A nation's apology

Originally published Oct. 8, 2001

For decades, thousands of Japanese Americans kept a terrible secret from their children: They had spent most of World War II locked up in one of 10 remote internment camps as "enemy aliens."

For Shizuko Ina and others of her generation, internment by the U.S. government was the ultimate loss of face - in Japanese culture, there's nothing worse than being called disloyal. "I compare it with being a victim of incest because the perpetrator is somebody you love and you depend on," said Ina's daughter, Sacramento therapist Satsuki Ina.

Like 77,000 of the nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans interned after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Satsuki Ina's parents were American-born citizens.

In October 1990, her mother, Shizuko Ina - then a widow working at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park - finally received her $20,000 reparations check and an apology signed by President Bush.

"She had a little apartment upstairs from my brother's veterinary hospital," Satsuki Ina said. "I went up there and I said, 'Where's your check?' She said, 'Oh, it's somewhere on the desk.'

"The check was misplaced somewhere in the pile, but the letter from the president had already been framed and hung on the wall," Satsuki Ina said. "The letter meant more to her than any money could."

To this day, Japanese Americans remain the only group in American history to receive monetary reparations and a formal apology from the U.S. government for past wrongs.

For some Japanese Americans, it wasn't enough. Richard Hall, a Berkeley filmmaker, said his mother-in-law was insulted when she got her $20,000. During internment, "she was pregnant and the camp doctor, this Caucasian guy, gave her a very powerful antibiotic for a kidney infection that mentally damaged her fetus," Hall said. "My oldest brother-in-law is mentally retarded as a result, and she's very bitter about that."

But for Shizuko Ina and most Japanese American internees, the apology - given weight by the check - helped erase nearly a half-century of shame, said Satsuki Ina, who has interviewed hundreds of internees for a documentary, "Children of the Camps," which explores the long-term impact of internment.

"Your innocence is restored," she said. "My mother said, 'I feel like I got my face back.' "

Once the disgrace was lifted, so was the lid on a cauldron of pent-up emotions. Internees gradually opened up about the intergenerational conflicts, nervous breakdowns and marital strife triggered by internment.

These days, Ina spends afternoons in her study transcribing nearly 200 letters exchanged by her mother and father, imprisoned in separate camps. Her father wrote that he wanted to go to Japan, but her mother pleaded with him to stay here, rather than subject their two small children to a life without milk, eggs or decent food in a bomb-ravaged country.

Three of the letters were written on pieces of bed sheet and sewn into pants linings and a belt to avoid the eyes of government censors.

In one of those secret letters, Itaru Ina reveals that he, too, has doubts about going to Japan, but doesn't want to lose face with his hard-core compatriots. He advises his wife to tell everyone they're still planning to leave on the last ship carrying internees to Japan, but suggests that their little son Kiyoshi's bout of measles will give them the excuse they need to stay in America.

Internment split Japanese Americans into two groups: those who renounced their loyalty to the Japanese emperor and pledged their allegiance to the same U.S. government that had cost them their homes, jobs and honor; and those, including Satsuki Ina's parents, who refused.

Satsuki Ina's parents and 7,000 other "disloyals" were sent to Tule Lake, a relocation camp in the high desert near the California-Oregon border. Later, her father was sent to a federal detention camp in Bismarck, N.D.

Gen. John DeWitt, in his 1942 report calling for the evacuation of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, wrote:

"Racial affiliations are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second- and third-generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become 'Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted."

'Get on with life'

Much of Japanese culture is rooted in the principle of shikataganai, which means "get on with life, don't fret the things you can't change," said John Tateishi, executive director of the national Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). "It was what got us through," said Tateishi, who at age 3 was interned with his family at Manzanar, a camp in the Owens Valley.

After the war many nisei - second-generation Japanese Americans - bowed their heads and concentrated on survival, rather than on the things they'd lost. "They didn't talk about internment - they really buried it deep within the soul," Tateishi said. "This philosophy (shikataganai) served them well, but it also left them with a terrible wound. ... They felt the most betrayed; they were born here, raised here, knew no other country, had no allegiances to any other country."

Shikataganai also led many Japanese Americans to oppose the idea of reparations, claiming it would raise too many painful issues and further inflame anti-Japanese sentiment.

The concept of reparations for internment dates back to World War II, when young internees left the camps to join U.S. forces battling Germany and Japan. While their families were still in internment camps, some of those young men joined the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team that helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp - an irony the reparations movement would seize on 40 years later.

The movement was given legs in the 1960s by Edison Uno, a quiet, slender San Francisco State University professor known for his turtlenecks and his passion for justice.

Uno was a visionary who had successfully protested to force the integration of the San Francisco grand jury. He fought for guaranteed jobs and medical care for all Americans. And he refused to let the idea of reparations die, repeatedly hammering the JACL to fight for long-overdue justice. "He said forcing the issue was the only way to ensure that it didn't happen again," said Tateishi.

Two years after Uno's death in 1976, the JACL finally created a national committee headed by Tateishi to seek reparations of $25,000 per internee, plus an educational trust fund.

At the time, Tateishi, a professor of English literature, thought there was little chance of actually getting cash reparations. Japanese Americans numbered about 600,000, less than half of one percent of the American population, and had negligible political clout. Beyond that, Tateishi said, few Americans even knew about what had happened to Japanese Americans, much less burned with the desire to right past wrongs.

"But I was sure I could get this into the public arena," he said. "And we had to make this a constitutional issue rather than a personal one because Americans didn't care about our losses."

Japanese Americans had lost plenty. In 1941, they controlled about 85 percent of the small fruit and vegetable farms in the Central Valley; they lost it all. Tateishi's parents, who owned a home and some property in Southern California, lost everything, like other Japanese American families unable to pay their mortgages or taxes on their $16 or sometimes $19 monthly camp salaries. Careers and educations were interrupted, family heirlooms stolen or confiscated.

But instead of going to Congress to demand immediate reparations, Tateishi pushed for a federal commission to study the issue, an attempt to create a more favorable climate for a reparations debate.

"John was pilloried for this," said San Francisco attorney Dale Minami.

The shikataganai faction criticized him for even raising the issue, while militant groups such as the Chicago-based National Coalition for Japanese American Redress ripped him as too soft. The coalition filed a billion-dollar class-action lawsuit that was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but "created a tremendous threat," Minami said, that attracted plenty of media attention and thus helped educate the public.

At first, it seemed Japanese Americans would have to fight for reparations alone. But in late 1978 the American Jewish Committee endorsed their efforts, followed by the National American Hellenic Society, a Greek association.

The next year, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights - an umbrella group for powerful civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League - backed reparations for internees, as did the American Friends Service Committee and the Presbyterian Church.

In June 1980, President Carter signed a bill establishing "The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians," which included former Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg and Dan Lungren, who would later become California's attorney general.

The commission's creation was a tremendous breakthrough for Japanese Americans - so much so that every year since 1989, African Americans in Congress have introduced bills to create a similar commission to study reparations for slavery, to no avail.

The internment commission held hearings across the country, took testimony from more than 750 witnesses, and concluded that Gen. DeWitt's 1942 evacuation order was clearly motivated by "ignorant race prejudice, not facts to support the hypothesis that there was a greater risk of sabotage among the Japanese than among residents of German, Italian or any other ethnic affiliation."

In 1983, the commission recommended that the president and Congress should make a formal apology, issue $20,000 checks to each surviving internee and establish an educational trust fund. Selling the recommendations to Congress, however, would take years.

The reparations movement scored another huge victory in 1983 when Minami, the San Francisco attorney, persuaded federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel to overturn the wartime convictions of three Japanese American citizens: Fred Koramatsu, a welder from San Leandro who was in love with a Caucasian woman; Gordon Hirabayashi, a Quaker and graduate student at the University of Washington; and Portland attorney Minori Yasui.

All had refused to comply with the detention orders because they felt they'd done nothing wrong.

But Minami produced the smoking gun that proved Japanese Americans had been locked up under false pretenses.

Using documents unearthed by a political scientist, Minami showed that the U.S. Justice Department had changed a key paragraph in its legal brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 from "there is no evidence that Japanese Americans present discernible danger to the West Coast" to "there is good evidence..."

Grass-roots fight

As public support built, so too did opposition, especially as companies such as Toyota, Honda, Sony and Mitsubishi began to crush their American competition.

"In the '80s there was an intense economic war between the U.S. and Japan, and Japan frankly was whipping us and there was a strong anti-Japanese attitude in this country," said Tateishi. "There were groups as racist in 1983 as they were in 1942 that said we were disloyal Americans and deserved what we got, a group of people that said we had no right to be in this country because we didn't look American."

The long, frustrating fight to persuade Congress to authorize reparations fell to grass-roots organizers such as Suyako Kitashima, nicknamed "Sox" because her grammar-school teachers in Hayward couldn't pronounce Suyako.

Before the war, Kitashima cleaned house for a wealthy widow in what is now Fremont. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the widow's son ran away to join the Navy, "and she fired me," Kitashima said. "She blamed me for the war.

"I wish I'd had more guts or more knowledge - I might have said 'I'm an American citizen, I have nothing to do with Japan,' " said Kitashima, now 83.

From that moment, Kitashima, her five siblings and her mother - who came over in 1906 as a picture bride - lived in fear. "We were told we had to get rid of everything that might resemble Japan, so we had a bonfire in back of the house and my mother burned her San Francisco Japanese American bank certificates, address books, all her brother's pictures from Japan."

Kitashima and thousands of other Japanese Americans were herded into the stables at Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno, where they spent months awaiting internment.

She remembers the fetid conditions at Tanforan Race Track, where rivers of raw sewage flowed past some of the stables.

"The first meal they served me was discolored cold cuts, overcooked Swiss chard and moldy bread, and I refused to eat it," she said. "It was a miserable life there. Rumors were flying that we were going to be moved inland so they could drop a bomb on us and get rid of us."

After five months at Tanforan, her family was interned at Topaz, Utah. "We had dust storms several times a day, white chalk - you had to keep mopping your floor or you'd slip on it," she said. "The mothers were unhappy because they lost control of the kids. The father wasn't the father because they didn't bring home the bacon. There were a lot of unhappy marriages. ...There was no privacy - you get just one room with your in-laws and your kids."

But, she said, "It was a big relief for me to know we weren't being sent over there to have a bomb dropped on us."

Kitashima, who married at Topaz, worked for the Veterans Administration until 1981.

She said in 1979 the third-generation Japanese Americans, or sansei, lit a fire under her generation. "They said, 'I don't understand why you didn't stay together and fight evacuation, and fight for what your parents worked for all their lives.' I said we had no chance - the Western Defense Command was behind this; it was like getting a bayonet in our backs."

But, she said, "They persuaded us not to let it slide." Kitashima hosted a letter-writing campaign in her apartment in San Francisco's Japantown. "We did over 25,000 letters to Congress," she said, by getting people to sign letters at street fairs, bazaars and markets throughout the Bay Area.

Gradually, the unrelenting grass-roots campaign built bipartisan support in Congress, and on Aug. 10, 1988, President Reagan signed a bill authorizing $20,000 for each Japanese American internee. Still, for more than a year, none of the 60,000 surviving internees received a dime.

Finally, in late 1989, the federal government started issuing checks and apologies, inviting nine of the oldest internees to Washington, D.C.

"Attorney General (Richard) Thornburgh got on his knees and presented each one with a check and an apology and said he was sorry it took so long," said Kitashima, who witnessed the moving scene. "I just broke down. ... Many old people, the mere fact that the president apologized is what they were living for," she said. But, she added, "the money made the apology more meaningful - it would be empty without it."

Treasures stolen

Many never lived to see the check or the apology, including Tateishi's father and grandfather, Minami's father, Kitamura's husband and Satsuki Ina's father.

Even after the apology, Ina's mother, Shizuko, could never bring herself to fully trust the U.S. government. It wasn't until Ina was 35 that her parents finally told her her name was Satsuki, not Sandy. "Even when my mother died she was calling me Sandy because she felt there could be repercussions," Ina said.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Inas had been newlyweds in San Francisco. She worked part-time in a stationery store, while he kept books for an import-export company, taught haiku and played the shakuhachi, or Japanese bamboo flute.

Before they left for the camps, they put their wedding gifts and his treasured poetry books and instruments in storage. But while they were interned, the storage warehouse was vandalized; they would return to find everything stolen.

Like Sox Kitashima, they spent several months living in the stables at Tanforan Race Track. "My mother was very sick, smelling the horse manure while she was pregnant," Satsuki Ina said. There were no ceilings on the stalls, and families were kept awake by the sounds of babies crying, elders coughing and couples arguing.

Life got harder in Tule Lake after Satsuki was born and her father was taken away.

In an Aug. 8, 1945 letter, Shizuko writes that their son Kiyoshi's stomach, face and neck were covered with chicken pox, and that she would have to spend the next six weeks quarantined indoors with her children.

In another letter, she tells her husband how thrilled Kiyoshi was to receive in the mail the toy tank his father had made for him out of scrap wood and checkers. "He said, 'Tomorrow let's go to the post office and pick up Daddy!"

The Inas never fully recovered - spiritually or financially. But Satsuki Ina's $20,000 reparations check - received several years after her mother's - enabled her to buy her first home in Sacramento.

And the apology inspired her to make the documentary "Children of the Camps."

"As a therapist, I see that when the perpetrator is made accountable, it releases the victim from the feeling of shame that gets internalized," she said. "I don't think I could have made my film until after reparations. Until the victim really knows that it's safe to talk about the way in which we've been wounded, we suppress it."

In the film, for instance, a vineyard consultant who was born in the camp in Arkansas said he grew up feeling ashamed of his Japanese ancestry, as though he were somehow responsible for World War II.

Ina, who has shown the film 82 times from here to Japan to stimulate discussions on internment, said that while reparations have started the healing, it is far from over.

A University of Colorado study found the risk of heart disease among former internees is 50 percent greater than among non-internees, and male internees are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely.

And the psychological impact of internment has reshaped Japanese American values to this day.

"All of those characteristics of the (Japanese American)'model minority' are symptoms of trauma," she said. "Our motto in life was 'security.' I have way more degrees than I need: a Ph.D., a master's, a license in marriage and family practice. We overachieve, we're overly compliant, we keep a low profile because we're still trying to prove our worth as American citizens."