The Power of Untidy Movements: 30 Years after the Fight for Japanese American Redress

CWRIC hearings in Seattle, Washington, 1981. (Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration / Densho Encyclopedia)

By Guest Contributor: Sean Miura (@seanmiura)

My mom was about my age when she testified in support of Japanese American redress.

Fresh out of law school, she had moved to Seattle a few years prior and quickly found herself pulled into the local Japanese American community as a young leader, eventually becoming president of the Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. Seattle, beautiful rainy Seattle, is a city of left-leaning intellectuals and artists, organized and ready to mobilize with fiery intent and focused action. The Japanese Americans were (and are) no different.

When communities across the country began the push for recognition of wrongdoing in the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans, Seattle became one of the centers of organizing and strategy-setting.

And there was my mom, alongside so many others who fought to make it happen in a layered, complex, beautifully complicated weaving of people who came together to make it happen.

And happen it did.

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#NeverAgainIsNow: Why the 30th anniversary of Japanese American Redress matters today

President Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act into law. Looking on, left to right: Senator Spark Matsunaga, Representative N (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

By Guest Contributors: Tsuya Hohri Yee, Co-Chair New York Day of Remembrance Committee (Facebook: @nydayofremembrance); and Joseph Shoji Lachman, Co-founder of Never Again (Facebook: @NeverAgain9066)

August 10th marks the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted a presidential apology and monetary reparations to living Japanese American families who had persevered through WWII incarceration for simply looking like the enemy. Over 120,000 people were removed from their homes and imprisoned in concentration camps in remote areas of the country. The majority were US citizens and were children.  While no amount of money could ever undo the damage to Japanese American families and our democracy as a whole, the Act was a landmark piece of legislation, and represented decades of grassroots organizing across the country. Many Japanese Americans, young and old were inspired to join the Redress Movement by the work of Civil Rights Movement activists of the 1960s, and mobilized our communities to come together to fight for an apology and reparations. Allies in the Black and Latinx communities came to the aid of Japanese Americans, recognizing the commonalities of our struggles, and through this powerful coalition work Japanese Americans finally saw some semblance of justice for our families.

What the Redress movement achieved went beyond the Civil Liberties Act.  Our community is not monolithic and there was significant debate about how to “right this wrong,” including the view that demanding compensation would bring negative attention to our community.  Others felt that creating a Commission to study the incarceration, including prisoner testimonies was demeaning and unnecessary.   But those disagreements didn’t stop us from moving forward and when it mattered most, we rallied our support around the Civil Liberties Act.  Painful divides between individuals and groups who had chosen different paths during the war that had once seemed fixed in stone, now see the possibility of eroding.   As part of the healing process the Redress movement started, annual Day of Remembrance programs were organized across the country giving communities an opportunity to reflect, learn, and join together in solidarity around our common history. Japanese Americans also began journeying back to camp sites on pilgrimages to reclaim the stories of their parents and grandparents and to begin piecing together what was lost. Today we look back with admiration at what we fought for and accomplished as a community.

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Ours is a History of Resistance

Asian American protesters at an anti-war march in 1972. (Photo credit: Asian Pacific American Photographic Collection, Visual Communications Archive via LA Times)

By: Karin Wang (@naragirl), Asian Americans Advancing Justice

Since we launched “Write Back, Fight Back” two months ago, we have witnessed the power of words to name our struggles, reclaim our identities, and voice our power. We close out our series by centering the story of Asian immigrants challenging racism through the courts and in many cases, winning and changing the course of American history.

No current narrative of Asian Americans is more closely tied to white supremacy and historic white nativist policies than the model minority myth. First coined and promulgated in the mid-1960s by white Americans, the term referred to Japanese and Chinese Americans, focusing obsessively on their seeming success in the face of discrimination. The model minority myth gets denounced on a regular basis lately, and many journalists, writers, and activists have analyzed and challenged the economic and class implications of the myth and the damage it does less privileged Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

But there’s another insidious side to the model minority myth that needs the same unpacking and deconstructing:  the narrative of the quiet and obedient Asian – the one who works twice as hard and neither complains nor challenges authority. The myth was born at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, deliberately juxtaposing Asians against other racial minorities. It’s an image used not only to keep Asian Americans in their place but one that upholds white supremacy.

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Families of Plaintiffs in Iconic SCOTUS Japanese American Incarceration Cases File Joint Brief Against Trump Muslim Ban

Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu in a photograph taken in 1983. (Photo credit: copyrighted Bob Hsiang Photography. Please direct any requests for photo usage directly to Mr. Hsiang.)

In an historic move, the families of Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu  — the three men behind three landmark Supreme Court cases that challenged the constitutionality of Japanese American incarceration (JACL’s Power of Words) — filed a joint amicus brief to the Supreme Court yesterday paralleling President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban with the forcible imprisonment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II.

In 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui filed separate Supreme Court cases challenging the constitutionality of a federally-imposed curfew on Japanese Americans, a precursor to removal orders that led to the World War II incarceration of Japanese American citizens. That same year, Fred Korematsu was arrested after he refused to report for removal and relocation orders, and his appeal of that arrest formed the basis of his Supreme Court challenge of Executive Order 9066. These three cases — along with the Ex Parte Endo decision — form the bulk of the Supreme Court case history on federal targeting of specific racial or ethnic minority groups under the auspices of national security.

One need not try too hard to see the relevance of this case history on today’s fight to stop Trump’s attempt Muslim travel ban.

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Travel Bans and Incarceration Camps: A Country that Forgets its History is Poised to Repeat It | #DayofRemembrance

Three young Japanese American incarcerees peer through a barbed wire fence at Manzanar camp. (Photo credit: Toyo Miyatake)

75 years ago today, an American president passed an executive order that led to the forcible removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American men, women and children in American concentration camps (Note: JACL’s Power of Words Handbook).

For years, Japanese and Japanese American civilians were imprisoned in hastily-erected assembly centers and camps under harsh, isolated conditions and guarded by American soldiers whose guns were pointed inward. Racism lay at the root of this incarceration: America’s federal government offered the thin reasoning that incarcerees’ race was proof that Japanese American citizens and their parents were spies for the Japanese military. Actor George Takei was a child of 5 when he was labeled a threat to national security by his government, and forced by gunpoint to a distant incarceration camp.

Today, America is poised to repeat the mistakes of its history. A new president sits in the Oval Office who routinely uses the spectre of national security threats to target groups of people with discriminatory executive action. Compared to 1942, the victims may differ but the federal government’s reasoning is the same: entire communities of innocent civilians are being labeled as enemies of the state by virtue of their race alone.

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