black reparations and convince other Japanese Americans that they should support it too.

Japanese Americans have had a long history of interracial solidarity on social justice issues, from protesting the war in Vietnam to supporting the anti-apartheid movement to fighting Islamophobia after 9/11 and Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban and family separation policy for migrant families.

“There’s a recognition among Asian Americans that if it wasn’t for the civil rights movement, where would we be?” said Tamaki, explaining that the legislation that came out of the movement opened doors for Asian Americans too. “We’d probably be where we were after the roundup.”

After the introduction of AB3121, the California bill to create a taskforce to study reparations for Black residents, the veteran NCRR activist Kathy Masaoka helped organize Japanese Americans to call state legislators, asking them to vote for the bill. NCRR and the group Nikkei Progressives also set up a joint committee to start studying African Americans’ reparations demands – as well as the Japanese American community’s own history of redress.

Many activists and Japanese American community groups have also been involved at a national level, testifying and writing letters in support of HR40, the federal bill to establish a commission to study reparations for African Americans.

But Japanese American activists stress that they take their lead from Black organizers and groups working on the issue. “We didn’t want to say, ‘We know how to do it,’” Masaoka said.

Tamaki spent two years on California’s reparations taskforce, listening to expert testimony and the stories of longtime residents of the state. The experience, he said, helped him see the discrimination Japanese Americans faced as just a subplot in the broader history of American racism and anti-Blackness.

overhead view

He thought of Tanforan, a horse racetrack in the San Francisco Bay Area where his parents and other Japanese Americans were held before the concentration camps, that had restrooms and water fountains separated for whites and coloreds. “It’s a great illustration of what started as anti-Black pathology that ensnares others as well,” he said. “It’s unifying, actually, to realize that everybody’s got a stake in this game.”

While Japanese American activists are careful to say that they don’t have specific lessons for today’s movement for Black reparations, they say their success 35 years ago can be a source of optimism – even though success felt far from inevitable at the time.

“I was thinking it wouldn’t happen,” said Ochi. “It didn’t stop us, because we knew it was the right thing to do.”

Tamaki said while there are “stark differences” between Japanese American redress and the Black reparations movement today, he sees parallels in the way public opinion has changed. “When it first started, the public’s reaction to reparations was ‘no’ and ‘hell no,’” he said of Japanese American redress. “It took 20 years to shift the thinking – but it did shift.”

Today, there’s a similar, unprecedented momentum building with reparations for Black Americans. He pointed to the more than 350 organizations that have signed on to endorse reparations in California, as well as similar efforts in Illinois and New Jersey to study reparations.

Can reparations be won again?

“I’m hopeful,” he said.

Lawyer Don Tamaki’s personal archive of news clippings from the fight for reparations for Japanese Americans.

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