California Lawmakers Apologize for U.S. Internment of Japanese Americans

During a visit last week to the California Museum in Sacramento, Les Ouchida holds a 1943 photo of himself (front row center) and his siblings taken at the internment camp in Jerome, Ark., that his family was moved to from their home near Sacramento in 1942. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

It has been just over 78 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans.

Now, California lawmakers are apologizing for the role the state played in rounding up about 120,000 people — mainly U.S. citizens – and moving them into 10 camps, including two in California.

The resolution, which passed unanimously in the California Assembly Thursday, noted that a number of federal and state laws passed beginning in 1913 that discriminated against people of Japanese descent. The resolution also stated that, "the Assembly apologizes to all Americans of Japanese ancestry for its past actions in support of the unjust exclusion, removal, and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and for its failure to support and defend the civil rights and civil liberties of Japanese Americans during this period."

It also stated: "Given recent national events, it is all the more important to learn from the mistakes of the past and to ensure that such an assault on freedom will never again happen to any community in the United States."

During Thursday's vote, the Assembly welcomed several people who were imprisoned in the camps and their families.

"We are specifically apologizing for wrongs that were committed on this floor," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in the chamber. "We are apologizing for what we have done."

Several lawmakers also gave somber statements and gathered at the entrance of the chamber after the vote to hug and shake hands with victims like 96-year-old Kiyo Sato.

"We need to remind [young people] that this can't happen again," Sato said.

Roosevelt's order, signed a little more than two months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, authorized the removal from the West Coast of all persons considered a threat to national security and their relocation to centers inland.

"You're talking about folks who were American citizens, who were forced to leave their homes, forced to leave most of their possessions behind, to leave their pets behind," Jeffrey Moy, national president of the Japanese American Citizens League, told NPR.

Imagine, he added, "how much of a shock it was for people's rights to just be stripped from them."

"I wanted to make sure that we acknowledged our mistakes and hopefully learned from them," said Al Muratsuchi, the Assembly member who introduced the resolution.

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The Democrat, who represents a district southwest of Los Angeles that includes Torrance and Manhattan Beach, said that such a reminder is important not just for the preservation of history. It's also important to note the "striking parallels between what happened to Japanese Americans before and during World War II and what we see happening today," he said.

"Not just the fearmongering rhetoric talking about the caravan [of migrants from Central America], or the images of children and families being held in cages, but we see what's happening to Muslim Americans. You know, after Pearl Harbor, the fear of the 'other' focused on Japanese Americans as potential spies; today, ever since 9/11, that same fear of the other has been focused on Muslim Americans as potential terrorists," Muratsuchi said.

It bears mentioning that such an apology is not novel.

Near the end of Ronald Reagan's presidency, he signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which acknowledged that the internment of Japanese Americans was "motivated by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership." It provided $20,000 to each eligible survivor.

The law also included a direct apology "on behalf of the Nation."

"What is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor," Reagan said at the time, "for here, we admit a wrong. Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law."

Muratsuchi said survivors needed a separate apology from California.

"Unfortunately, during the years leading up to World War II, California was at the forefront and led the nation in so many ways in fanning the flames of racism and immigrant scapegoating against Japanese Americans," he said, pointing to efforts by state lawmakers decades before the war to limit or strip the legal rights of Japanese Americans.

"I felt that it was important to document this uniquely Californian history of racism and immigrant scapegoating against Japanese Americans," he said.

The Assembly measure is just the latest in a series of apologies the state has issued recently for its historical injustices against minority groups.

In an executive order last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom formally apologized on behalf of California for the state's "dark history" of violence and discrimination against Native Americans. Earlier this month, he also announced an initiative to pardon LGBTQ people — including posthumously — who were prosecuted under a state law banning same-sex relationships, which were only decriminalized in 1975.

Previously, the state apologized in 2006 for a program of illegal deportation that targeted Mexican Americans in the 1930s and issued another apology several years later to Chinese Americans for racist laws dating back to the 19th century.

"A decision motivated by discrimination and xenophobia, the internment of Japanese Americans was a betrayal of our most sacred values as a nation that we must never repeat," Newsom said Wednesday in a proclamation declaring Feb. 19 — the anniversary of Roosevelt's executive order — to be a day of remembrance in California.

"This stain on our history should remind us to always stand up for our fellow Americans, regardless of their national origin or immigration status, and protect the civil rights and liberties that we hold dear," he said.

NPR's Ina Jaffe and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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