July 28, 2021

In July 1981, congressional hearings on Japanese American WWII incarceration began in the nation’s capitol. For two days, witnesses spoke out to expose the cruel facts and painful memories surrounding this history, and to lend their voices to a growing call for reparations. It was the first of eleven hearings that would make their way across the country, culminating in an official acknowledgement that the wartime government had acted on racial prejudice rather than “military necessity” — and a recommendation for monetary redress.

The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was created in 1980, after more than a decade of grassroots organizing and political lobbying. The nine-member committee, appointed by President Jimmy Carter and members of the House and Senate, was charged with investigating the facts surrounding the WWII exclusion of Japanese Americans, Aleut civilians forcibly removed from Alaska, and other American citizens and permanent residents.

Ultimately, more than 750 witnesses testified about the impact of the incarceration and its aftermath on their families and communities — many of them for the first time. “The hearings were electric,” Miya Iwataki, a core member of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations, later wrote of the Los Angeles hearings. “Each testimony was a living narrative, a shared history which brought people closer together.”

As we mark this pivotal anniversary in the Japanese American redress movement, here’s a look back at some of the powerful images and testimonies that emerged during the CWRIC hearings.

Members of the CWRIC committee, two women and a man, standing in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Members of the CWRIC committee in Washington, D.C. for the first redress hearings in July 1981. Paul Bannai (right) served as executive director of the Commission. Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Japanese Americans walking into the hearing room in Washington, D.C.
Witnesses and attendees entering the hearings in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Three staffers at a desk outside the hearing room. Signs on the wall read "Witness Registration, Wartime Relocation Commission Hearing." Two women are seated at the desk and a man is squatting on the floor with his back turned to the camera.
The witness registration desk outside the hearings in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Japanese American witnesses seated at a table preparing to give testimony. There are microphones and glasses of water on the table and onlookers seated and standing against the wall behind them.
Several witnesses prepared to testify in front of a packed room. Pictured from left to right are JACL representatives James Tsujimura, John Tateishi, and Minoru Yasui; and Sasha Hohri of East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress. Reading a statement from Concerned Japanese Americans (which, along with ECJAR, helped bring the CWRIC hearings to New York), Hohri described the impact of the forced removal on Japanese Americans who resettled on the East Coast and called upon the commission to recommend reparations: “We have waited too long. We will be quiet no longer.” Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Gordon Hirabayashi seated at a table speaking into a microphone.
Gordon Hirabayashi testifying before the commission in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Yuri Kochiyama reading a written statement and speaking into a microphone. Next to her is another Japanese American woman looking on.
Yuri Kochiyama reading her testimony at the hearings in Washington, D.C. Yuri and her husband Bill were core members of East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress. During Bill’s testimony at the New York hearings in November 1981, Yuri and others marched into the proceedings carrying artwork that had been banned by the CWRIC for being openly political. Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Several Japanese Americans seated at a table with microphones. Closest to the camera is William Hohri, who is reading a written statement into a microphone.
William Hohri reading a statement on behalf of the National Council for Japanese American Redress, which formed in 1979 to explicitly seek out monetary redress for survivors and descendants of WWII incarceration. Though NCJAR was initially opposed the Commission as a “token” that “would serve only to delay justice long overdue,” Hohri participated in the D.C. hearings and gave a pointed testimony demanding “reparations for the deprivation of our civil and constitutional rights; for wrongful evacuation, detention, and imprisonment and the suspension of due process; for our loss of income, property, and education; for the degradation of internment and evacuation and for the psychological, social, and cultural damage inflicted by our government.” Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Members of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians listening to testimony.
Members of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians during the D.C. hearings in July 1981. Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and others seated in the hearings and listening to testimony.
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (center) listening to testimony in Washington, D.C. — clearly unimpressed. Herzig-Yoshinaga headed the CWRIC research team and found indisputable proof that the wartime removal was based on race rather than “military necessity.” Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
Lillian Baker seated alone at the witness table giving testimony. Behind her is an audience of mostly Japanese Americans.
Lillian Baker, a white war widow who founded the revisionist group “Americans for Historical Accuracy” and is best remembered for her tenacious racism, in Washington, D.C. in July 1981. Baker’s testimony — which is hot garbage, but worth the hate read if you’re into that — described Japanese Americans seeking reparations as “shameless” and called it a “blessing” that most of the Issei were “deceased and therefore cannot witness” the proceedings. She would appear again at the CWRIC hearings in Los Angeles the following month, where she infamously assaulted Nisei veteran James Kawaminami and had to be escorted out by security after attempting to rip his written testimony out of his hands. Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection
Members of the press filming the hearings.
Camera crews filming the proceedings in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Paul Bannai Collection.
CWRIC hearing in Los Angeles. Several witnesses are seated at a table facing the commission, and behind them the room is completely full.
Additional hearings took place in Los Angeles in early August 1981. Photo by Roy Nakano.
People seated on the grass outside the California State Building where the Los Angeles hearings took place. An NCRR banner is visible in the background.
The grassroots National Coalition for Redress/Reparations played a major role in mobilizing the Japanese American community to attend the L.A. hearings and give testimony. NCRR successfully pressured the CWRIC to make the hearings more accessible by providing simultaneous interpretation in Japanese and hosting an evening session for working people who could not attend during the day. In between sessions, NCRR organizers provided food and briefings on the proceedings for those who were not able to get into the crowded hearing rooms. Courtesy of NCRR Archives
Martha Okamoto speaking into a microphone at a CWRIC hearing in Los Angeles. She has a pained expression, and a man seated next to her is assisting her with the microphone.
Manzanar survivor Martha Okamoto gave an emotional testimony during the L.A. hearings, in which she recounted the killing of her brother, James Okamoto, by camp guards during the Manzanar Riot in 1942. Courtesy of NCRR Archives.
Several witnesses seated at a table prepared to give testimony at the Seattle redress hearings.
CWRIC hearings were held in Seattle in September 1981. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Issei witnesses Masao Takahashi and Hotoru Matsudaira, who testified at the Seattle redress hearings, and Mako Nakagawa, Masao’s daughter, who served as their interpreter.
Mako Nakagawa (center) served as an interpreter for Issei witnesses at the Seattle hearings. She is pictured here with her father, Masao Takahashi, and Hotoru Matsudaira, who is described in the accompanying caption as “a feisty 79-year-old grandmother” who had some strong words for Senator S. I. Hayakawa’s claims that the incarceration was a “three-year vacation.” Courtesy of the Historical Society of Long Beach, Long Beach, California.
Frank Abe testifying at a Seattle redress hearing. He is holding up a poster from the first Day of Remembrance, which he helped organize in 1978.
Journalist Frank Abe holds up a poster from the first Day of Remembrance, which he helped organize in November 1978, during his testimony before the CWRIC in Seattle: “What I saw [at that first DOR] was that the grassroots support for redress and reparations existed among Nikkei of all ages. I saw that two-thirds of the participants were the Nisei ex-internees of the camps who had come to stand for redress for their families.” Photo by Stan Shikuma for Asian Family Affair.

By Nina Wallace, Densho Communications Coordinator