WASHINGTON – A leading group of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, including some who suffered internment during World War II, are using their community’s experiences to campaign for a society free of discrimination and prejudice.
The Japanese American Citizens League renewed its call for the protection of all civil rights in the United States during a recent press event, held to mark the 25th anniversary of an act that sought redress for nisei who were discriminated against even after the war.
On Aug. 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act stipulating that one of its purposes was to “apologize on behalf of the people of the United States for the evacuation, relocation, and internment” of wartime Japanese-Americans.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in Hawaii and the West Coast were forced to abandon their homes and assets and taken to inland internment camps and similar sites.
The National Archives in Washington exhibited the original text of the act this summer, holding the event with the league to commemorate the act’s enforcement. Terry Shima, a 90-year-old nisei, recounted the wartime hardship he went through in an interview after the event.
“Nisei had only one mission — that is, going to combat” to prove their loyalty to the U.S., Shima said.
Shima joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army, a unit of Japanese-Americans that was sent to battlefields in Europe during the war, earning great distinction.
After the war ended, President Harry S. Truman commended the squad’s contribution and told its members at the White House, “You fought not only the enemy but you fought prejudice — and you won.”
But Truman’s statement was not enough to restore the honor of Japanese-Americans who had suffered incarceration and internment.
Phil Shigekuni, 79, who worked as a counselor at a high school in California, said he and other nisei had to face “a great deal of prejudice” even after the war.
“We had the same kind of prejudice. So we had to work through that,” Shigekuni said.
He recalled his delight at seeing the act implemented by the Reagan administration nearly a half century after Pearl Harbor.
“The signing by President Reagan of the redress bill was one of the high points in my life. It felt like being reborn as an American,” he said.
Shigekuni added: “Our government felt that we were the enemy. They put us away in camp. They couldn’t separate us from the enemy.”
Priscilla Ouchida, executive director of the JACL, is urging the United States to draw on the lessons of history, referring to concerns shared among many Japanese-Americans about prejudice and discrimination against Muslims, among others, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Today, our government can still pick up someone suspected of terrorism and detain that person indefinitely, even without formal charges,” Ouchida said in a statement.
“This is chillingly similar” to the military authority used to incarcerate Japanese-Americans during the war, she said, calling on people to “work together to protect all communities’ civil rights.”