Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress reflects upon historic grassroots movement

Nichi Bei Weekly Contributor

LOS ANGELES — Members and friends of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) celebrated the activist organization's achievements, especially its victorious campaign for redress, during its 30th anniversary party on Sept. 25 in Little Tokyo. The 45 celebrants at the Teramachi condominium complex were treated to a potluck lunch, viewed a video about NCRR's activities, toasted the anniversary with Champagne and heard several individuals speak of their experiences as part of the civil rights organization.

Alan Nishio, co-founder of NCRR (originally the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations), told Nichi Bei Weekly that NCRR got started in 1980 after the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and others had campaigned successfully to repeal the McCarran Act's Title 11, the McCarthy-era law allowing the government to incarcerate people they considered subversive.

Coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, we learned more about what happened in World War ll to Japanese Americans, that it was a gross injustice, and we understood that if we didn't stand up as a community and fight for our rights, then no one was going to," he stated.

NCRR's focus was on winning not just an apology but monetary reparations, Nishio emphasized. "After talking to Edison Uno of the JACL and others, we knew this made sense. But I thought early on that JACL is not going to carry this, because they were dominated by the Mike Masaokas and others who were going to settle for an apology... JACL represented only a certain segment of the community, largely professional, white-collar, Protestant, more assimilated. We thought they don't represent the gardeners, the truck drivers, the Buddhists and others. We felt that if we were going to win, we would have to speak as a community."

The activists began to realize they could prevail after the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) hearings of 1981 in 10 cities with significant Nikkei populations and the release of its report, "Personal Justice Denied," Nishio said. 'The federal commission recommended redress and reparations, so that's when we thought we really could win."

Going to Washington, D.C. with a 120 member delegation in 1987 to lobby for passage of the redress bill was the high point, he emphasized. “These were not the people who would naturally be going to Washington D.C. to lobby for anything, so they were a little intimidated. What was nice was that you could see the confidence build as they met with congressional leaders.”

Even after President Ronald Reagan signed the bill on August 10, 1988, NCRR learned redress needed to gain authorization and an appropriation, “so we had to battle some more. Senator Daniel Inouye, knowing the ropes in terms of entitlement funds, stepped forward. We have to be very grateful to him.”

NCRR did not win redress alone, Nishio said, but it was “an integral part of a successful campaign, “along with the coram nobis team (that overturned the wartime convictions of Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi), Bill Hohri and National Council for Japanese American Redress, and the Japanese American Citizens League and Grant Ujifusa.

According to Nishio, the Los Angeles chapter of NCRR worked "very closely" with those in the Bay Area "NCRR activists such as Sox Kitashima worked tirelessly in a grassroots effort to educate and involve members of the Nikkei community on the importance of speaking out and getting involved in the redress campaign," he recalled. "Her efforts in redress were legendary. Her commitment exemplified the spirit and dedication of our community that ultimately led to victory."

`Exhilarating was the word'

Hawaii born Lillian Nakano, along with her late husband Bert, was one of the founding members in 1980 of NCRR. "We felt strongly it was important for the community to get involved because it's the people's issue," explained Nakano, who spent wartime with her family in concentration camps at Jerome, Arkansas and Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

When redress became a reality, "exhilarating was the word," Nakano said. "It was wonderful, especially because so many people got so active. It's good to see people fight for it." The Redress Movement was the highlight of her activities, she declared. "When we started NCRR, redress became the biggest issue in the community... It was important not only to gain redress, but when people get involved, they become empowered."

Getting the Issei involved

Richard Katsuda, NCRR co-chair, was working at Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service in San Jose, trying to get Issei involved in the 1981 Commission hearings at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "I remember one feisty woman at the center who said she had nothing to say, but when I asked her how about doing it for the sake of her grandchildren, we were able to get her and four other Issei to testify at the hearings," Katsuda reported.

After the redress victory in 1988, NCRR heard about persons who were denied redress, and realized the fight was not over, he said. NCRR and volunteer attorneys found the “smoking gun,” evidence showing the U.S. government was involved in the firing of these railroad workers, and mine workers by the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroad companies. As a result of that evidence, those railroad and mine workers and the families became eligible for redress in 1998.

Japanese Latin Americans still haven’t received equity in redress, he complained. I’m not sure what’s going to happen in Congress. For us in NCRR, winning individual redress for those folks was very important, but we’ve always felt it’s equally important to educate the public about what happened to Japanese Americans during World war ll and what happened to Japanese Latin Americans and others denied their civil liberties during the war.

Mission accomplished

"When redress legislation passed, there was a sense of 'mission accomplished,' especially for the Nisei," said NCRR Co-chair Kathy Masaoka. "One lady said, `Now I can put away my birth certificate. I don't have to carry it around with me to prove that I'm a citizen.' That's when I thought we've won."

One important NCRR highlight for Masaoka was going to Japan after the redress bill passed and realizing that winning reparations in the U.S. had a lot of meaning for people in Japan, especially for the minorities, she said. "For Koreans in Japan, it was particularly meaningful because they felt the Japanese government owed them redress for how they had been treated... I think it has made them stronger in terms of their own identity as Koreans in Japan."

Also of importance was getting to know the Muslim community, she stated. "We didn't want the camps to happen to any other group of people, but we didn't realize how significant that lesson was going to be until 9/11. The Muslim community has to fight the same battle almost 10 years after 9/11. We have to educate people about the camps. That's the legacy of redress."

Most important thing ever

Going to Washington with a grassroots delegation to meet with members of Congress "was the single most important thing I've ever done in my life," exclaimed Guy Aoki. "We felt really empowered going to Washington and trying to pass something to benefit the people who were hurt... I felt they needed to be told by the government,, 'It wasn't your fault, it was our fault, we’re sorry.

Disturbed about the anti-Japanese publicity during the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and concerned about how the media characterized Asians, he said, “I felt that we can’t just wait for the media to beat us up… That’s when I started trying to find interested people in forming a group, MANNA (or Media Action Network for Asian Americans.”
Aoki recalled that NCRR held a press conference in December of 1991, to reunite Dachau survivors with Nisei veterans from the 522nd Artillery Battalion (of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team), which had rescued the Jewish and other prisoners at the death camp. “We wanted to show that we were put into internment camps, we weren’t trusted, and yet we fought for our country and we rescued another group of people who were oppressed by their own country.

Crediting NCRR with teaching him about leadership, running meetings, press conferences and how to get attention for an issue in the media, Aoki said, “NCRR has really good people. They’re selfless and don’t try to take credit for stuff; they really care about the community.”