Eugene Japanese American Art Memorial,” Rick Obst

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 foundations or attempt to retain a pro bono law firm. Hohri was convinced that the members of the Japanese American community who were affected had to be the ones to finance the effort. If he could not raise the money from them, then the lawsuit would be dropped.1

NCJAR invoked Japanese culture in its fundraising campaign: “We came up with the idea of using the classic Japanese story of the ‘47 Ronin,’” recounted Hohri. “Ronin are masterless samurai. In the story, 47 ronin avenge the injustice which led to their master’s death.” NCJAR recognized donors who contributed $1,000 or more as “ronin.” “NCJAR’s contributors were ‘masterless’ citizens seeking to right a past wrong.”2

NCJAR fundraised primarily via mail (meaning snail mail, as email did not exist). Building on the Christmas card mailing list that he and his wife had developed over the years, Hohri eventually expanded the list to include 3,500 people. The campaign was successful: 65 “ronin” contributed, and NCJAR raised over $400,000.”3 That amount is the equivalent to nearly $1 million in today’s dollars.

The Grassroots Movement Grows

As NCJAR focused on a class action lawsuit and the JACL centered attention on the establishment of a federal commission, a grassroots group led by former incarcerees and younger Sansei activists in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood formed to organize Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans around redress. Though organizing community education programs about reparations, they also sought to link the effort to other groups who had suffered because of United States government policies. The group became known as the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR) and explicitly called for monetary redress.

Meanwhile, the idea of an investigative body transformed from idea to reality. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation creating the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) whose mandate was to review the forced relocation and detention of Japanese Americans and to recommend appropriate remedies.

Between July and December 1981, the CWRIC conducted 11 hearings in 10 cities throughout the United States. NCRR members took the lead in recruiting and preparing former incarcerees to testify. Most Nikkei who had been incarcerated during the war had not talked much, if at all, even to their children and grandchildren, about this traumatic event. In addition, few Issei and Nisei were accustomed to public speaking, let alone about such an emotionally charged subject. NCRR activists helped former incarcerees prepare testimony for the CWRIC hearings, which became public forums for Nikkei to acknowledge the injustice of their wartime incarceration and to articulate, often for the first time, their anger.

Emi Somekawa, a founding member of NCJAR, was a nurse living in Portland at the time of the war. She recounted in her testimony the conditions at the Portland Assembly Center, a quickly built camp at the Pacific International Livestock and Exposition Center:

The Portland Assembly Center was terrible. It’s just amazing how people can think of putting another group of human beings into a place like that. There was so much horse and cow manure around. We were put into a cubicle that just had plywood walls and it was a horse stall with planks on the flour with about an inch of space between them. You’d find grass growing through the planks already… We lived in a horse stall from May to September [1942], and my son was born in a horse stall. It was terrible, and that stench that came up from the ground, you know, was just terrible.

The hearings changed the dynamics of the budding redress movement because they allowed Japanese Americans to share pent-up emotions about their imprisonment and losses. Before the hearings, redress was a cause championed mainly by Sansei activists. After the hearings, a groundswell of Japanese American community support for redress developed. Soon after the hearings, the Rafu Shimpo, a Nikkei community newspaper in Los Angeles, conducted a survey regarding redress. Ninety percent of respondents said they favored monetary compensation.

Activists Raise Money from the Community

NCRR consisted of committed and passionate volunteer activists who carried out the bulk of the organization’s work, including its fundraising, immediately directing all available resources to its organizing and community education efforts.

“We never had staff so our financial needs were limited,” said NCRR’s Alan Nishio. “We would meet in office space that others had available. We would use resources of members who were employed. Our main costs were mailing and printing, things like that.” Another NCRR activist, Kathy Masaoka, recalls, “[The group] relied a lot on the generosity of organizations. We met at Little Tokyo Service Center and the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center a lot. They never charged us. We even used computers there to do some of the work…on our mailing list.”

NCRR organizers also paid out of pocket for expenses as needed. “We kind of covered whatever costs arose; we were used to doing that,” explained Nishio. “That was probably the way we handled things until the redress commission hearings.”

For the most part, NCRR only solicited people by mail about once a year, usually around the annual “Day of Remembrance” events, held to commemorate the February 19 anniversary when President Franklin Roosevelt issued the executive order that set the mass incarceration into motion. While the event was free, the invitation mailed to NCRR supporters was formal-looking, reflecting the solemnity and importance of the occasion, and included a donation envelope. People often sent donations even if they did not attend the event. NCRR’s treasurer, Jim Matsuoka, sent thank you notes to donors as well as updates on the campaign.

“And then they would donate again,” says Masaoka, demonstrating that communication was key to staying connected to donors and deepening their investment in the cause.

Fundraising Without Saying What You’re Raising Money For

At the same time the redress movement was gaining community traction in the early 1980s, a group of mainly young Sansei lawyers was working, initially in secret, on a parallel effort to re-open the legal cases of three Nisei men—Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui—who were convicted during World War II for defying the government’s orders targeting Japanese Americans.

Nearly 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the men’s convictions and validated singling out a group for imprisonment only because of its ethnic background, Aiko Herzig Yoshinanga, a researcher for the CWRIC, and Peter Irons, an attorney and professor writing a book about the wartime Japanese American Supreme Court cases, uncovered explosive documents in the National Archives. They found proof that during World War II, government attorneys intentionally suppressed evidence favorable to Japanese Americans and argued to the Supreme Court that Japanese Americans’ loyalty to the United States was suspect, even when they knew that was false.

Based on this newly uncovered evidence, Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui, backed by teams of young largely Japanese American attorneys, re-opened their decades-old cases.

Several of the mass incarceration’s architects were politically powerful in the early 1980s. They were unrepentant and outraged by the growing redress effort. If news spread about these new lawsuits resurrecting the government’s flimsy justifications for the wartime incarceration, the young attorneys feared that critical evidence implicating these individuals might disappear from the National Archives. So, the lawyers had to keep their efforts secret before filing their cases.

The legal teams that represented Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui worked pro bono, but still had administrative and travel expenses. One of Korematsu’s volunteer attorneys, Don Tamaki, was at the time the executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, a legal service and advocacy group in San Francisco. He led the lawyers’ fundraising efforts with the added challenge of not being able to reveal why they needed money.

Tamaki did not have extensive individual donor fundraising background, but he took the common-sense approach of first approaching an inner circle before asking strangers.

“We had lots of friends and family who trusted us—reputations mattered. They knew that we weren’t going to run off to have a Hawaiian vacation with their money,” recounts Tamaki. “We would just say, ‘We can’t tell you what this is about but it’s really big.’” Because of their strong relationships with potential donors, they succeeded in raising critical initial funding, even though the donors did not know exactly what the lawyers were doing.

Once the cases were public, the news media disseminated stories more broadly about the litigation, as well as information about the wartime incarceration. Fundraising continued. The team used letters, telephone calls, and mass mailings to generate donations, most coming from contributors in the San Francisco Bay Area, though the legal cases were filed in San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. The attorneys returned to donors who gave during the “secret” phase, asking them to contribute again. Many of them did. Overall, contributions were not huge—many were between $50 and $500. Nevertheless, Tamaki estimates that the legal team raised about $50,000 in total.

“Th Japanese-American community really funded it,” says Tamaki of the legal work to overturn Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui’s convictions, showing again that the people who were most affected by the wartime incarceration were at the forefront of financing the effort to obtain justice.

Progress on the Legislative Front

Meanwhile, in February 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) released its unanimous findings in a 467-page report entitled Personal Justice Denied. It concluded that the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans was not justified by “military necessity,” as the government at the time claimed, but instead resulted from race prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. According to a CWRIC estimate, the total income and property losses suffered by Japanese Americans was between $810 million and $2 billion (in 1983 dollars).

The CWRIC’s recommendations included a formal government apology, presidential pardons for the three men convicted of defying the exclusion orders, funding for an educational and humanitarian foundation to sponsor research and public educational activities, and payments of $20,000 to each surviving prisoner. Using the CWRIC’s recommendations as a guide, Japanese American members of Congress, Spark Matsunaga, Daniel Inouye, Norman Mineta, Robert Matsui, and their allies introduced redress bills from 1983 through 1987. During that period, Japanese Americans across the country strategically framed redress not as a parochial Japanese American issue but as a larger constitutional question; they did the painstaking work of creating a broad-based coalition of civil rights, labor, and religious groups supporting redress.

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) took the lead in professional lobbying on Capitol Hill, hiring a professional advocate charged with devising legislative and communications strategies to secure redress. National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR) led grassroots letter-writing, public education, and lobbying campaigns.

Between 1982 and 1988, the JACL also fundraised a substantial amount of money to support the movement. As a chapter- and membership-based national organization, the JACL at the time had more than 32,000 members and 100 chapters across the country, many of which were local groups that predated the national organization, such as Nikkei women’s clubs.

Some JACL members and chapters were able to contribute more financially. “Nisei were at age when they were established,” explained Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the national JACL in the 1980s. “[JACL] chapters had access to money.” Historically, the JACL membership tended to be more middle-class and from professional backgrounds, which differentiated them from the more working class NCRR supporters.

The Nikkei community was concentrated in several major metropolitan areas, such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The JACK had strongholds in these cities. Chapters in these regions provided the community leadership, active volunteers, local relationships, and infrastructure needed to organize successful fundraising dinners for the redress movement “Some place where there’s a larger [Nikkei] population did a dinner, and more than one [for redress]… In a couple of years, you would raise $500,000,” said Wakabayashi. Organizers of a Los Angeles-area dinner set a fundraising goal of $100,000 and met it, mostly through donations from Japanese American community members. This would be equivalent to nearly $250,000 today.

While big fundraising dinners like these often generate the bulk of their income from corporate sponsorships, the JACL was careful not to go too far down that road.

“There was a fairly conscious avoidance of Japanese corporate sponsorship,” explained Wakabayashi. “During World War II, the country got us [Japanese Americans] mixed up with the Japanese. We didn’t want to reinforce that,” he added. Even though the redress movement was gaining momentum, one of the issues that plagued Japanese Americans during World War II—being perceived as Japanese and therefore not American—had not disappeared.

Bringing the Community to Washington

While the JACL had a professional lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., NCRR led grassroots efforts to write letters to members of Congress, to educate the community about the status of redress legislation, and to organize Congressional visits by former incarcerees.

NCRR passed the hat at its events and presentations. Members also collected names and addresses through sign-in sheets at these events. NCRR asked people sending lobbying letters to their Congressional representatives to give NCRR copies. Through these letter-writing campaigns, NCRR collected names and addresses of potential donors. NCRR volunteers sent fundraising mailings to their growing base of political supporters. The organization eventually built a mailing list of 1,600 people.

In 1987, NCRR organized grassroots activists from across the country to meet in the Capitol to lobby for redress legislation. NCRR leaders developed a creative fundraising campaign to support the effort and to symbolically involve people who could not make the trip. Many Issei in particular were elderly and sometimes infirm, but their presence in and importance to the redress movement was profound.

“We wanted them to be there in some way,” said NCRR’s Masaoka about the community members who could not travel to the nation’s capital. “So, we had them sponsor a ribbon with their name on it. We put these ribbons on a long string or rope and carried it with us to D.C…. When we had a gathering with the delegates and a couple of congresspeople spoke, we hung those [ribbons] in the room so that we felt the sponsors were in the room with us.”

Ribbon sponsorships cost $20, making them accessible for many donors. NCRR received approximately 200 ribbon sponsorships, raising several thousand dollars. Ultimately, the organization fundraised or secured other resources to send a delegation of 141 people (many of them paying their own way) from all over the country to Washington, D.C.—an incredible feat of people power.

Victory at Last

The steady work on the legislative front by grassroots activists and policy advocates, along with the media and public education work done by groups like NCRR and the legal teams representing Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui ultimately paid off. The House of Representatives passed redress legislation in September 1987, and the Senate followed seven months later.

Up to that point, President Ronald Reagan was poised to veto the bill. Redress supporters, however, reminded Reagan that as an army captain he participated in a 1945 medal ceremony for Kazuo Masuda, a Nisei soldier killed in Italy. When Masuda’s family tried to resettle in Santa Ana, California after the war, vigilantes threatened them. City leaders refused to allow Masuda’s body to be buried in the local cemetery. Responding to this racism, the U.S. Army sent a delegation to Santa Ana to present the Distinguished Service Cross to Masuda’s family. Reagan was a member of this military group. Prompting him to recall this incident was key in swaying him to approve the legislation.

On Aug. 10, 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided a formal governmental apology, $20,000 payments to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated, and the creation of a Civil Liberties Public Education Fund to help the public understand the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Several years earlier, federal judges overturned the convictions of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui.

The National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) filed a class action lawsuit on March 16, 1983, suing the U.S. government for $27 billion for injuries suffered as a result of the World War II exclusion and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. The lawsuit not only addressed property losses but also constitutional violations.

NCJAR’s legal challenge went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case to an appellate court that upheld a lower court’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit. NCJAR once again appealed to the Supreme Court. Five days after filling that appeal, however, the Civil Liberties Act passed, and the Supreme Court denied review. Although the NCJAR lawsuit was unsuccessful, among its significant results was an admission by U.S. Solicitor General Charles Fried, that racism, not military necessity, motivated the government in 1942 to exclude and incarcerate Japanese Americans.

Edison Uno, the activist who first proposed redress nearly 20 years before the passage of the civil liberties act, died of a heart attack in 1976 and never witnessed the realization of what in 1970 seemed like an impossible vision. He, like many others who had been imprisoned during the war, did not live to see their dream of redress realized. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Nikkei received a formal government apology and monetary redress. What in 1970 seemed like a pipe dream was, nearly 20 years later, a political reality thanks to the tireless work of individuals who were active members of organizations like NCRR, JACL, NCJAR, as well as the attorneys representing Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui.

Fundraising Lessons from the Redress Movement

The deep relationships between fundraiser-activists and donors were key to the movement’s success. Trust, confidence and accountability enabled redress movement leaders to raise the money they needed to pursue their varied and legal and legislative strategies. The JACL’s Ron Wakabayashi recounted the responsibility he felt to succeed with their fundraising and legislative efforts for the movement: “My mom lived in Little Tokyo. You couldn’t f—k up because mom wouldn’t be able to walk in J-town. This was holy grail.” Redress movement leaders and fundraisers knew that losing this fight would have a real impact on their families and communities.

Volunteer people power was at the heart of the movement, which kept costs low and community accountability high. NCRR’s Alan Nishio says, “The fundraising was never a major challenge because we would tailor what we were doing to how much money we had.” He added that volunteering created camaraderie and solidarity: “These people that are willing to do the unglamorous work of mail-outs, etc., are the core of who you want as your friends. I think some of that is lost today. Groups have a broader reach, but less experience.”

At the same time, all-volunteer efforts and groups that don’t have money-savvy people helping with fundraising may not be sustainable over a longer period of time.

“There’s a need for people who are particularly interested in doing this [fundraising] work, knowing that their efforts will be rewarded in creating social change,” says Don Tamaki of Fred Korematsu’s legal team. “That costs money. The more competent nonprofits have these folks in their infrastructure but the newer ones and the smaller ones don’t… When people’s energy runs out, they just retire or die, and no one else is there to carry the ball.”

Don’t underestimate the willingness or ability of the people who are most affected by an issue to donate. Donors to the redress movement came from all economic levels, generations, and occupations. Nishio tells the story of one donor he encountered at a senior housing complex in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo:

We made our presentation [about the campaign] and passed the hat. An Issei, older woman…gave me a $10 bill, saying, “This is all I can afford, but please do all you can.” And the social worker [from the housing complex] said that was probably 10 percent of the woman’s disposable income for the week… For me, that’s where it got more serious.

Fundraising was not seen as separate from the “real” work, but as an integral part of building a winning movement. The people who fundraised also organized politically and vice versa. Though some people were more numbers oriented and played a larger role in appeals and other fundraising efforts, everyone played a role in raising money for the movement. Wakabayashi says, “I don’t think of myself as a fundraiser.” This reflects the experiences of other people who were interviewed for this article as well, who though they fundraised for the movement, did not see themselves primarily as fundraisers.

Organizer-fundraisers kept donors updated on what was happening with the campaign(s), which helped them feel more connected. Kathy Masaoka notes, “[NCRR’s] treasurer would write a thank you and would create an update to report to people what had happened. And then they would donate again. We were all really conscious of how the money would be used.”

Multiple organizations raised money for the movement, funding different strategies that all had the broad goal of winning redress for Japanese Americans. Each of the groups profiled in this article had a specific political or legal strategy, and carried out their own fundraising to support their strategy, based on their capacity. NCRR focused on smaller donors and the grassroots base of Nikkei, while the JACL mobilized its large membership base to raise bigger gift for the movement; NCJAR tapped into its network for $1,000+ donors. This lesson is important especially now, when we may be tempted to try and put all our eggs in one basket as we struggle for unity during a time of division and fear. But in our diversity, there can be strength, as the Japanese American activists who won redress have shown.


  1. Mitchell T. Maki, Harry H.L. Kitano and S. Megan Berthold. Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress. (Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1999), 123.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.