On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing for the removal of any persons from Western coastal areas. This order paved the way for the forcible removal of those of Japanese descent from their homes and into camps. In all, roughly 120,000 men, women, and children were held without trial, and nearly 70,000 of those imprisoned were American citizens. Ultimately, not a single Japanese American person was ever convicted of espionage or acts of sabotage against the United States.
Lives were suspended for years. Those forced into camps had to liquidate their homes and businesses, suspend studies and careers. Near the war’s end, between 1944 and 1945, the “relocation centers,” incarceration camps where Japanese Americans were forced to live, began to close. Upon release, former internees were offered $25 and a train ticket to their destination. Many were left with nowhere to go. They had no lives and homes to return to. Because the experience was a shameful and humiliating violation of civil rights, many never spoke about it, even among their own families.
Only decades later did the US government acknowledge this violation of civil rights. Spurred by a Japanese American movement for redress and authorized by President Jimmy Carter, a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was organized to gather and document facts relating to the WWII experience. In 1982, the commission published its findings in a report, Personal Justice Denied, which concluded that Executive Order 9066 and the incarceration of those of Japanese descent was “not justified by military necessity” but rather was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Following this report, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, enabling compensation to more than 100,000 survivors of the camps. From 1990–1993, formal apology letters were sent, along with checks for $20,000. A total of 82,219 received this redress. For many, the time for reparation had come too late.
The letter states: "A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our Nation's resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals. We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“In enacting a law calling for restitution and offering a sincere apology, your fellow Americans have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. You and your family have our best wishes for the future."
Image: Letter sent to Mitsume Takayama, an architecture student ordered with his family into imprisonment at Gila River, Arizona. The family spent 2 1/2 years there in deplorable conditions. Gift in Memory of Mitsume Takayama, 2015.310.001
Kimberly Guise holds a BA in German and Judaic Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also studied at the Universität Freiburg in Germany and holds a masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Louisiana State University. Kim is fluent in German, reads Yiddish, and specializes in the American prisoner-of-war experience in World War II.