Editors’ note: The date of February 19th, a little over a week away, is significant to the Japanese American community. As described by the Japanese American Citizens League, on that day in 1942, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive Order that gave the US Army the authority to remove civilians from the military zones established in Washington, Oregon, and California during WWII. This led to the forced removal and incarceration of some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast, who had to abandon their jobs, their homes, and their lives to be sent to one of ten concentration camps scattered in desolate, remote regions of the country.” Since then, local governments in those states have designated February 19th as an official Day of Remembrance.
This article made its debut in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal in two parts, published in print in the Mar/Apr 2017 and May/June 2017 issues. Nonprofit Quarterly republishes it here with minor updates.
“When I was my oldest daughter’s age, I was already in ‘prison.’ And I knew that I was there for no crime other than the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes. I knew, too, that the excuse my captors gave—that I was there for my own protection—was sheer hypocrisy, that there was some deeper and more sinister reason for my incarceration…
Perhaps some of us were ashamed that it had ever happened. We were like the victim of a rape—we could not bear to speak of the assault, of the unspeakable crime. This for many years we had not even spoken of our imprisonment. And when we did speak of it, we were guarded. We dared not fully reveal the depth of our feelings about it.”
—Edison Uno, on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, 1971
In 1970, Edison Uno, a Nisei (second generation Japanese American) activist with the civil rights group the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), proposed something audacious: The JACL should champion an effort to secure monetary redress from the US government for the 120,000 Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned without charges, trials, or evidence of wrongdoing during World War II.
It was a bold idea not only because Japanese Americans (or Nikkei, a term used more broadly to refer to all generations of Japanese Americans) were a small minority with little political clout, but also because most Americans did not distinguish between United States citizens of Japanese descent and citizens of Japan, the nation that 25 years earlier had been the enemy.
Intracommunity dynamics also made the prospect of redress difficult to envision: Japanese immigrants (Issei) had to liquidate their farms and businesses within days after the government ordered them to leave their west coast homes in 1942. Most never regained their economic grounding. Nisei, who were youth or young adults during the war, harbored lingering but often unarticulated emotional and psychological scars from their wartime incarceration. By 1970, Japanese Americans were just beginning to get economic and social footholds after the trauma of the war. Their wartime incarceration was not a subject that most Nikkei wanted to revisit.
The JACL’s leadership, in addition, posed a challenge. During the war, the JACL advised Nikkei that cooperating with the government was the most effective way to demonstrate loyalty. Many Japanese Americans, however, believed that the JACL had betrayed Issei leaders and dissenters by reporting them to the government.
Despite these obstacles, the moral urge to right this decades-old civil liberties violation motivated Uno and a handful of advocates—including young Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans) activists influenced by the civil rights and anti-war movements—to build community support for redress.
They eventually focused their efforts through groups that worked for redress, a few of which are profiled here. Each fundraised in its own way, targeting their membership bases and sectors of influence. Grassroots fundraising was necessary for the movement’s survival, since the issue was initially controversial at best, taboo at worst. The people most affected by the unjust World War II incarceration—Issei and Nisei who had been imprisoned in the camps and their children—would need to support the movement financially and politically to right this great wrong.
Many Japanese American activists, though, believed that a commission would delay redress even further. After all, Issei elders, who bore the brunt of economic losses caused by the wartime incarceration, were dying daily. Most had to rebuild their lives after the war with few if any assets in a country that remained hostile towards them. Redress for that generation would be very meaningful. But the JACL ultimately decided to follow the Congress members’ advice and push for a commission in order to move forward on the legislative front.
Warriors for Justice
Not all JACL members, however, supported the idea of a commission. Dissenting members of the Seattle JACL chapter formed another group, the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR), initially to directly pursue redress legislation. Chicago-based activist William Hohri led NCJAR, which eventually focused on obtaining redress through a class action lawsuit. Believing that the judicial branch was the appropriate avenue to address reparations for the constitutional violations Nikkei suffered, NCJAR secured a Washington, D.C. law firm to represent former incarcerees. To retain the firm, NCJAR had to raise $75,000—the equivalent of $236,080 in 2017 dollars. Hohri devised an ambitious, culturally rooted campaign to raise the money needed to cover these costs.
In their book, Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress, Mitchell T. Maki, Harry H.L. Kitano and S. Megan Berthold write:
First, the [fundraising campaign] openly described its lawsuit as being risky. Hohri thought that this, along with asking for money only when it really needed to, helped establish the NCJAR’s credibility and build a solid basis of support. Second, the NCJAR did not solicit foun