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Bittersweet Harvest : Horrors of Internment Spur Survivor's Fund-Raising for Restitution Bill

October 22, 1987|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, Harry Kajihara of Oxnard concocted a fund-raising tactic that he felt would surely pull at the heartstrings--and the purse strings--of three generations of Japanese-Americans.

He called it "the Shame Chart," and it revealed which branches of the Japanese American Citizens League were not contributing enough to the lobbying effort for legislation to compensate Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

The league, a civil-rights organization, was founded 55 years ago to stem prejudice against Japanese-Americans.

At the time of Kajihara's fund-raising chart, some warned that it would be more offensive than persuasive, but he published it in the league's newspaper anyway--and it worked. So did countless personal appeals from Kajihara, a Ventura College engineering professor who had been interned himself. He raised $40,000 locally and another $300,000 nationwide during one three-year period, more than a third of the $1 million the organization has amassed in the last four year.

In fact, his bag of fund-raising tricks worked so well that Kajihara was elected president of the 29,000-member league and became a key force behind the passage of the bill in the House last month.

The bill is expected to clear the Senate by the end of the month, but aides to President Reagan are urging a veto because of its $1.6-billion cost. Detractors also object that, in the words of Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), the measure would send the message "that the dollar sign is the only genuine symbol of contrition."

Others question the equity of a bill that would compensate former internees equally without regard to the widely varying lengths of their internments. Still, the redress movement cannot fail, Kajihara says, even if it is defused by a presidential veto.

"We're in a win-win situation," he said. "If Congress had given that $20,000 one week after the bill was first introduced in 1982, this would be a forgotten issue. But $20,000 is just enough money that the congressmen are shaking their heads, saying, 'Shall we? Shall we not?' And that's gotten the American people aware. This reminds people to never do something like this again."

Ten weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized military commanders to round up Japanese-Americans living along the West Coast and detain them in 10 desolate inland camps, where they were guarded by military police. At the time, the federal government contended that the internment was justified by military necessity, even though citizens with Italian and German surnames had not been similarly detained.

A committee appointed by Congress concluded in 1982 that racial prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership--not the dictates of national security--were to blame for a grave personal injustice to the Japanese-Americans. The internees suffered enormous damages and losses, both material and intangible, the commission said, recommending a public apology and $1.6 billion in compensation.

Not only farms, businesses and homes were lost, but careers and professional lives were disrupted for years, creating long-term loss of income, earnings and opportunity.

Kajihara's opportunities--and those of 20,000 others interned at the Tule Lake relocation camp in Northern California with him--were blocked for more than three years. The son of a fisherman, Kajihara was president of his school and shortstop on its baseball team in Oyster Bay, Wash., when the town's 10 to 15 Japanese-American families were ordered to report to the state capital.

They were incredulous. "We were way out in the sticks," Kajihara remembers. "How could we be a threat?"

FBI agents visited the Kajiharas' houseboat, confiscating what they believed could be the tools of espionage: a radio and a camera. Friends offered to adopt Kajihara, who was then 13, but the effort was thwarted. "The government told them that I was a jeopardy to my country," said Kajihara, now 59. "I was heartbroken."

The family packed up as many of their belongings as could fit in three suitcases and a canvas bag. Kajihara still fights back tears when he remembers parting with his favorite possession.

"I had a desk I was so proud of," he said. "It was very thick wood with an old-fashioned drawer and a battery-powered radio at one corner. I would sit up until 1 o'clock at night with the Seattle Rainiers and pretend I was playing. If there was a home run, I hit it. If the batter was left-handed, I switched my grip."

No School for a Year

During his first year at the camp, there was no school. Sand and scorpions invaded the unheated one-room cabins where families slept on Army cots. Food was so scarce that a thin slice of bologna and a scoop of rice served as lunch. Later, there were food riots.

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