New multimedia web project tells lost history of Chicago’s Japanese American redress movement

Japanese American redress

A new interactive multimedia web project is shedding light on Chicago’s Japanese American redress movement, which developed in response to the injustices the community experienced during World War II.

Why this matters: Written and produced by Katherine Nagasawa, “Reckoning” is a multimedia experience that takes learners from the origins of the movement in 1970s Chicago to the signing of the Civil Liberties Act in 1988. It also highlights the continued efforts to preserve Japanese American history in the country today.

  • The project comes in advance of the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the event that prompted the U.S. government to turn against its own citizens of Japanese descent. An estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans who had nothing to do with Imperial Japan’s war actions were incarcerated and stripped of their civil rights between 1942 and 1946.
  • Nagasawa believes much has been said about the redress movement nationally, but these sources often overlook contributions from the Midwest. In an interview with WBEZ’s Sasha-Ann Simons for “Reset,” she pointed out that the region had more representation in Congress than the West Coast amid lobbying efforts for the Civil Liberties Act.
  • For this reason, Nagasawa decided to concentrate on Chicago for “Reckoning.” She said most of the state’s redress stories are tucked in personal and organizational archives. “I started by flipping through all the documents I could get my hands on: news clippings, letters, handwritten notes, etc. And I also relied heavily on movement leaders who are still around today, like Bill Yoshino, who really spearheaded redress efforts in the Midwest,” she told Simons.
Image via U.S. National Archives

From horror to healing: Many Japanese Americans were ashamed, exhausted and traumatized by the mass incarceration. While some activists had challenged the constitutionality of the government’s “internment camps” since their establishment, it was not until the 1970s that the community became hopeful in their calls for reparations.

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  • In the summer of 1970, hundreds of Japanese Americans from across the U.S. gathered in downtown Chicago for a biennial convention of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), according to Nagasawa. There, activists Edison Uno and Raymond Okamura formally proposed that the community should be compensated for the incarcerations, and that JACL — now the country’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization — should take the lead.
  • Two other organizations — the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR) and the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) — also exerted efforts for redress and reparations. The NCRR advocated for JACL’s original reparations bill, while the NCJAR filed a class-action lawsuit against the government for violating constitutional rights.
  • As NCJAR’s lawsuit advanced through the judicial system, a redress bill endorsed by the JACL increasingly gained cosponsors in Congress. In 1985, it was reintroduced as “H.R. 442” in reference to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated U.S. military unit in history.
  • In 1987, the NCJAR’s lawsuit was ultimately dismissed on a technicality. On Aug. 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed H.R. 442 — the Civil Liberties Act — into law.
  • The Civil Liberties Act paid $20,000 and issued a formal presidential apology to every surviving U.S. citizen or legal resident of Japanese descent incarcerated during the war. A total of 82,219 received redress, according to Densho, a Seattle-based nonprofit that preserves the history of the incarcerations.

Featured Image via U.S. National Archives

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