By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
SIMI VALLEY — The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library’s Air Force One Pavilion — featuring the actual “Flying White House” used by seven presidents — provided the backdrop for a commemoration of a milestone in Japanese American history.
Sponsored by the Japanese American Republicans (JAR), the Dec. 14 event marked the 25th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by Reagan, which authorized redress payments and a formal apology to Japanese Americans interned by the U.S. government during World War II. Speakers discussed how the legislation became law and what future generations can learn from the redress process.
Emcee Peter Ohtaki, a Sansei and mayor of the Bay Area city of Menlo Park, said that his father and uncle lived on Bainbridge Island in Washington and were sent to the Manzanar camp. Both volunteered for the Army and his uncle served with the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific.
During the redress campaign of the 1980s, he said, “I was at that time a young kid in my early 20s and I certainly had mixed emotions. ‘What is this redress about?’ I asked my father and uncle and I got the typically Japanese response of shikata ga nai … It’s something that can’t be helped … I think it was the 1988 act and redress which … helped to give confidence to my father and uncle to finally be able to express themselves about what happened and to get some closure around it. So for me it certainly helped me understand what they went through.”
Ohtaki added, “I’m the first Asian American mayor of the City of Menlo Park, yet now I think one of the signs of how far we’ve come is that’s not newsworthy at all … But I’m certainly proud of the fact that I am.”
The mayor was also proud of the role that his fellow Republicans played in passage of the Civil Liberties Act, including Sens. Pete Wilson of California, Bob Dole of Kansas, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire.
Cressey Nakagawa, who served as National JACL president from 1988 to 1992, shared his perspectives. Like Ohtaki, he noted that the redress campaign began at a time when the younger generations of Japanese Americans didn’t fully understand the older generations’ wartime experiences. “They couldn’t answer the question for themselves, why their parents didn’t protest, didn’t march in the streets, file a lawsuit … Not only was the community in a position of needing education, but you needed to educate the Congress of the United States. If you think that’s easy, you don’t know the political process.”
In the late 1970s, the JACL formed a redress committee and met with Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, Rep. Norman Mineta of San Jose, and Rep. Robert Matsui of Sacramento. “The plan that was essentially declared by Dan Inouye was that we need a commission,” Nakagawa said. “He was a sound tactician … a very, very competent legislator …
“Dan knew that in fact, ‘my colleagues don’t know what happened, half of their constituents or more are opposed to it automatically because they come from other parts of the country where there are no Japanese people around … so why should they care?’”
The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians held public hearings across the country in the early 1980s, and its findings and recommendations became the basis of redress legislation. The JACL then created the Legislative Education Committee to lobby members of Congress.
The progress of the bill depended on sympathetic members of Congress in key positions, Nakagawa said. “We started with the 98th Congress, (then) the 99th. We couldn’t get bills moved because the chairmen of the subcommittees in both the House and the Senate came from areas that, frankly, didn’t have any (Japanese American) population … When the 100th Congress came along, change occurred. (Rep.) Barney Frank (D-Mass.) became the subcommittee chair … on the House side, and we now had (House Majority Leader) Tom Foley from the state of Washington.”
Republicans weren’t the only ones who needed to be persuaded, Nakagawa said. “You think that every Democrat knew about this and would be automatically on board? No.”
At a fundraising event in Modesto, Nakagawa spoke with Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and asked him to support the bill. It turned out that Bradley was receptive because one of his roommates at Princeton was Japanese American.
Nakagawa quoted Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, as saying he would support the bill “the day I get my 40 acres and a mule,” a reference to what was promised to freed slaves. “There are people that expected the black community to be automatic votes. They weren’t. We had to work at it.”
Rep. Tommy Robinson (D-Ark.), the popular former sheriff of Little Rock, signed on as a co-sponsor because a meeting with Nakagawa was arranged by a mutual friend, an influential figure in the oil and gas industry in Texas.
Grant Ujifusa, co-editor of “The Almanac of American Politics,” became JACL’s legislative strategist. “He took time out … to go ahead and start making inquiries of people that he knew … without using money,” Nakagawa recalled. “This was not a campaign lobbying with money. You couldn’t buy this, no way. This had to be heart, this had to be telling stories, a reminder of what this country was all about.”
The contributions of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II helped persuade many politicians, Nakagawa noted. “That kind of wartime accomplishment added not only luster, but it actually offered an ID about who we were, what we are.” The legislation was designated HR 442 in honor of the Nisei soldiers.
However, the word around Washington was that Reagan would not sign the bill because of the expense, and Ujifusa asked Tom Kean, the Republican governor of New Jersey, to contact the president. Kean was able to contact Reagan directly, bypassing “the guard dogs around the president (who) keep you from reaching him, letter-wise or otherwise, because they can control what goes to the president,” Nakagawa said.
According to Nakagawa, Kean’s letter told Reagan that redress was not some kind of affirmative action program and that the internees suffered “huge financial losses — in today’s dollars it would be over $6 billion, imposed with the wrong constitutional message and the wrong constitutional results.”
Reagan was also sent a letter from June Masuda Goto, sister of Kaz Masuda, a 442nd soldier from Orange County who was killed in action. The Westminster community would not allow him to be buried in the local cemetery until the Army intervened.
“There’s a conflict in terms of who did what and when, but the clear story is that Ronald Reagan was a participant in a ceremony at United America Day at the Santa Ana Bowl, just a day after Gen. ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to Kaz Masuda at his parents’ home in Talbert and pinned it on Mary, his sister, because his mother wouldn’t accept it.”
During the signing ceremony on Aug. 10, 1988, Reagan repeated a statement that he had made in 1945: “Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all one color. America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.”
Although Reagan, who was 77 at the time, had to be reminded of his connection to the Masuda family, Nakagawa said, “I think President Reagan was our best hope, and am happy that he was there at the time when we needed him.”
The signing ceremony took place during the JACL National Convention in Seattle, where Nakagawa was elected president. Several JACLers flew to Washington to witness the signing, including outgoing president Harry Kajihara, who stood on the stage with Reagan and members of Congress.
Nakagawa spent the next two years working to “make sure the appropriations process was carried out as quickly as possible,” as no funds had been allotted for redress. The first payments were made to the oldest recipients in 1990.
Justice Ming Chin, the first Chinese American to serve on the California Supreme Court, agreed with the Civil Liberties Act’s statement that “the internments were carried out without adequate security reasons and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and failure of political leadership.”
He quoted part of Reagan’s speech at the signing ceremony: “The nation was at war, struggling for its survival. It is not for us to pass judgment on those who made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was just that, a mistake.”
The idea that a person can be held indefinitely without any charges being filed, Chin explained, goes back to the Civil War, when President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the case of Ex Parte Merryman. This meant that the Army could arrest and detain anyone for as long as it wanted.
“We have three branches of government for a reason,” Chin said. “We don’t have a dictatorship where the president does whatever he wants. We don’t have a situation where the Congress gets to do whatever it wants, and we don’t have a system of government where the courts are a star chamber and they get to do whatever they want. Our Constitution has checks and balances, and each part of our government must respect the place of each other part.”
That system broke down in 1942, he continued. “President Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the military removal, ignoring the writ of habea corpus, for the internment of Japanese Americans. Incredibly, the order spoke of the need to protect against espionage, but military leaders who urged the president to issue it knew that there was no evidence of any actual espionage.”
In the case of Fred Korematsu, who disobeyed the internment order, “no question was ever raised about his loyalty to the United States, yet he was arrested and convicted for violating the law. Sadly, a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the internment program based on the president’s war powers. The majority, though recognizing that most Japanese Americans were no doubt loyal to this country, accepted the military’s judgment that the West Coast was in imminent danger.
“But Justice (Frank) Murphy, one of the dissenters … said the majority’s decision was legalized racism and was based on the unsupported assumption that all persons of Japanese ancestry have a dangerous tendency to commit sabotage and espionage … It’s too bad that Justice Murphy did not prevail in his dissent.”
Chin said that a picture of noted photographer Toyo Miyatake at Manzanar, on display in the meeting room, “really says it all. Toyo said that it was his job to record what was happening so that this kind of thing never happens again. Isn’t that why we’re here today? We want to make sure that this never happens again.”
While stressing that he was not giving a political speech, Chin, a Republican, noted that he has many ties to the party. Some of his former colleagues at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, including Ed Meese, served with Reagan in Sacramento and Washington, and Chin’s judicial appointments came from Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, whom he thanked for giving him an opportunity to serve the people of California.
Sharon Day, who was recently re-elected as co-chair of the Republican National Committee, came from Florida to participate in the event. She quoted another part of Reagan’s speech: “We gather here today to right a grave wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
“The internment … was not a proud moment in our nation’s history,” she stated. “Families were uprooted solely because of their ancestry, and regardless of their citizenship they were taken away from their homes. It was wrong and it was unjust. America is at our best when we embrace our rich, diverse heritage. We are stronger when we celebrate our differences, not when we use them to divide ourselves.”
Day cited the experience of a Nisei woman named Janet, who at age 5 was uprooted with her family from San Francisco and imprisoned in Utah. “She said, I remember the military police coming and searching our home, and understanding for sure that my parents were basically helpless and were not going to be able to protect me.’ She didn’t know what was happening … All she knew, she said, was that she had to remain silent in her own home.
“Today it’s about ensuring children just like Janet never experience the same thing, that they will never have to remain silent, nor will another parent ever have to feel that they can’t protect their children. That’s what the Civil Liberties Act was about, making amends for the past and making a promise for the future, for every single American’s future.”
Day also told the story of a boy who was interned at Heart Mountain and his friendship with a fellow Boy Scout from the nearby town of Cody, Wyo. “It was a friendship that would last years until both men were serving in Congress together, Rep. Norman Mineta and Sen. Alan Simpson, a Democrat and a Republican … Those longtime friends were the co-sponsors of the Civil Liberties Act …
“Their friendship reminds us that we are all Americans. Regardless of our circumstances, there are so many things that unite us … We are all united by the pursuit of our own American dreams for ourselves, for our children, and for our families.”
Noting that many Nisei served in the Army even while their families were in camp, Day called on the veterans in the room to stand and be recognized.
The program began with the posting of colors by Boy Scout Troops 738 and 378, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Special guests included former JACL National President David Kawamoto, former Assemblymember Paul Bannai, former La Palma Mayor Charlene Hatakeyama, former Monterey Park Mayor Betty Chu, Rosemead City Councilmember Steven Ly, Percy Duran of the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Pablo Wong, acting chair of California APA Republican Grassroots Leadership Team.
During a luncheon that followed, Gary Miyatake, grandson of Toyo Miyatake, gave a presentation about his grandfather’s career, particularly his experiences at Manzanar. Also in attendance were Archie and Take Miyatake, Gary’s parents and Toyo’s son and daughter-in-law.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo