By SHARON YAMATO
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the historic CWRIC (Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians) hearings that resulted in redress for many of our families, I am reminded of my deceased mother, who never spoke a word about her wartime incarceration except to tell me not to ask about it.
As a Republican who voted for Reagan, her one-and-only openly political act was writing a letter to the then-president politely asking for redress. Also etched in my memory is the day she received her check in the mail and she took my sister and me out to eat at the expensive (especially by her miserly standards) Marina del Rey restaurant Killer Shrimp.
I knew it was extravagant for her, but I would’ve been far more appreciative had I known more about her brutal life with seven kids in Poston.
It was a landmark victory that didn’t seem possible at the time. As I result of my skepticism, I did little to participate in the struggle that revolutionized the way we look at what was once a shameful part of our history. To this day, I regret not doing more.
Now we are facing another — perhaps even more important — redress battle. Ever since I first heard about the quest for reparations for African Americans back when it was legislatively proposed shortly after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granted ours, I’ve been mystified not so much by the “why” of it, but rather by the “how.”
There are so many complex issues to consider: who should get it (consider those with mixed blood?); how to determine what and how much; and perhaps most important to today’s so-called conservative (or as I prefer to call them, racist white) legislators, where will the money come from? At this moment, after House members passed H.R. 40 to agree to study — I repeat, merely to study — reparations, I guess you could say we’re closer than ever, but all I can think of is why it took 32 years for this bill to see the light of day.
When you think about it, the struggle for Japanese American reparations, as difficult as it seemed at the time, was comparatively easy. Incarceration was finite: it started and ended on specific dates, and it involved a specific number of people who could be located, the majority of whom were still alive. Though people suffered varying degrees of losses and there were different factions involved, the dollar amount ultimately settled upon seemed acceptable to most former incarcerees, not to mention the apology that meant most of all.
In contrast, granting redress for 400 years of unspeakable torture and slavery, oppression and lynchings, and blatant economic theft is an overwhelming proposition. Ask author Ta-Nahisi Coates, whose 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” created a stir in a battle that seemed at the time to have little momentum. Or ask Clyde Ross, the man Coates profiled, who withstood the racist housing policies that prevented people like him from owning a home, who said, “Reparations will never happen.”
Fortunately, Japanese Americans involved in their own once daunting redress struggle have rallied to lend their support to H.R. 40. It’s heartwarming to see organizations like Nikkei Progressives, NCRR (Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress), Tsuru for Solidarity, and San Jose Nikkei Resisters join with prominent African American organizations to demand redress. Once again, seasoned activists like Kathy Masaoka, Susan Hayase, traci kato-kiriyama and so many others have stepped up to the plate to fight for the ideal of “liberty and justice for all,” a concept that we all now know to be untrue.
Coates and fellow educator journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones have brilliantly called attention to the hypocrisy upon which America was founded. They point to the Founding Fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (and 12 of 15 U.S. presidents) whose reputations as good and noble men were built upon racist slaveholding. All of us have grown up to believe that America was built on equality and freedom, and yet freedom has been stolen from so many minorities in this country that it’s almost impossible to fathom.
Because we’ve lived through the indignity of incarceration, I believe Japanese Americans have a greater responsibility to use that experience to speak out for others who’ve suffered far worse and for far longer. Just to be able to give African Americans a platform like the CWRIC hearings to voice their stories of oppression would be a tiny step to undoing them. Even though there are many in power today who refuse to take responsibility for our nation’s history of inhumanity or who would rather erase the bad parts of our past, we must fight back because we’ve seen first-hand the strength of speaking out. Issei, Nisei and Sansei who spoke at those hearings, many of whom had to fight the cultural propensity to remain silent, restored our dignity and became our heroes.
For those who haven’t looked back at the power of those CWRIC hearings to shed light on the losses suffered during incarceration, Visual Communications is commemorating this 40th anniversary by making available the entire gavel-to-gavel video coverage of the August 1981 Los Angeles hearings. NCRR will also hold a special presentation on Aug. 23, with details to follow. More information can be found at vcmedia.org.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.