WASHINGTON — In a moving, emotional ceremony, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh knelt Tuesday and presented an entire nation's apology to Mamoru Eto, a wheelchair-bound, 107-year-old Japanese-American minister who was forcibly interned during World War II.
Thornburgh, handing out $20,000 redress payments to nine elderly internees, the first of about 65,000 Japanese-Americans who eventually will receive them, told the recipients that, even when the American "system failed you, you never lost your faith in it."
"By finally admitting a wrong, a nation does not destroy its integrity but, rather, reinforces the sincerity of its commitment to the Constitution and hence to its people," the attorney general said.
"We can never fully right the wrongs of the past," President Bush declared in a two-paragraph statement accompanying each check. "But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese-Americans during World War II."
Two Californian congressmen, Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), and Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), brushed tears from their eyes and embraced as the audience in the Justice Department's Great Hall sang "God Bless America."
Mineta, who was interned as a 10-year-old in a camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo., said: "Americans of Japanese ancestry now know in their hearts that the letter and spirit of our Constitution holds true for them."
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who lost his right arm fighting in Europe with the Japanese-American 442nd Regiment, had to dry his eyes after greeting Eto, a resident of a Los Angeles nursing home.
"We honor ourselves and honor America," Inouye said. "We demonstrated to the world that we are a strong people--strong enough to admit our wrongs."
Eto, who was minister of the First Japanese Nazarene Church in Pasadena when he was sent in 1942 to the Tulare Assembly Center and then to the Gila River (Ariz.) Internment Camp, said through his son, David, that he has no immediate plans for the money he received.
The elder Eto, a resident of the Minami Keiro Nursing Home in Los Angeles, delivered the ceremony's opening invocation in Japanese. His son said he has forgotten the little English he once commanded.
David Eto, 59, a Woodland Hills engineer for Hughes Aircraft Corp.'s Missile Systems division who later will receive his own $20,000 payment, agreed with most recipients that the symbolism of the government's action outweighs the dollars involved.
Tsyako (Sox) Kitashima, 72, of San Francisco, who personally mailed more than 25,000 letters in support of redress, expressed similar sentiments.
Kitashima was 23 when she was sent to a camp at Topaz, Utah, carrying as much of her belongings as she could cram into the two suitcases allowed by government officials. She said that for thousands of Japanese-Americans, the redress and apology "hopefully will unburden the stigma of disloyalty" that resulted from the forced relocation.
Although he was the first recipient, Mamoru Eto is not the oldest. Robert Bratt, who runs the office of redress administration in the Justice Department's civil rights division, plans to present a Phoenix woman who will be 108 next month with a check in a private ceremony later this week. The woman, who declined use of her name, is suffering from a toothache and is considered too fragile to travel to Washington, Bratt said.
The redress program was mandated by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The $20,000 payments and letter of apology are to be provided to the 65,000 internees who were living when the law was passed, or to their heirs. About 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interned during the war.
The payments, expected to exceed $1.5 billion, are to be completed in fiscal 1993.
Ceremonies honoring other senior recipients are planned Thursday in Chicago; Friday in Los Angeles and Fresno; Saturday in San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose; Sunday in Seattle, and Monday in Honolulu.
Other recipients who participated in Tuesday's ceremony were Hau Dairiki, 102, of Sacramento; Kisa Iseri, 102, of Ontario, Ore.; Hisano Fujimoto, 101, of Lombard, Ill.; Senkichi Yuge, 101, of Los Angeles; Sugi Kiriyama, 100, of West Los Angeles; Sade Ide, 90, of Arlington, Va.; Don Hatsuki Shima, 86, of Laurel, Md., and Ken Yamamoto, 73, of Silver Spring, Md.
On their way up the stairs to the Great Hall, recipients and other participants passed wall murals of some of civilization's leading exponents of law and justice--Hammurabi, Moses, Solon, Justinian, Thomas Aquinas, John Marshall and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
But the wartime Justice Department departed from the principles those men espoused in its active support of the relocation and internment program. Thornburgh, in his comments, said he is "not unmindful of the historic role this department I now lead played in the internment. It is somehow entirely fitting that it is here where we now celebrate redress."