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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Op-ed: Day of Remembrance offers us lessons in reparations 82 years later

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the U.S. Army to forcibly relocate American civilians to concentration camps on the West Coast under the guise of national security in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned, despite none of them ever being charged or convicted of espionage. Approximately two-thirds were citizens, and half of them were children. They were forced to leave their homes, jobs and communities, and when they were released, they were given just $25 and a one-way train ticket.

Following hearings beginning in 1980, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, giving Japanese American citizens a formal apology and $20,000 (roughly $51,000 today) to each surviving person who was wrongfully incarcerated. Considering constitutional rights violations, racism, loss of property, harsh conditions and the three years of life spent wrongly imprisoned that tens of thousands of citizens faced, it is difficult to say that this amount of money truly compensated for the psychological trauma, stigma and hardship Japanese Americans experienced. However, the checks are significant, because it is one of the few times the U.S. government has paid reparations to an ethnic group.

Can there ever be a price that truly reflects the injustice that racial and ethnic minorities have experienced at the hands of their own government? There must be a better way to give reparations. While Japanese Americans faced disastrous financial losses, monetary compensation is only one step towards the goal of demanding redress and reparations. This is not to deny the reparations movement for other racial and ethnic minorities, such as the proposals to compensate descendants of enslaved Black Americans. Certainly, these plans consider the loss of property and wages, but it is not easy to assign a monetary value to lasting social and health effects. Still, reparations can bring meaningful victories in the inherent admission of wrongdoing by the government and subsequent shifting of public opinion in order to decrease racial divides across America.

The redress movement for the wrongful incarceration of Japanese Americans began to pick up legislative momentum in the 1970s, around 30 years after the end of World War II. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the federal hearings for hundreds of survivors and their families began. At this time, their experiences began to attract the national spotlight and garner momentum for the redress movement. Before then, many survivors did not talk about their experiences with their families. In a survey conducted in 1995 of over 400 Nisei (second-generation Americans), more than 12% never spoke with their parents about the camps, 50% spoke about it less than four times, and 70% of those who had any discussions conversed less than 15 minutes. With a lack of discourse and poor representation in U.S. history textbooks, the Japanese American community mostly kept silent on the topic due to the psychological burden and desire to conceal the painful memories. According to John Tateishi, an incarceree who helped lead the fight for reparations, redress was made more difficult to achieve. Without survivor testimony, the public denied the existence of concentration camps and attempted to justify the government’s actions.

Every year on Feb. 19, the Japanese American community observes these events and the signing of Executive Order 9066 on the Day of Remembrance, the first of which was held in 1978. Events are held around the country to allow survivors to share their stories and bring awareness to prevent this from ever happening again. This year, the Tufts Japanese Culture Club is sponsoring an exhibit in Tisch Library that will be on display from Feb. 18–25. This Day of Remembrance, we encourage you to listen to survivor stories, turn to history and consider what lessons the Japanese American fight for reparations can bring us today.