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Japanese American Activists Demand Reparations For Black Americans

An image of Japanese Americans holding long poles with banners that bear the names of camps where their forebears were incarcerated during World War 2. The camp names include Manzanar and Tule Lake.
Japanese Americans who fought for reparations for being incarcerated during World War II are now lending their support to Blacks who want redress for the nation's history of slavery and discrimination.
(Josie Huang
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At the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo, where a dozen people were meeting after work hours, the evening started with a round of soba tea.

Listen: Why Japanese American Activists Say 'We Have To Speak Up'

Writer and activist traci kato-kiriyama raised a cup to the roomful of Japanese American volunteers ranging in age from their 20s to 70s.

“Can we do a toast for gathering?” kato-kiriyama asked to nods of approval. “For gathering across the country to support reparations.”

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On this recent evening, Los Angeles was one of multiple cities where Japanese Americans were meeting to work on the redress campaign for Black Americans. The goal was the same here as it was in San Jose, Oakland, Portland, St. Paul, Chicago and Brooklyn: mail hundreds of letters in support of reparations legislation to top House leaders before Congress enters its August recess.

A woman in her 70s and man in their 20s arrange envelopes on a desk.
Kathy Masaoka, left, helps to organize a letter-writing party for H.R. 40.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

For these volunteers, supporting Black reparations is a moral imperative both as humans and as descendants of people who won redress from the U.S. government for false imprisonment during World War II.

It pains kato-kiriyama to think of how her parents and grandparents were among 120,000 people who were forced into camps after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor because of their Japanese ancestry. But she said it’s even more overwhelming to think of how Black Americans have lived through centuries of injury and injustice.

“I can't even imagine having to reckon with understanding my family history to know that generation after generation after generation faced slavery and Jim Crow and systems of oppression,” kato-kiriyama said.

I can't even imagine having to reckon with understanding my family history to know that generation after generation after generation faced slavery and Jim Crow and systems of oppression.
— traci kato-kiriyama

Kathy Masaoka, who joined the Japanese American redress movement as an activist in the 1970s, is now working with Black leaders in their reparations campaign.

“We never felt like we could sit back and say, Oh, we're done, just because we won redress,” said Masaoka, who co-chairs Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress . “There was always a feeling that we have to speak up to support, no matter what, because of our own understanding and experience.”

A group of more than a dozen Japanese American volunteers of different ages sit at desks in a sunny room writing letters in support of reparations for Black Americans.
Volunteers write letters in support of reparations legislation at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center earlier this month.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

Talk of reparations has progressed further this year in Congress than ever before.

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H.R. 40, which would create a federal commission to study and develop reparation plans, was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee in April for the first time since it was introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers in 1989. (You can watch Masaoka's testimony here .)

The bill, now being shepherded by Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, has secured 193 co-sponsors , its most ever. It will need a simple majority of 218 votes to pass out of the House and head to the evenly-divided Senate, where it would face an even tougher battle. Some of the bill’s supporters say a strong showing in the House could help convince President Joe Biden, who has signaled support for reparations , to create a commission by executive order.

The sense of urgency was palpable in the Little Tokyo community center as volunteers with Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress and Nikkei Progressives stuffed envelopes and wrote letters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies in hopes they would schedule a vote for the bill in the waning days of July.

Joining the Little Tokyo group by Zoom call were activists with Tsuru for Solidarity and the Japanese American Citizens League , who were holding letter-writing parties in their respective cities.

A picture of a laptop screen opened to a Zoom call. Japanese American activists appear in the different squares.
Activists held letter-writing parties in different cities in support of H.R. 40 earlier this month.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

Kamm Howard of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America said it’s important to keep up momentum for the bill, which is why he's heartened to see the mobilization by Japanese American activists.

“What our Japanese American friends have done is broaden allyship, broaden the support,” Howard said. “It’s not just from the Black community, but we have people who are just as loving and feel that this is an issue that has to be addressed.”

Photo of Black man with gray hair
Kamm Howard is co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America
(Courtesy of Kamm Howard)

Reparations are being adopted and explored on a state and local level and by institutions such as schools . But Howard said it is the Japanese American campaign for redress that serves as the model for the current reparations push through Congress because of its focus on setting up a commission through H.R. 40.

“A Whole New Window”

The Japanese American commission hearings took place in 1981. Activists such as Jan Tokumaru were initially skeptical.

Like other sansei Japanese Americans born during or after the war, the civil rights movement had shown her that the past needed remedying. Not only had Japanese Americans like her grandparents lost their freedom during their incarceration, but also their homes, farms, businesses — their lives as they knew it.

Her own grandparents were no longer living, but Tokumaru wanted to see monetary reparations go to other survivors, and she worried the commission would only slow the path to redress.

“We felt that the facts are already in history, why should we have to spend time doing that?” Tokumaru said.

Members of the Mochida family awaiting transport to a camp.
(Dorothea Lange/Getty Images
Hulton Archive)

Still others in the community found it unseemly to demand redress from the government.

But attitudes including Tokumaru’s shifted as it became clear that the hearings offered people center stage to share a chapter in their lives that many avoided discussing with their own children out of shame and trauma. Hundreds testified as the commission, at the urging of activists, traveled the country, holding hearings in cities including Los Angeles.

Masaoka spoke on behalf of her late mother, who had been incarcerated.

“There was just a lot of emotion and anger, people banging the table,” Masaoka recalled. “A lot of the younger people said, ‘We didn't know our community had those kind of feelings and could express it that way.’ But they do.”

Replica camp barracks stand at Manzanar National Historic Site on December 9, 2015 near Independence, Calif.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Getty Images North America)

The hearings, which were covered in the press, not only educated the rest of the American public about the wartime incarceration, but further galvanized the grassroots redress movement.

“It turned out that it became a whole new window of our understanding and reflecting on what really was going on in our own history,” Tokumaru said.

Pressing Questions: How Much Money? Who's Eligible?

Today’s questions about reparations are complex, but at their essence the same as back then: How much money? Who’s eligible?

As a reparations bill for Japanese Americans made its way through Congress, there was also the obvious question: When would Black Americans be given their overdue recourse?

As the National Redress Director of the Japanese American Citizens' League during the 1980s, John Tateishi recalled hearing from Black politicians who said reparations for Black Americans should be Congress’ priority.

He also heard from white Congress members who asked him, “If we do this for you, what are we going to do when Black people come and ask?”

Tateishi recalled: “My response was, ‘I think you should listen to them. If any group deserves it, it's African Americans.'”

Some prominent Black leaders lent key support to the Japanese American movement, including members of California’s congressional delegation, Reps. Mervyn Dymally of Los Angeles and Ron Dellums of Oakland.

From the House floor, Dellums recalled how as a child, he watched his best friend, a 6-year-old Japanese American boy, driven away to camp, screaming.

“This 6-year-old Black American child screamed back, ‘Don’t take my friend!’,” Dellums said. “No one could help me understand that, Mr. Chairman. No one.”

"A Moment Of Joy"

In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act , issuing $20,000 to each of the survivors and formal apologies. President Ronald Reagan, who earlier had threatened to veto the bill, apologized during the bill-signing ceremony.

"Yes, the nation was then at war, struggling for its survival," Reagan said. "And it's not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that, a mistake."

Conyers introduced H.R. 40 the following year, a reference to the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule made to formerly enslaved people after the Civil War.

The bill had been introduced every Congress since, going nowhere until 2020 happened.

Howard, of the reparations coalition, said the combination of demonstrations for George Floyd and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans brought ongoing discrimination into focus for those outside the Black community. A commission would help uncover the extent of racial inequities in everything from education to housing.

"There's so much injury in our community, families," Howard said. "[Reparations] would begin the process to heal and repair and wholeness."

A person with long pink hair that's shaved on the side smiles while looking at a laptop open to a Zoom meeting.
traci kato-kiriyama talks with Japanese American activists in other cities via Zoom.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

That’s something traci kato-kiriyama saw first-hand with her grandmother, a Japanese immigrant. The $20,000 that survivors received was not seen by all as commensurate with what was lost, but it was still welcomed by her grandmother, who was 100 years old and in a wheelchair when she was flown to Washington, D.C. in 1990 for a public presentation of redress payments.

"She was a very old issei woman and was able to get that check and that apology in person in D.C.," kato-kiriyama said. "And that was so important to her. It was like a moment of joy."

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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