The California Legislature plans to pass a resolution Thursday that would formally apologize to Japanese Americans for their forced incarceration in internment camps in the 1940s. The Day of Remembrance, celebrated Feb. 19 each year, honors the Japanese Americans of that time. While California's apology is a much-needed and important action during the week of the Day of Remembrance, it is too little, too late.
The California resolution will come 30 years after former President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, which formally apologized for the government's actions toward Japanese Americans and gave $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim.
While the attempts to recognize internment are a step forward, more must be done to bring justice for the Japanese American community. Considering the severity of the wrongdoing, U.S. primary schools should more fully teach students about the atrocities committed. In addition, governments and institutions complicit in the transgression should provide tangible reparations for Japanese Americans.
About 120,000 Japanese Americans were moved to so-called relocation centers in Western and Midwestern states, including California and Washington between 1942 and 1945. Two-thirds were native-born American citizens. They were first taken to race tracks, fairgrounds and other open areas to live in military-built assembly centers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who gave the executive order to begin internment, referred to the centers as “concentration camps.”
Some conditions included living in livestock pavilions, which meant sleeping in sheds, stalls and auditorium-like rooms with food, medical and labor shortages. Some citizens in the camps died of disease or were killed for disobeying orders.
Around 18,000 of those encamped were drafted or volunteered to be in the 442nd Regiment, which went on to become the “most decorated regiment in American military history,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
IU has yet to apologize for its own complicity in Japanese American exclusion. A petition written by Eric Langowski, class of 2018, and IU associate history professor Ellen Wu and circulated this year, urged the university to recognize its role in denying admission to applicants between 1942 and 1945 if they had Japanese American ancestry. Langowski and Wu sent the petition to President Michael McRobbie on Wednesday.
Education on Japanese American internment is lacking in the United States. I was not aware of this discrimination until I did my own research when I got to college.
Much like education on slavery and the Jim Crow era, the U.S. must do better to teach students about Japanese American internment. Education on extreme mistreatments of minorities in America is imperative for teaching that racism is unacceptable from an early age.
Melanie Castillo-Cullather, the director of IU's Asian Culture Center, said many students have expressed that they did not become aware of the topic until college. She said more work needs to be done in the U.S. to increase awareness about Asian American and Pacific Islander history.
“Having an awareness of these uglier parts of U.S. history forces us to think about the fragility of democracy and to examine our role and political position when confronted with similar situations,” Castillo-Cullather said.
There are some programs, like those from PBS, that issue lesson plans for educating children on historical atrocities, including the internment of Japanese Americans.
Reparations should also be larger and more tangible. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided $20,000 compensation but did not adequately replace property or opportunities lost.
One 1983 study found Japanese Americans lost potentially billions of dollars in property during World War II. Seized property included land, homes, businesses, cars and boats. Federal and state governments complicit in internment should provide — as they should have decades ago — higher compensation, including land and business assistance.
In addition, educational institutions like IU should issue retroactive diplomas to victims who were denied admission because of their heritage. Universities nationwide should provide programs and funded research for this history.
The Asian Culture Center had an event Wednesday to honor the Day of Remembrance.
“Our Day of Remembrance is a reminder that we cannot be complacent and that we should not let fear and hysteria take over what is just and humane. The event will also remind people not to be silent, but rather to speak out when there is injustice," Castillo-Cullather said.
Without further education and reparations, America’s grave injustice will prevail.
Kailyn Hilycord (she/her) is a senior studying journalism, English and music. She plans to pursue graduate studies in journalism.