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Japanese Fired in WWII Win Redress

Policy: Former railroad and mine workers will be eligible for cash payments and apologies from president.

February 28, 1998|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was 2 1/2 when her Japanese-born father was fired from his Southern Pacific railroad job in Sparks, Nev., after 22 years as a machinist.

The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor two months before, and her father's job was a casualty of American distrust of all Japanese. Living under restrictions that limited him to a five-mile area, Kametaro Ishii could find work only as a gardener. There were five children to feed.

"My father at one time considered suicide," said Fumiko Shimada, now a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher in Sacramento.

When World War II was over, her father went back to work for the railroad. He and her mother eventually became naturalized American citizens.

But in 1990, 14 years after her father's death, Shimada began her quest to obtain for her father and his survivors the redress and reparations that Japanese Americans who had suffered internment and discrimination were beginning to receive.

After eight years, two official government rejections and hours spent digging through historical documents, Shimada found success Friday.

As the late afternoon sun streamed through the windows of a Little Tokyo conference room, Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, announced that Japanese railroad and mine workers fired from their jobs during World War II would be eligible for cash payments and letters of apology signed by the U.S. president.

"The weight of the evidence suggests that the federal government played a role in the firing of these workers," Lee said Friday during a news conference at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.

Lee noted that the workers suffered government intervention in their lives even though they were not interned.

"On balance, the historical documents and individual statements establish that the railroad and mining companies--working closely with the federal government--terminated Japanese American workers because of an unjustified perception that these individuals posed a security risk solely because of their ancestry."

Although thousands of Japanese Americans who were interned in camps have been eligible for reparations under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, railroad and mine workers have been denied those benefits because they were fired by private companies. But Lee said historical research and the testimony of survivors and their families led the Justice Department's Office of Redress Administration and him, personally, to change the policy.

Shimada said Friday that she had turned up some of that evidence. She found a master's thesis--written by a University of Nevada at Las Vegas graduate student--on the plight of Japanese rail workers for one Nevada company that showed they had been fired because of federal government intervention.

Before his news conference, Lee met privately with groups that have lobbied for or publicized the plight of the rail and mine workers. The groups included representatives of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations--which also assisted in historical research--as well as the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese American Bar Assn.

Shimada and her husband were there too.

"It's been a long battle, but it's been worth every minute," Shimada said afterward, sharing the podium with Lee, whom she praised as compassionate.

Lee estimated that only 15 of the dismissed workers still survive, but 155 family members are living and eligible for redress. Shimada, at 58, is thought to be among the younger family members of dismissed workers.

The reparation payment is $20,000--the same amount given to the Japanese American victims of internment.

"I never honestly thought about what I would do with the money," Shimada said. "I'm really after the apology."

Still on the table before the Justice Department is the issue of the 2,200 people of Japanese ancestry who were taken from their homes in various Latin American countries and interned in the United States. A group of these Japanese Latin Americans filed a federal lawsuit two years ago.

"For the first time, there are settlement discussions," said Lee, who declined to elaborate further on the lawsuit.

For all of these cases, time is running out. The Civil Liberties Act ends--or "sunsets"--in August of this year. At the news conference, Lee urged people to file by April.

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