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California to Apologize for Incarceration of Japanese Americans During WWII

In new legislation, the state will own up to its role in the years-long detention that began in 1942

Japanese Americans stand in front of a poster with internment orders. (War Relocation Authority)
smithsonianmag.com

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the forced relocation of some 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps across the Western states and Arkansas.

Now, exactly 78 years later, California—site of the infamous Manzanar concentration camp—is poised to issue a long-overdue apology to all Americans of Japanese descent for approving policies that led to the mass incarceration. Tomorrow, the California assembly is expected to approve HR 77, a measure that formally acknowledges the state’s egregious wrongdoings and solidifies its resolve to learn from past mistakes, reports Maria Cramer for the New York Times.

Introduced by State Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi and six co-authors on January 28, the resolution includes language regarding California’s “past actions in support of the unjust inclusion, removal, and incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II”—decisions that reflected a “failure to support and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of Japanese-Americans during this period.” The California Assembly’s judiciary committee unanimously approved the bill on February; it will be brought before the governing body for a full vote tomorrow.

Muratsuchi, who in previous years has introduced multiple resolutions to commemorate an annual “Day of Remembrance” on February 19, proposed the new legislation as a way for the state, which hosted two of the nation’s ten internment camps, to tackle its sometimes-checkered past head-on.

“This year, I wanted to do something different and have California lead by example,” he tells Pacific Citizen, a newspaper published by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

Sparked in large part by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Roosevelt’s executive order was justified as a strategic move to defend the United States from spies and foreigners with ties to its enemies. But the government’s actions have long been criticized for fueling racist hysteria and paranoia—a sentiment formalized in 1980, when a federal commission declared Roosevelt’s decision “a failure of political leadership,” according to Harmeet Kaur of CNN.

According to the JACL, American citizens of Japanese heritage were never “charged, much less convicted, of espionage or sabotage against the United States. Yet they were targeted, rounded up, and imprisoned for years, simply for having the ‘face of the enemy.’”

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a Civil Liberties Act that apologized to people of Japanese ancestry on behalf of the entire United States, granting $20,000 in reparations to each incarcerated individual. Three decades later, the Supreme Court overruled a 1944 decision—the ruling of Korematsu v. United States—upholding the internment, according to the New York Times.

The new proposal doesn’t include financial compensation, but rather speaks for California itself. During the war, the state supported Japanese Americans’ incarceration, fueling prejudice both inside and outside its borders. Also detailed in the bill are other blemishes in California’s history, including the state’s alien land laws of 1913 and 1920, which barred people of Asian descent from purchasing or leasing land, and a series of 1940s measures that further stripped away the civil rights of Americans with Japanese ancestry.

“I want the California Legislature to officially acknowledge and apologize while these camp survivors are still alive,” Muratsuchi tells Cuneyt Dil of the Associated Press.

The resolution also refers to “recent national events,” encouraging the government to take actions “to ensure that such an assault on freedom will never again happen to any community in the United States.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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