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A Modest Proposal for the Reparations Debate

December 14, 1987|DAVID M. TAMASHIRO | David M. Tamashiro is a writer in Pasadena.

I was a 3-year-old American of Okinawan ancestry living in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I was not put into an internment camp, but I know people who were in those camps and who now are leaders of the reparations movement. I am concerned about the divisions that have surfaced in the debate over reparations, and so I have prepared a modest proposal in the event the Senate votes down a reparations bill or President Reagan vetoes a bill passed by both chambers.

My proposal was inspired by a story told by the Rev. Cecil Lower, a Presbyterian minister in Illinois: A church in Scotland was observing missions week and the deacons were passing the long-handled offering baskets through the congregation. One deacon stopped at a Scotsman who was a tightwad even among Scotsmen. The deacon said, "Please give something for the missions." The tightwad ignored him. The deacon said a second time, "Please give something for the missions." The tightwad said, "Don't rush me!" The deacon said a third time, "Please give something for the missions." The tightwad said, "Not now!" Finally, the deacon said, "Then take something out; it's for the heathen!"

My proposal was also inspired by the example of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In James Michener's "Hawaii," a Caucasian father wonders why such a fuss is made over the casualties in the 442nd while his own son, who was a Navy pilot, was unsung in his death. There is a difference. The Caucasian died for a country that kept faith with him. The men of the 442nd were Japanese Americans who had been in internment camps, or had families in internment camps. They went the second mile in signing up to defend a country that had broken faith with them in the area of civil rights and liberties. They went the third mile when they determined to "go for broke" for that same country. So when a member of the 442nd became a casualty, his mileage was different from that of the Caucasian father's son.

This is my proposal:

If the U.S. government fails to acknowledge the wrong that was done to the internees, I propose that each internee voluntarily contribute 1% of the settlement proposed by the House bill in order to pay the national debt. In other words, each person who would have received $20,000 under that bill will instead pay $200 in consideration for the hospitality he or she had received at the expense of that government. It has been observed that the former internees are more prosperous as individuals than the United States is as a nation, so let the principle of deep pockets prevail.

If all the internees gave $200 each, the estimated contribution to the payment of the national debt would be $12 million, which is a minuscule amount compared with a debt estimated in the trillions. But consider the multiplier effect that is possible if the internees also challenge the people who are the wealthiest 1% of this country's population to help pay the debt. If the internees could give 1% of an award they never received, in recognition of the unprecedented way they were treated, surely the wealthiest 1% can give 1% of some substantial base amount for a country that has treated them so handsomely.

There is a precedent for going the third mile in the history of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. There was a "Lost Battalion" of Texans who were rescued by the 442nd at great loss to themselves. In gratitude for the sacrificial rescue, Texas made members of the 442nd honorary citizens of the Lone Star State.

When the internees' challenges to the rich are complete, the amount contributed to pay the national debt could be substantial. And then, perhaps, the United States government will find in its heart a gratitude as large as Texas and accord the internees the status of honorary citizens of the United States. Or the United States government might decide to be bigger than Texas and recognize that the internees were actual citizens all the time and tender them an apology--together with a substantial amount in reparations.

At that point, the Japanese of Japan may be moved to help in the healing process by offering to lend their elder brothers in democracy a low-interest loan to pay for the reparations.

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