25 years after apology, U.S. still hasn’t learned lessons

Twenty-five years ago on Aug. 10, President Reagan signed a law that finally apologized and made reparations for the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. But we haven’t fully learned the lesson from that embarrassing episode.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up Japanese-Americans, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens. Soldiers evicted them from their homes and placed them in desolate prisons because of the government’s irrational fear that their ethnic ties would make them enemy sympathizers.

Many Japanese-Americans, such as Grant Ichikawa, volunteered from their confinements to serve in the military to show their loyalty to the United States. Ichikawa had graduated from the University of California with an accounting degree but could not find a job because firms were not hiring anyone of Japanese descent. He was working as a farmer when he was forced into the detention center, where he lived in a horse stable and slept on a mattress filled with hay.

Ichikawa went on to serve in the Military Intelligence Service, where he received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service, as did 6,000 other Japanese-Americans.

Today, Ichikawa spends his days gardening at his home in Virginia. He recently attended a Japanese American Citizens League briefing at the National Archives, which is showcasing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and Executive Order 9066 (the February 1942 order that led to the forced removal of Japanese-Americans).

Has America learned from its mistakes?

Consider what happened after Sept. 11, 2001, with the passage of the Patriot Act. Muslim-Americans, and others who looked “suspicious,” were incarcerated as suspected terrorists. Many were victims of racial profiling. This crackdown created a social stigma, which sometimes resulted in hate crimes perpetrated simply because of the color of the victims’ skin.

Today, the government can still pick up someone suspected of terrorism and detain that person indefinitely, without formal charges. This is chillingly similar to the military authority used to incarcerate Japanese-Americans during World War II.

I hope there will be no more need for our government to issue mass apologies, such as the one belatedly given to Japanese-Americans.

Our country is better served if we all work together and ensure all Americans are afforded their civil rights.

Priscilla Ouchida is the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League. Ouchida was formerly chief of staff and legislative director for two California state senators. One of her major accomplishments was the passage of legislation that provided monetary redress to Japanese-Americans who were unfairly fired from their jobs with the state of California after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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