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Japanese-Americans Ask Reparations

April 29, 1986|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Led by the tearful testimony of a congressman and a senator, a group of Japanese-Americans strongly backed legislation Monday that would give $20,000 to each of 60,000 survivors who were forcibly detained at internment camps during World War II.

"We were loyal American citizens . . . taken from our home," California Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) told a House subcommittee, breaking into sobs as he detailed his family's sudden relocation from Sacramento to a remote camp in Idaho shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Matsui, who was 5 months old at the time, said that "this sense of disloyalty has remained with us to this day."

Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Hawaii), whose father was arrested briefly in Hawaii when war broke out, also fought back tears as he supported restitution for those who lost homes, jobs, businesses and self-respect in the government's drive to clear the West Coast of a supposed espionage threat.

Strong Opposition Registered

He said that the pending bill would provide "a long overdue remedy for what has been called America's worst wartime mistake and the worst single violation of civil liberties in our nation's history."

Other support for the measure came from the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Bar Assn., several civil rights groups and the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which in 1983 recommended the payment of reparations.

However, strong opposition was registered by the Reagan Administration, former Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) and two House members at the daylong hearing before the House Judiciary subcommittee on administrative law and government relations.

In a letter, Assistant Atty. Gen. John R. Bolton asserted that enough already had been done to compensate for damages. He noted that Congress, under the American-Japanese Claims Act of 1948, had paid more than $37 million in 26,568 settlements. Moreover, Bolton said, Congress had rejected further compensation in 1956.

Calls Finding 'Suspect'

Bolton also objected to a proposal that the legislation endorse a finding by the federal commission that the internment was the result of "racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership," not valid security concerns. He termed that finding "suspect."

Hayakawa, who never faced relocation and lived in Chicago at the time, insisted that the experience had been good for the detainees. He contended that they had been well-treated and had learned self-reliance and said the government had helped many of them go to college and find jobs.

California Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), while acknowledging that a "grave injustice" had been done, opposed reparations on grounds that the federal budget deficit was already too large and that a costly precedent would be set for claims by American Indians and others.

Lungren, arguing that an official apology was sufficient, asked whether the expenditure of $1.2 billion was "the only way to show proper remorse."

Money 'Not So Important'

Matsui, addressing such questions, said: "The way we redress wrongs in this country is through compensation." The senator, stressing that "it isn't the $20,000" that is so important, said the crucial point is the symbolic acknowledgment that "justice must be done."

California Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), who at the age of 10 was one of the nearly 120,000 who were ordered to the wartime camps, said he was hardly a spy or a saboteur.

"We were robbed," he said, "just as if agents of the government had crept into our homes at night and taken our liberty, our rights and our property. There is no statute of limitations on our shame, our damaged honor or our violated rights. It has fallen on this (Congress) to set us free."

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