Donald Tamaki, a member of the California Reparations Task Force, sits in a lecture hall at Golden Gate University in San Francisco on Feb. 1, 2022, looking through an album compiled by his parents of newspaper clippings and photos from the Japanese American reparations movement. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Earlier this month, Donald Tamaki sat in an empty auditorium at Golden Gate University in San Francisco flipping through pages of a photo album until he found what he was looking for.
From underneath the clear page protector, an image of his mother’s face beamed up at him. By her side in the photo are two of her grandchildren. One holds a letter and the other a white paper check from the United States government for $20,000.
Tamaki’s parents were among the estimated 82,000 Japanese Americans who received reparations more than three decades ago for the mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. It was in this auditorium, in 1981, that Tamaki’s father testified in front of a commission established to explore reparations.
This month marks the 80th year since Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were imprisoned, beginning in 1942. The U.S. government claimed that the wartime incarceration was necessary to prevent sabotage and spying following the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service.
Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the displacement of people of Japanese ancestry.
The incarceration was the result of a racist hysteria in a country that still hasn’t reckoned with its long history of racism. In California, there were 23 sites where Japanese people, many of whom were American-born citizens, including Tamaki’s parents, were imprisoned.
More than three decades since his mother received some compensation and an apology for the injustices she suffered, Tamaki, a senior attorney at San Francisco law firm Minami Tamaki LLP, is working on another reparations movement, this time for Black Californians. Tamaki, 70, is a member of California’s Reparations Task Force, the nine-member group appointed to study the issue and recommend proposals to address the systemic marginalization and oppression of Black people in California since the state’s founding in 1850.
Born and raised in Oakland, Tamaki is the only non-Black member of the task force. He said his parents’ incarceration was connected to white supremacy.
The entrenchment of white supremacy in this country’s institutions and laws has handcuffed the experience of Black people in America since the first enslaved Africans were delivered to Virginia’s shores in 1619.
“Every person of color has been impacted by it, but some groups certainly worse than others and none more persistently and as long and horrifically, I think, as African Americans,” said Tamaki, who was appointed to the task force by Gov. Gavin Newsom. “The Japanese American incarceration that my family faced was simply just a permutation and was an offshoot of that system that permitted it.”
Both born and raised in the Bay Area, Tamaki’s parents — his father, Minoru, and his mother, Iyo — were in their early 20s when Pearl Harbor was bombed. In the aftermath of the attack, law enforcement officials raided Japanese American communities along the West Coast, ordering curfews for residents and arresting community leaders.
Minoru’s family removed anything from their home that appeared Japanese, burning family photos and wall hangings containing calligraphy. Iyo’s family found hate mail slipped under the door of the family's tailoring shop in West Oakland.
Minoru and Iyo, along with nearly 8,000 Bay Area residents of Japanese ancestry, were required to report to a detention center at Tanforan Racetrack, a horse-racing facility in San Bruno.
Minoru’s family closed the hotel they owned in San Francisco's Japantown, handing the keys to an acquaintance, who was Black, to keep safe. Minoru stopped attending pharmacology classes at UC Berkeley. Japanese people were told to pack only essentials — something to sleep on, eating utensils, cups and plates — for Tanforan, and they weren’t given any information on how long they’d be incarcerated.
Minoru, Iyo and their families slept in hastily converted horse stalls for months before being sent 700 miles away to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. They were not allowed to return home for three years. At the end of the war, Minoru's family settled in Oakland and reopened their hotel across the bay.
California’s current reparations task force is modeled, in part, after the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the body that studied and recommended reparations for Japanese Americans.
Commission members traveled around the country to gather testimony from people who experienced wartime incarceration. For the three days the commission was in the Bay Area in 1981, public hearings were held in Golden Gate University’s auditorium, during which Minoru shared his story of imprisonment and how it affected his life.
Tamaki, then a young lawyer, wasn’t able to see his father’s testimony on the third day because he was working to overturn the conviction of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American man from Oakland who had resisted incarceration. Korematsu claimed the exclusion of a specific racial group from the West Coast was unconstitutional. The 1942 conviction was formally vacated in 1983.
“I didn't view it as being particularly historic at the time,” Tamaki said of his father’s testimony, during his first trip back to the auditorium since the hearings. “It was a defining moment in my own parents' lives. Up to that point, they had never talked about what had happened. After this, they began to speak out and open up.”
Before the reparations movement, it was common for people who’d been through incarceration to keep quiet about what they endured.
“Culturally speaking, one Japanese tradition is the tradition of gaman. Gaman, loosely translated, means you endure hardship,” Tamaki said. “You don't say anything about it. You deal with it and you just suck it up, basically.”
Tamaki said it was also a form of survival in a society dominated by white supremacy.
“Many of these folks who were put in concentration camps when the war ended returned to the very communities that exiled them in the first place,” Tamaki said. “And so the way of dealing with it was to not talk about it.”
In 1981, Naomi Kubota Lee, then a UC Berkeley undergraduate student, was the co-chair for the San Francisco branch of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, a Japanese American grassroots organization that organized people to testify at the commission hearings. Lee’s parents and grandparents were incarcerated at Topaz with Tamaki’s parents.
Lee keeps an archive from the hearings, filled with transcripts of testimony and handbills, stored in three rows of filing boxes in a studio in her Mill Valley home. She remembers sitting in the audience, surrounded by other Japanese Americans, listening to people describe their experiences, in some cases, for the very first time. The rapt audience cheered for the speakers, while also weeping with them.
“It’s really quite an emotional process when I reopen and read some testimonies here and there,” Lee said. “I can actually remember the people. Their voices come back into my thinking. There's a healing thing about being heard, being listened to finally. It wasn't just for the commissioners.”
The bill granting reparations passed on Aug. 4, 1988. The package included $20,000 for each survivor, a letter of apology from President George H.W. Bush and a federal grant program to fund public education projects about Japanese American incarceration.
“It gave me a sense that it really honored my ancestors,” Lee said. “I think that’s the first feeling I had — happiness for them. Maybe not happiness, but just that it reversed the terrible silence surrounding the camps and what they had to live through.”
In total, just over two-thirds of the people incarcerated received monetary reparations. Many, like Lee’s grandparents, passed away before they could receive a payment. While the checks didn’t repay Japanese Americans for what was lost, Lee said the money provided recognition.
Tamaki said it was being viewed as an American — deserving of an apology and compensation — that mattered most.
“That's the problem for all people of color, this concept that you're a perpetual foreigner, you're not a real American,” he said.
It was the way Black Americans organized during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that galvanized Japanese Americans to demand reparations, according to Tamaki.
“We grew up not knowing who we were. Racism becomes so pervasive that it's normal. We saw ourselves as second-class citizens,” he said. “It wasn’t until the Black civil rights movement that our community, my father included, and others began to realize that this is not normal. This is not the way it should be. And I think that motivated him to testify.”
This summer, the task force Tamaki is part of will host listening sessions across the state, in partnership with UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. Black Californians are invited to share how the legacy of slavery has affected their lives and what kinds of reparations would be meaningful.
“For those who think that the current reparations effort for Black Americans is a pipe dream, that it's impossible, I remind them that, actually, it was done before,” Tamaki said. “It's going to take all of us to change this country. It can't be done by Black people alone.”
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