Righting a Wrong

About one-third of those deemed “loyal” left the concentration camps by the end of 1944 but were not allowed to return to the West Coast until 1945. Early returnees to the coast often received a rude reception from those opposed to their return. With the war’s end, the camps were quickly closed down by the end of 1945 (with the exception of Tule Lake). Many inmates were forcibly evicted from the camps and sent back to where they had come from over three years earlier.

Japanese Americans started over and slowly reestablished their communities. Those who settled in areas outside the West Coast contemplated moving back home, and many did in the decade after the war, though many also stayed and built new communities. Those who returned to the coast found very different conditions. Prewar Little Tokyos were no more, with African Americans and other ethnic minorities having settled in some of them. Returning Japanese Americans faced fierce competition for jobs and housing. In rural areas, many Japanese Americans lost their farms and had to start over as farm laborers.

At the same time, the popular image of Japanese Americans dramatically shifted in the years after World War II. Many Americans came to recognize that the wartime incarceration had been a “mistake,” and at the same time Japanese Americans and their allies cited the heroism of Nisei soldiers in appeals for fair treatment and the turning back of racist legislation such as the alien land laws and the ban on Issei naturalization. Japanese Americans were soon being proclaimed a “model minority.”

But the postwar silence about traumas of their incarceration took a toll, and younger Japanese Americans inspired by 1960s social movements began to press for a true reckoning of their wartime experiences and, eventually, for reparations for their incarceration. What would become known as the “Redress Movement” took flight in the 1970s and led eventually to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided a presidential apology and $20,000 payments to surviving former detainees. Also during the 1980s, the discovery that the federal government had consciously withheld information about the military necessity of mass removal from the Supreme Court in 1944 led the wartime defendants to seek to reopen their cases, resulting in their convictions being overturned. In the post-redress period, Japanese Americans have sought to make their wartime experiences better known in order to try to prevent such governmental abuses from happening again to other groups.

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