Nearly 80 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the military to move thousands of Japanese Americans into internment camps, California plans to formally apologize for its role in their detention.
The resolution, introduced by state Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi on Jan. 28, is expected to receive broad support this week from the rest of the Assembly. While many welcomed the measure, the latest step in the United States’ long reckoning with its imprisonment of American citizens during World War II, some Japanese Americans said it was far overdue.
The resolution said the California Legislature “apologizes to all Americans of Japanese ancestry for its past actions in support of the unjust inclusion, 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.”
The resolution also states that “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.”
An estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans were held in internment camps during World War II after being ordered by the U.S. government to leave their jobs and homes.
They were sent to live in 10 camps in Western states and Arkansas.
The federal government justified the measures as a strategic move to defend the West Coast from spies for Japan, but for decades they have been seen as shortsighted and cruel acts of racism and paranoia.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which declared that the order to relocate Japanese Americans was sparked by “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” That same year, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to give $20,000 and an apology to each of the Japanese Americans forced out of their homes.
And in 2018, the Supreme Court threw out a notorious decision from 1944 that upheld the internments. The decision, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, “was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and — to be clear — ‘has no place in law under the Constitution.’ “
The resolution by Muratsuchi, however, also condemns specific actions taken against Japanese Americans by legislators in his state.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, lawmakers in California approved a resolution that questioned the loyalty of Japanese Americans and residents who held dual citizenships. The resolution also called on the state’s personnel board to fire any state employees “who may be proved disloyal to the United States of America in this present war.”
Paul Tomita, who was about 3 when his family was forced to leave their home in Washington state and relocate to a camp in Idaho, said the resolution felt too late.
“It’s nice, OK, but it was almost 80 years ago, and most of us that were there are dead,” said Tomita, who is now 80.
“Those that were really affected — like my grandparents and parents who lost everything, their businesses, their houses, everything — they’re dead,” he said.
David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, agreed the resolution was long overdue.
“We’re very grateful this is being done,” he said. “California was at the forefront of many of the discriminatory policies that led up to the incarceration.”
Inoue said the resolution felt especially relevant at a time when the Trump administration is introducing policies that target immigrants and people from Muslim-majority countries.
“It’s history repeating itself,” he said.
Tomita said the detention of Latino immigrants at the border reminded him of the prejudice Japanese Americans experienced because they looked different from white Americans.
“Did they set up concentration camps for German Americans or Italian Americans? No,” he said. “You would think we should learn from past history. Of course, we don’t. We seem to be repeating bad acts after so many years of dormancy.”
The move to apologize was unanimously approved by the Assembly’s judiciary committee Feb. 6. Because the proposal is a House Resolution, it needs to be approved only by the Assembly and does not require Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.
Muratsuchi said on Twitter that he would bring the resolution for a full vote Thursday, one day after the Day of Remembrance, which commemorates Roosevelt’s signing the internment order in 1942.
Muratsuchi said it was important to introduce the legislation now because, he said, anti-immigration sentiment has taken hold of much of the political discourse.
“Unfortunately, California led the nation in a very bad way by fanning the flames of racism and scapegoating Japanese Americans,” he said. “California now leads by example, acknowledging our own mistakes.”