By LOUISE SAKAMOTO
A panel of former JACL officials, co-sponsored by the Greater L.A. JACL and the Social Action Committee of Faith United Methodist Church, was held at Faith UMC in Torrance on March 10. The panelists were:
• Ron Ikejiri (moderator), JACL Washington representative, 1978-1984;
• Frank Sato, National JACL president, 1984-1986;
• Floyd Shimomura, National JACL vice president of public affairs, 1978-1981; National JACL president, 1982-1984;
• John Tateishi, chair of JACL National Redress Committee, 1978-1981; JACL national redress director, 1981-1986; JACL national director, 1999-2007;
• Ron Wakabayashi, JACL national director, 1981-1988.
The panelists discussed JACL’s national legislative effort in 1970s through the 1980s to seek redress for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians Act was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on July 31, 1980. The commission held public hearings in 1981 and issued a report that became the basis of redress legislation.
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on August 10, 1988. It granted wartime survivors a public apology, individual reparations of $20,000, and a public education fund. The panelists acknowledged that many individuals and organizations worked for redress and there were several paths that led to a common goal.
One of the stories told was about Sato and a meeting at the White House in 1984. From 1953, he worked in various audit departments in the U.S. government. President Carter appointed Sato inspector general at the Department of Transportation. President Reagan appointed him inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency. He became one of the highest-ranking Asian American officials in the U.S. government.
“I was reappointed, we were meeting much more frequently,” Sato said. “Gov. Reagan brought in his war on fraud…in government to Washington. And he went one step further. He set up a presidential council on integrity and efficiency, and all of us presidentially appointed inspector generals and all the major departments were on that council, and they asked me to chair the audit committee of that council. So I had more frequent reasons to meet with the leadership in the White House.”
The chairman of the council was Jack Svahn, Reagan’s top domestic policy advisor.
Shimomura recalled that there was going to be a JACL convention in Hawaii in 1984. “We were trying to get the meeting with the White House so that we could give a nice, rosy report to the delegates when they got to the convention because the redress bill was introduced earlier that year. We sent nice letters to the White House and we were turned down. And so it looked like no meeting with the White House.”
Ikejiri suggested that they ask Sato to arrange a meeting using his personal contacts. Sato at the time was JACL secretary treasurer. Ikejiri had persuaded him to run for JACL national president. As a presidential appointee at the time, Sato’s help was needed.
According to Sato, “Ron said to me one day, ‘You should run for national president of JACL.’ I said, ‘Ron, you’re out of your gourd. I don’t know JACL. I’ve never held office or anything.’ But Ron was not letting me go. He said, ‘We need your help now.’ He got my attention and he laid out a plan. He said, ‘Look, you’re a financial guy. You run for secretary treasurer, get to know JACL, and if you’re comfortable with it, run for national president.’”
Ikejiri called Sato and asked if he could set up a meeting. Sato called Svahn and asked if a meeting could be arranged for the JACL national president, Shimomura. Svahn said, “Why, by all means.” A meeting was set up for Aug. 10, 1984, less than a week away.
A black binder of information on redress was presented. Wakabayashi said the excellent JACL staff, Shimomura, Tateishi and others did a good deal of research and detailed work to study and be prepared for what might come up at the White House meeting.
One item included in the presentation was a copy of a document that related to then-Capt. Ronald Reagan and Staff Sgt. Kazuo Masuda, who was killed in action during WWII. In December 1945, Gen. Joseph Stilwell presented Masuda’s Distinguished Service Cross posthumously to the family. At a rally at Santa Ana Bowl later that day, Reagan commended Masuda and other Japanese Americans for their patriotism, saying, “The blood that has soaked into the sands of the beaches is all one color.”
Shimomura recalled, “We left and we didn’t really hear any feedback from what happened at that meeting. So, you know, we weren’t sure if it had a real impact on the White House thinking, or if after we left they just threw the stuff in the wastepaper basket.”
Sato added, “I’ll tell you, honestly, I never knew from that meeting whether or not there was any discussion with the president … The reason is I was the inspector general of Veterans Affairs. Your job is audits and investigations, and one thing you’ve learned in a job like that is you better watch your backside because if they want to get you out of government, they’re going to find dirt on you. I couldn’t afford to let the Lillian Bakers and others who were negative on redress say, hey, Frank Sato was lobbying with the JACL and he’s got a conflict of interest …
“The other thing is in order for me to run for national president of JACL, I had to clear it through counsel in the VA and the legal counsel in the White House. And they all approved. The only caution that they gave me was, ‘Be sure you don’t cause embarrassment to the Reagan Administration.’ So again, I couldn’t afford to have anything negative to be said about my involvement with JACL. …I didn’t want to say anything that would jeopardize my position or the redress effort. So with that, do you understand why you may not have even heard about this?”
Sato became JACL national president 10 days after the meeting.
Because Sato was so “adamant,” as Tateishi recalled, the White House meeting was not talked about and was nearly forgotten. Shimomura revealed that Svahn wrote about the meeting and “some of the significance of it” in a memoir published in 2011 (“There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: Twenty Years with Ronald Reagan,” Langdon Street Press).
After the JACL meeting, Svahn became an advocate for redress in a divided White House, reminding Reagan in late 1984 about his 1945 speech for Masuda. After Svahn left his position in September 1986, according to the memoir, he told Rep. Robert Matsui that his “inside assessment of the president’s feeling on the issue” was that “in my opinion, in the end the president would sign HR 442.”
Tateishi noted that there have been differing accounts of who reminded Reagan about the Masuda speech and whether that persuaded him to sign the bill. But in the end, he said, the campaign was a collective effort and the important thing is that it succeeded.
The story about Sato and the 1984 White House meeting is but one vignette, as Ikejiri called them, from the redress campaign. To listen to other recollections, thoughts, events, emotions told in 2 hours and 20 minutes, go to https://studio.youtube.com/video/I31LpshYveY/edit in unlisted YouTube. Thank you to Robert Shoji for his help with the recording and to Ron Ikejiri and J.K. Yamamoto for their additions.
The JACL redress panel will next appear Aug. 2 at the JACL National Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Louise Sakamoto is vice president-programs for the Greater L.A. JACL. She can be contacted at Lsakamoto@sbcglobal.net.