U.S. Congress Formally Apologizes to Japanese Internees

During World War II, approximately 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were interned by the U.S. government; in 1988, Congress apologized and paid reparations to the surviving internees.

Summary of Event

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, not only brought the United States into World War II but also caused a tremendous outburst of prejudice and suspicion against persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. By law, Asian immigrants were barred from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens, although their children born in the United States were considered native-born citizens. The Japanese American community, concentrated in the states of California, Washington, and Oregon, was made up of two basic groups: the Issei, or noncitizen immigrants, some of whom had lived in the United States for many years, and the Nisei, or native-born children of the immigrants. Civil Liberties Act (1988)
Japanese Americans, internment
Internment camps, U.S.
Asian Americans;discrimination
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Japanese Americans
[kw]U.S. Congress Formally Apologizes to Japanese Internees (Aug. 10, 1988)
[kw]Congress Formally Apologizes to Japanese Internees, U.S. (Aug. 10, 1988)
[kw]Apologizes to Japanese Internees, U.S. Congress Formally (Aug. 10, 1988)
[kw]Japanese Internees, U.S. Congress Formally Apologizes to (Aug. 10, 1988)
[kw]Internees, U.S. Congress Formally Apologizes to Japanese (Aug. 10, 1988)
Civil Liberties Act (1988)
Japanese Americans, internment
Internment camps, U.S.
Asian Americans;discrimination
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Japanese Americans
[g]North America;Aug. 10, 1988: U.S. Congress Formally Apologizes to Japanese Internees[06900]
[g]United States;Aug. 10, 1988: U.S. Congress Formally Apologizes to Japanese Internees[06900]
[c]World War II;Aug. 10, 1988: U.S. Congress Formally Apologizes to Japanese Internees[06900]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 10, 1988: U.S. Congress Formally Apologizes to Japanese Internees[06900]
Collins, Wayne Mortimer
Korematsu, Fred
Weglyn, Michiko Nishiura

In February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, Executive Order 9066 which allowed the U.S. Army to take whatever steps it considered necessary to protect strategic locations within the United States, even to the extent of removing civilians from areas deemed sensitive. In March, 1942, Congress passed Public Law 503, which gave further legal force to Roosevelt’s order and established the War Relocation Authority to handle the internment and to manage the camps, which were to be guarded by the Army. Under these two orders, evacuations of Japanese Americans began, eventually affecting approximately 110,000 people. Ten camps were established to house the evacuees: at Manzanar and Tule Lake, California; Poston and Gila, Arizona; Minidoba, Idaho; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Granada, Colorado; Topaz, Utah; and Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas.

Life in the camps was primitive. At the camps, an entire family or sometimes two families would be assigned an “apartment” that measured about twenty by twenty feet. Only minimal furniture was provided, and the first task for every family was to stuff straw into the sacks made of bed ticking given to them to make mattresses. Food was provided in a mess hall, but the food was Army rations, which were difficult for infants to eat. Frank Kadowaki, Kadowaki, Frank one of the internees, later remembered: “We were worried. We didn’t know what our lives would be. We were surrounded by barbed wire, guards standing everyplace.” This uncertainty was compounded by the fact that most families had sold all their possessions, including real estate, before going to the camps. The sellers received only a small fraction of the worth of their goods. Kadowaki described the process: “A lot of people had businesses and farms and they had to leave them. You couldn’t take furniture. We just take spoon and fork. Can’t even take cutting knife. During the war, burglar got in and stole everything we had left.”

In 1940 and 1941, some five thousand Nisei had been drafted into the U.S. armed forces. Many of them were discharged or assigned to routine duties after Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans were declared to be ineligible for the draft in 1942, but after protests from the Nisei, the Army decided to accept volunteers. In 1943, the 442d Regimental Combat Team was formed, and the Hawaii National Guard contributed the One Hundredth Infantry Battalion. Both these all-Nisei units served in Europe. The 442d Regimental Combat Team became the most highly decorated combat unit in the history of the U.S. Army; its forty-five hundred members won more than eighteen thousand individual decorations for bravery, including one Congressional Medal of Honor and fifty-two Distinguished Service Crosses. Of course, many of the recipients of these awards lost their lives in winning them; the medals were presented to their parents, who were behind barbed wire under Army guard. During the entire war, there were no documented attempts at sabotage on the part of any Japanese American.

During World War II, many people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were American citizens, were relocated to concentration camps away from the West Coast. This relocation order was posted in San Francisco in April, 1942.


Immediately after World War II, Wayne Mortimer Collins, a fiery lawyer dedicated to the defense of civil liberties, began to challenge the legality of the U.S. government’s action in interning the Japanese Americans. He was especially active in the case of Fred Korematsu, a Nisei who challenged the legality of the internment on the grounds that it applied only to people of Japanese ancestry. Although they lost the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Collins and Korematsu kept the issue before the public. Two other cases also provided a strong legal basis for further challenges to the treatment of the Japanese Americans. Gordon Hirabayashi Hirabayashi, Gordon and Minoru Yasui Yasui, Minoru were arrested during the war for violating a curfew that applied only to persons of Japanese ancestry. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that these arrests were legitimate, the idea was planted in the public mind that racism and wartime hysteria were more the basis of the decision than were sound principles of constitutional law.

By 1975, some progress was being made in redressing the injustice committed against Japanese Americans. In that year, President Gerald R. Ford Ford, Gerald R. issued a proclamation stating that the internment had been wrong. In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, U.S. to investigate the events of nearly forty years earlier and to interview survivors of the camps. By 1983, Fred Korematsu had seen his conviction for failing to evacuate a restricted area overturned, and the congressional commission had reached findings whose conclusions were indicated by the title of its study: Personal Justice Denied (1983). Moreover, a class-action suit was pending in the courts seeking more than four billion dollars in reparations for Japanese Americans.

Against this background, in 1988 Congress began to debate the issue of paying reparations to the surviving internees. Some conservatives, such as Senator Jesse Helms, Helms, Jesse a Republican from North Carolina, argued that no payments should be made until the Japanese government made reparations for the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was pointed out, however, that those who were interned were not Japanese citizens; rather, they were mostly Americans of Japanese ancestry. Payments were not going to the Japanese government but to Americans who had been wronged by their own government.

Syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick Kilpatrick, James J. argued that in 1942, fears of a Japanese invasion were not unreasonable. In fact, immediately after Pearl Harbor the Japanese forces turned their attention to the Far East. By the end of December, 1941, General John L. DeWitt, DeWitt, John L. military commander on the West Coast, had decided no invasion was likely. In May and June, 1942, the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway ended all possibility of a Japanese attack on the United States. The administration of President Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald agreed with the sentiment of Representative Bill Frenzel, Frenzel, Bill a Republican from Minnesota, who said, “It is time for an apology.” Reagan stated: “No payment can make up for those lost years. What is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit wrong.” On August 10, 1988, the Civil Liberties Act became law; the act’s provisions included a tax-free award of twenty thousand dollars to each survivor of the internment camps.


The hostility, suspicion, and prejudice Asians had always faced in the United States contributed to the internment decision of 1942. There were some military considerations, and scrutiny of the Issei would have been understandable, but as a group, Japanese Americans were not organized into political groups in the way people of German and Italian ancestry were. This made them all the more susceptible to abuse in a situation of war hysteria. There was also a public desire for revenge following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The passage of time made it clear that all these motives were wrong, however, and clear historical understanding led to the realization that a debt was owed to Japanese Americans.

One proof of this debt was that the United States in 1942 acted against its own best information. The Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had scrutinized the Japanese American community for years and had found nothing disloyal or even alarming. A second proof was that Japanese Americans were singled out for internment based on their race alone. Individuals were interned if they were only one-eighth Japanese by ancestry. German Americans were not required to relocate to camps, despite the open support for Adolf Hitler displayed during the decade preceding the war by some German American groups. Also, there were no internment camps in Hawaii, where the population included many ethnic Japanese but little prejudice against them was evident.

The apology and the reparations were generally considered appropriate given the economic hardship suffered by Japanese Americans as a result of the internment. The facts of this hardship have rarely been debated. The moral elements of the event have been more difficult to address, however. For decades before World War II, federal and state laws had denied citizenship to Japanese immigrants and had restricted their ownership of property. Japanese were viewed as isolated, devious, and impossible to assimilate. Indeed, the problems of assimilating immigrants of Asian ancestry would confront the United States throughout the twentieth century.

The attitudes of the people affected by the apology and reparations were significant. One Japanese American stated that “we were among the few who knew what we were fighting for during World War II. We were fighting for our rights but also for our parents and our children. Our rights were not just threatened, they were not even recognized. The nation needs to recognize our loyalty.” Another explained: “We had to rebuild not just our family economy, we had to rebuild our self-respect. What happened to us was like what happens to a woman who is raped. No amount of money can compensate but apologies would help the healing.”

Others saw the impact of the reparations in a historical perspective. A child of internees commented: “This will be a fitting memorial for my parents, a memorial all Americans should be able to accept because this will be a memorial to freedom and democracy and human rights. When a right is taken away from one of us, it is taken from us all.” Fred Korematsu summed up the meaning of the actions of the government perhaps best of all: “No money can compensate but an apology is appropriate. The greatness of a country lies in how it treats the weak. An apology is one way of making sure this never happens to anyone ever again.” Civil Liberties Act (1988)
Japanese Americans, internment
Internment camps, U.S.
Asian Americans;discrimination
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Japanese Americans

Further Reading

  • Bosworth, Allan R. America’s Concentration Camps. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Presents the story of the Nisei in readable style, switching viewpoint back and forth from the internment camps to the military units made up of Nisei recruits.
  • Christgau, John. Enemies: World War II Alien Internment. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1985. Well-written work discusses the U.S. internment of individuals from various ethnic groups and nationalities during World War II, including Japanese Americans.
  • Collins, Donald E. Native American Aliens: Disloyalty and the Renunciation of Citizenship by Japanese Americans During World War II. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Focuses on the small minority, about 7 percent, of Japanese Americans—many of whom were naturalized American citizens, not native-born—who chose to leave the United States for Japan after the war. Notes that most were not motivated by disloyalty to the United States; rather, they were overcome by the difficulties of life in the internment camps or were drawn back to Japan by family ties.
  • Gesensway, Deborah, and Mindy Roseman. Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987. Recounts the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II through artworks created by internees in the camps. Contains reproductions of paintings done by twenty-five individuals, along with brief selections from contemporary letters and documents. The bleak, crude, stark surroundings of the camps are highlighted by scenes of families carrying on with their lives as best they could under the circumstances.
  • Kikuchi, Charles. The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle from an American Concentration Camp. 1973. Reprint. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Edited version of a diary kept by Japanese American Charles Kikuchi from December 7, 1941, to August 31, 1942. Presents an especially articulate description of that time, during most of which the author and his family were interned at a race track in Southern California and lived in a converted horse stall.
  • Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Focuses on the role played by President Roosevelt in the decision to intern Japanese Americans. Discusses how the widespread racism of the time and Roosevelt’s personal prejudices contributed to the decision. Includes index.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. “The Japanese-American Internment: A Reappraisal.” American Scholar 65 (Autumn, 1988): 529-547. Well-written, thoughtful article provides a calm look at an emotion-laden subject. Discusses the pros and cons of the events of 1942 and presents a rationale as to why the apology and reparations were appropriate actions.
  • TenBroek, Jacobus, Edward Barnhart, and Floyd Matson. Prejudice, War, and the Constitution. 1954. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Presents a comprehensive analysis of the background, prejudices, wartime tensions, and government concerns that led to the internment of the Japanese Americans. Considers the impact of the internment on civil rights and devotes a good deal of discussion to how stereotypes about Asians contributed to the decisions made by the U.S. government.
  • Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. Updated ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. Thoroughly researched, gripping work presents the results of an investigation into the official and quasi-legal methods the U.S. government used to justify its actions toward Japanese Americans during World War II. Written by an internee who was sent as a teenager to the Gila Relocation Center in Arizona.

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