The Day

Japanese Americans won redress for camps, fight for Black reparation­s


— When Miya Iwataki and other Japanese Americans fought in the 1980s for the U.S. government to apologize to the families it imprisoned during World War II, Black politician­s and civil rights leaders were integral to the movement.

Thirty-five years after they won that apology — and survivors of prison camps received $20,000 each— those advocates are now demanding atonement for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. From California to Washington, D.C., activists are joining revived reparation­s movements and pushing for formal government compensati­on for the lasting harm of slavery’s legacy on subsequent generation­s, from access to housing and education to voting rights and employment.

Advocating for reparation­s is “the right thing to do,” said Iwataki, a resident of South Pasadena, Calif., who is in her 70s. She cited cross-cultural solidarity that has built up over decades.

Black lawmakers such as the late California congressme­n Mervyn Dymally and Ron Dellums played critical roles in winning the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formalized the government’s apology and redress payments.

Last Sunday marked the 81st anniversar­y of President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing an executive order that allowed the government to force an estimated 125,000 people — two-thirds of them U.S. citizens — from their homes and businesses, and incarcerat­e them in desolate, barbed-wire camps throughout the west.

“We want to help other communitie­s win reparation­s, because it was so important to us,” Iwataki said.

After stalling for decades at the federal level, reparation­s for slavery has received new interest amid a national reckoning over the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. Amid nationwide protests that year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislatio­n that establishe­d a first-in-the-nation task force to address the topic of slave reparation­s.

Other cities and counties have since followed, including Boston, St. Louis, and San Francisco, where an advisory committee issued a draft recommenda­tion last year proposing a lump-sum payment of $5 million apiece for eligible individual­s.

In December, the National Nikkei Reparation­s Coalition, alongside more than 70 other Japanese American and Asian American organizati­ons, submitted a letter calling on the Biden administra­tion to establish a presidenti­al commission.

Japanese American activists in California are studying the landmark report issued by California’s task force — and plan to reach out to college students, churches and other community groups to raise awareness about why Black reparation­s is needed — and how it intersects with their own struggle.

Reparation­s critics say that monetary compensati­on and other forms of atonement are not necessary when no one alive today was enslaved or a slave owner, overlookin­g the inequities today impacting later generation­s of Black Americans.

Retired teacher Kathy Masaoka of Los Angeles, who testified in 1981 for Japanese American redress and in 2021 in favor of federal reparation­s legislatio­n, says they are just beginning to educate their own community about Black history and anti-Black prejudice.

She said that starting conversati­ons in her community is “undoing a lot of ideas that people have” about American history and the case for reparation­s, said Masaoka, 74.

San Francisco attorney Don Tamaki, who is Japanese, is the only person appointed to California’s nine-member task force who is not Black.

At meetings, he shared how critical it was for organizers to arrange for former detainees to tell their stories to national media outlets. Redress advocates had to make hard decisions though, such as agreeing to legislatio­n that denied reparation­s to an estimated 2,000 Latin Americans of Japanese descent who were also incarcerat­ed.

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