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Voices of Chicago

Japanese American Redress: A View from the Midwest


I joined the staff of the JACL as its Midwest Director in October 1978 and I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of the effort to seek a remedy for the injustice of the Japanese American internment. The JACL had just passed a resolution at its national convention in Salt Lake City declaring that the organization would undertake a campaign to seek redress for those who suffered injustices by action of the government during World War II.

Shortly after I started working for the JACL, I attended a staff meeting in San Francisco where I met John Tateishi who had recently been appointed as the chairman of JACL’s National Redress Committee. After meeting John, we quickly established a close relationship and I soon became engaged in the activities of this nascent campaign.

The purpose of this paper is to reflect on some of my activities related to the redress campaign during the 1980s and 1990s. I must also note that during the years I worked on the JACL Redress Campaign, I developed fond and lasting relationships with many individuals within and outside of the JACL. I was particularly honored to work with many Nisei from around the country and particularly from the Midwest and Chicago. Several stand out for their dedication and commitment over the nine years that we labored in this campaign. They are John Tateishi, Minoru Yasui from Denver, Shig Wakamatsu and Chiye Tomihiro from Chicago, Henry Tanaka from Cleveland and Grayce Uyehara from Philadelphia.

The Legislative Campaign to Establish the Commission

The road to gaining redress wasn’t smooth, either from within the JACL or in trying to convince the public and legislators that this was a worthy issue. During the early days of the redress campaign, there was dissension within the JACL as to whether the organization should pursue a direct appropriations bill or legislation to establish a commission. A direct appropriations bill, in essence, would make an unequivocal statement that an injustice was committed and redress must be provided. A commission bill would recognize that the public and the Congress needed to be educated about the internment, trusting that the commission would also provide a public record attesting to the World War II injustices. In the early months of 1979, the JACL decided to pursue the commission legislation, in part because Senator Daniel Inouye felt that the success of this effort depended on this approach.

Following its decision to pursue the commission approach, the JACL began working on the language of the legislation to be introduced in the House and Senate. The final language of the legislation stated its intent to establish a federal commission to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the issuance of Executive Order 9066 and to recommend appropriate remedies. The JACL immediately began a legislative campaign to gain passage of the legislation. On March 7, 1979, I worked with our Detroit chapter and the JACL Midwest District Council to convene a Redress Conference at Wayne State University to begin drawing public attention to this issue. We invited John Tateishi, Congressman Norman Mineta and Professor Harry Kitano from UCLA. The two-day program also featured the photo exhibit, Executive Order 9066. In the months leading up to the introduction of the legislation in the fall of 1979, I was at work organizing the network of JACL Midwest chapters for the impending campaign to gather legislative support for the commission legislation.

Working with JACL’s Midwest Chapters

Once the commission legislation was introduced, part of my role was to organize our network of Midwest chapters to persuade the members of Congress to co-sponsor the commission legislation. The success of the redress effort depended on the Midwest because there were more members of the House and Senate within the area of our nine JACL Midwest chapters than in any other JACL region in the country. The success of our effort in the Midwest depended on close communication and aggressive action to get our chapter members to make contact with their congressmen. I maintained close contact with John Tateishi and sent regular updates and alerts to the Midwest chapters, keeping them informed of our “count” on co-sponsors. Shortly after the introduction of the commission legislation in the House, we had secured 21 co-sponsors in the Midwest, including six from Illinois.

By the winter of 1980, we were well into the campaign to pass the commission bill. In February 1980, I arranged for a community meeting on redress at the JASC in Chicago. John Tateishi and Minoru Yasui spoke about the importance of our legislative campaign and the work that everyone had to do to make it a success. By April of 1980, we had increased the number of cosponsors in the House to 30, along with four senators. At this time, we also focused our efforts on specific Midwest senators because six of them were on the Senate committee where the bill resided. As it turned out all the Midwest senators on the committee voted to approve the legislation so that it could go to the Senate floor for passage. All of our efforts directed at the Senate had been worthwhile. The hours that we spent encouraging our Midwest chapters and contacting the senators with letter-writing, together with the efforts our chapters made had paid off.

The JACL National Redress Campaign

During this period of the campaign, I became increasingly more involved in working with the JACL National Redress Committee. This caused me to work very closely with John Tateishi in putting together the legislative strategy that would be implemented at the chapter level of the JACL. We developed a lobbying handbook for the JACL chapters, which outlined in detail their role in the redress campaign. It contained the overall strategy with timelines, sample letters, key congressional committees, organizational endorsements and other information pertinent to the redress campaign.

In addition, we set up a congressional database on our computer in the JACL Midwest Office. Though it is commonplace today, using a computer back in 1980 to track this type of information seemed progressive, at least for the JACL. Our databank included congressional voting records where we could ascertain where the congressman might lean on the redress issue. It also contained anecdotal information describing the contact we had had with the members of congress. This technology helped us to plan and track the lobbying effort between our chapters and the members of congress.

During this time, the national JACL did fundraising within the organization to finance the redress campaign. Each of the JACL district councils was assigned a quota based on its size. The JACL Midwest District Council’s goal was set at $30,000 and each chapter eventually fulfilled its goal. The Chicago JACL on its own raised nearly the same amount to help fund its local redress efforts. These funds helped support JACL’s participation in the commission hearings that were held in various cities. The Midwest was given $6,000 by the National JACL to defray hearing expenses including travel assistance for some of the out-of-town witnesses who testified.

Another important aspect of the campaign was to get other organizations to support the legislation. These endorsements were important to show that the redress issue had a broad base of support. It took the effort of many to gather this support, but we eventually received endorsements from groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Illinois Ethnic Coalition, various veteran’s organizations, labor groups, numerous churches and government entities such as the Chicago City Council. To illustrate the usefulness of these endorsements, at one important juncture late in the campaign, I asked Marcia Lazar, the president of the American Jewish Committee in Chicago to contact Congressman Dan Glickman, her former childhood classmate in Kansas. Glickman served on the subcommittee in the House where the redress legislation resided, so his support was important. The support of these organizations proved extremely helpful especially when they provided direct access to the members of congress.

During the spring of 1980, we turned our attention to the House of Representatives. One particularly stubborn congressman was John Erlenborn, a Republican from Illinois. First, we identified as many people as we could who lived in his district to write to him. Finally, we learned that his family had sponsored a Nisei from the internment camp who lived in Los Angeles. We were able to track down this individual and had him contact Erlenborn, which played a role in securing his support.

A Visit to the White House

The legislative effort organized by the JACL and carried out by JACL chapters and local Japanese American communities culminated with the passage of the Senate commission bill on May 22, 1980 and with passage of the House bill on July 21, 1980. The legislation, called the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), cleared the way for a comprehensive investigation of the internment and its impact on those affected. I was honored to be invited as part of the delegation to attend the signing of the legislation by President Jimmy Carter. Our delegation gathered in the Cabinet Room where we took our positions behind the conference table and waited for the President enter. I remember that Sam Donaldson, the ABC reporter, became impatient and muttered, “come on, let’s get this thing going.” The President finally arrived, shook hands with the delegation and spoke prior to signing the bill. “The JACL has kept this issue alive,” Carter said, “along with the Aleutian-Pribilov Island Association. And we have representatives of those groups with us…I don’t believe any one would doubt that injustices were done, and I don’t think anyone would doubt that it is advisable now for us to have a clear understanding as Americans of this episode in the history of our country.”

The CWRIC had eighteen months to complete its investigation and issue its recommendations. In consultation with the Nikkei members of Congress, the JACL did make recommendations to President Carter and the leaders in Congress regarding those who would serve as members of the commission. One of the recommendations made by JACL was Arthur J. Goldberg, the former Supreme Court justice. It was known that Goldberg strongly supported reparations for the internment. John Tateishi had written a letter to Goldberg asking his permission to submit his name to the President. In his response, Goldberg said, “You know, of course, of my deep feeling that a grave injustice was committed to Japanese-Americans by their internment during World War II…With respect to your submitting my name to the President, I have made it a practice to refrain from such a procedure…” Nevertheless, Goldberg’s name was on JACL’s list, and he was appointed and did serve as a member of the commission.

Commission Hearings in Chicago

As part of its investigation, the CWRIC held hearings in Washington, D.C. and other locations to gather testimony from decision-makers and those who were affected by the internment. I was fortunate to attend the first hearing held in Washington, D.C. It’s funny sometimes, the things that stick in your mind, but one lasting impression I had of the hearing was the attention that focused on a short, well-dressed elderly man as he entered the Senate Caucus Room. I remember sitting near Shig Wakamatsu and noticed that he and some other Nisei fixed their gaze on this man that I didn’t recognize, but who clearly caught the attention of a knowing few. John J. McCloy was the assistant secretary of War in 1942 and had authority over the major decisions related to the internment. At the age of 86, he was fit and clear-minded, although his demeanor belied his position as one of the most influential men in America. McCloy maintained that the internment was justified. The final decision to hold a hearing in Chicago wasn’t made until June 1981. Min Yasui and John Tateishi had prevailed on the CWRIC Chair Joan Bernstein, and Paul Bannai, the CWRIC executive director, that Chicago was an important location. I had urged both Min and John to do all they could to pressure Bernstein and Bannai because the large numbers of former internees residing in Chicago and in the Midwest had important experiences to tell. I had been in contact with Paul Bannai following his appointment as the director of the CWRIC. On June 12, I toured Northeastern Illinois University for the purpose of recommending it as a hearing site. Up to that point, other potential sites included the City Hall Hearing Room, the Cultural Center, the Northwestern Law School and the Dirksen Federal Building. Northeastern Illinois University was finally selected. I continued my contact with Paul Bannai and on June 28, we met in Chicago to discuss witnesses and hearing procedures for the Chicago hearing.

Our most important hearing task was to identify and prepare witnesses to testify. I recall working closely with the Chicago Redress Committee to identify and prepare Chicago witnesses. At the same time, I coordinated a similar effort in the Midwest to identify and prepare witnesses from Midwestern cities. I recall working with John Tateishi and Minoru Yasui to put together a packet for JACL chapters related to the hearings. The packet outlined the hearing procedures and provided a template for written and oral testimonies. In Chicago, we conducted workshops and individual sessions with witnesses at the JASC on August 15, and at the Midwest Buddhist Temple on August 29, where we helped with the preparation of their written testimony and with their oral presentations before the commission. Though it was difficult to provide this same service to potential witnesses from outside Chicago, nevertheless I was able to assist a number of them with their written testimonies. In addition, I worked with the JACL chapters to identify witnesses who could provide compelling testimony. Maryann Mahaffey was one such individual. Ms. Mahaffey was then a member of the Detroit City Council, but during World War II she was a young social worker at Poston II. She gave emotional testimony saying, “I think I did some good. I think I helped. But I will be forever haunted by what could not be done, by the irreparable damage inflicted on an innocent, helpless and defenseless population.”

Bill Yoshino (lower right) at the Chicago Hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation

Redress Legislation in Congress

The CWRIC completed its investigation and released its findings in a report entitled “Personal Justice Denied” in December 1982. The commission concluded that the internment was not justified by a military necessity. It also said that the internment was caused by “race prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Its recommendations included an official apology, $20,000 in compensation to surviving persons who were excluded from their places of residence, and the establishment of an educational fund to promote knowledge about the internment. These recommendations formed the basis for the legislation that would be introduced in Congress.

Following the issuance of the commission report, the JACL committed itself to gaining passage of legislation to incorporate the primary provisions of the commission recommendations. This effort would take six years, during which time the legislation was introduced in three separate sessions of Congress. The campaign also brought changes within the JACL to accommodate a more focused lobbying effort. The JACL formed a lobbying arm called the JACL Legislative Education Committee that had the ability to engage in more direct forms of lobbying. Minoru Yasui served as the chair of this committee and in 1985, Grayce Uyehara, a staunch JACLer from Philadelphia, was named as its executive director.

The effort to gain passage of the redress legislation was very similar to the effort to gain passage of the commission legislation, although, by degree, it was much more difficult because we were looking at a piece of legislation that would cost the taxpayers over $1 billion during a time of fiscal belt-tightening by a Republican Administration. Still, the legislative campaign in the Midwest focused on personal contacts with legislators, gathering endorsements by organizations and fundraising. My duties remained much the same from the CWRIC campaign. Min Yasui asked me to coordinate all JACL chapter and district council activities on redress. This meant serving as a communications clearinghouse for all incoming and outgoing information and data, which included the issuance of monthly reports. I enjoyed working with Grayce, who stressed close communications and always offered snippets of information such as when she heard that a small group of Senators were prepared to filibuster the redress bill upon introduction and that Senator Spark Matsunaga was working to diffuse the effort. It was her way of keeping people engaged on the issue.

It was a long haul from 1983 until 1987 when circumstances and events changed for the better, paving the way for Congress to finally pass the Civil Liberties Act. I recall working with others to get endorsements from a number of organizations including the Chicago City Council by arranging for JACL testimony at a committee hearing before Alderman Roman Pucinski. I will never forget the assistance provided by David Roth from the American Jewish Committee who worked through the Illinois Ethnic Coalition to gain the support of numerous organizations to do grassroots lobbying for the redress bill. I remember accompanying Chiye Tomihiro to talk to the chief fundraiser for Congressman John Porter to see if we could get him to convince the congressman to support the legislation. From time to time, I touched base with Congressman Sidney Yates, an old friend of the Japanese American community, to reinforce our thanks for his support. We knew eventually that we would also have to get the support of President Ronald Reagan, so I prevailed on my contacts to Republican Governor James Thompson to try to convince him send a letter to the President requesting his support. While a gesture such as this didn’t have a bearing in determining Reagan’s support, it was a way to get one more influential person to become aware of our cause. As a result of strenuous efforts by countless individuals, the House of Representatives voted to approve the Civil Liberties Act on September 17, 1987 by a vote of 243-141. The Illinois delegation voted 15-4, with three not voting. Senate action on the legislation finally occurred on April 20, 1988 when it voted 69-27 to approve the legislation.

As with the commission legislation, I was honored to be part of the JACL delegation to attend the Presidential signing of the Civil Liberties Act. At the time, I was attending the JACL national convention in Seattle. We boarded an overnight flight to Washington, D.C. The signing ceremony was held on August 10, 1988, in the press room in the Old Executive Office Building, where approximately fifty people gathered for this emotional event.

Office of Redress Administration

Following the signing of the Civil Liberties Act, I was appointed as the National Director of the JACL in 1989. The work on redress didn’t end when President Reagan signed the bill. Once the bill became law, there was the matter of getting the Congress to appropriate the funds to make the redress payments to individuals. As with the Civil Liberties Act, Senator Daniel Inouye again played a critical role. I recall that as this issue was under discussion, Cressey Nakagawa, the JACL national president, and I were called to a meeting with Senator Inouye. Senator Inouye did away with the pleasantries quickly and soon said, “What do you fellows think about an entitlement.” With that the senator had determined an approach where the redress payments would be first in line for funding. This, however, didn’t completely relieve the anxiety regarding funding because of ongoing efforts to cut government spending through measures such as the Gramm-Rudman Act.

The Office of Redress Administration (ORA) was established to implement the Civil Liberties Act, including the writing of regulations that governed important issues such as eligibility. In the end, and to their credit, the ORA interpreted the Act in a liberal manner. I believe part of the credit for this is due to Cherry Kinoshita from Seattle, a member of both the LEC and the JACL boards. Cherry closely scrutinized the work of the ORA and never hesitated to weigh in for the benefit of the community.

The redress payments commenced during the fall of 1990 when the Justice Department began circulating the apology letters. The ORA organized for local ceremonies in a number of locations including Chicago where the oldest recipients were presented with their checks. The JACL played an important role in assisting the ORA in implementing their program. Through the JACL network of regional offices and chapters, we assisted in the distribution of ORA materials and we provided assistance to individuals in completing applications to make a claim. I recall receiving many inquiries, most involving the issue of eligibility or the lack of documentation to show that a person resided on the West Coast. In all respects, the ORA proved cooperative and effective in the administration of the program.

And, Finally

In all the years I’ve worked for the JACL, I look back to the 1980s and the redress campaign as perhaps my most fulfilling experience. At the time, I couldn’t imagine an issue as being more important. I recently received a touching correspondence from John Tateishi where he said, “I’ve always felt there were two individuals who never received credit for their part in all of that (the redress campaign): Clifford (Uyeda) for his steadfast and willing support of whatever I thought to do; and you, for the many long days and nights and weeks and months we pondered the course of the campaign together and gave our hearts and souls to ensuring we would make the American public understand the importance of what we sought. You were always the silent partner in everything I did as the JACL’s redress leader, and I’ll be forever grateful to you for all your brilliance and effort, and so too for your many moments of wise counsel in the past seven years we’ve worked together.”

* This article was originally publised in the Voices of Chicago by the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society .

© 2007 Chicago Japanese American Historical Society

activism chicago jacl Midwest redress William Yoshino World War II

About this series

The articles in this series were originally published in Voices of Chicago, the online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, which has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Voices of Chicago is a collection of first-person narratives about the experiences of people of Japanese descent living in Chicago. The community is composed of three waves of immigration, and their descendants: The first, about 300 people, came to Chicago around the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1899. The second, and largest, group is descended from 30,000 who came to Chicago directly from the internment camps after World War II. Called the “ReSettlers,” they created a community built around social service organizations, Buddhist and Christian churches and small businesses. The third, more recent, group are Japanese nationals who came to Chicago, beginning in the 1980s, as artists and students and remained. A fourth, non-immigrant, group are Japanese business executives and their families who live in Chicago for extended periods, sometimes permanently.

Chicago has always been a place where people can re-create themselves, and where diverse ethnic communities live and work together. Voices of Chicago tells the stories of members of each of these four groups, and how they fit into the mosaic of a great city.

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