Community leaders honored for leadership in Japanese American WWII reparation efforts in Hawaiʻi
Bill Kaneko was in his late 20s when the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed. It provided compensation for the Japanese who were unlawfully evacuated and incarcerated during World War II.
Kaneko was president of the Japanese American Citizens League’s Honolulu chapter. The young team — all in their 20s and 30s and mostly volunteers — worked to get restitution for 3,000 to 4,000 Japanese in Hawaiʻi.
He and other local and national leaders were honored last week by the JACL Honolulu for their leadership about 30 years ago. It was the first time they had all been together in several decades.
“And that’s the beauty of this story is that… we had this unique opportunity to help our parents and grandparents,” said Kaneko, who is sansei, or third-generation Japanese American. “And we didn’t know the magnitude of what we were doing and who we were up against. Collectively, we just pushed forward.”
This year marks the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal and incarceration of about 122,000 Japanese in Hawaiʻi and on the mainland during World War II. About 70,000 of them were American citizens. None were charged with disloyalty, and they could not appeal the government’s decision.
More than 2,000 Japanese from Hawaiʻi were incarcerated. They were predominantly community, business and religious leaders suspected of disloyalty. But none were found guilty of sabotage, espionage or other acts against the United States.
“It became very personal to hear the stories,” Kaneko said. “It’s heart wrenching. It was devastating.”
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 created the Office of Redress Administration, which apologized and set up a program to provide restitution to those who were incarcerated. Over the next decade, more than 82,000 Japanese received compensation. Each payment was $20,000.
Kaneko said about 1,500 Japanese Americans in Hawaiʻi were also evacuated but not incarcerated, just because they lived near military areas the government deemed sensitive. His father-in-law was one of them. The JACL Honolulu fought for them to get compensation, too.
“They were pretty much forced at gunpoint to leave their homes,” he said. “Nowhere to go, taking their belongings, like what do you do? And so that was a quandary because… there was no roster to be able to verify that they were displaced from their homes.”
Jennifer Mikami had just graduated from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She was one of two researchers who found documents, including the first memo ordering the evacuations, to build the Hawaiʻi team’s case. And they prevailed.
“It really was a gift of a lifetime to be asked to do this work,” said Mikami, who is yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese American. “I think we all grow up thinking you want to make a difference in your lifetime. And to be so young, to have that moment to contribute in a real way, it’s powerful.”
The team’s efforts also impressed national leaders, including Bob Bratt and Joanne Chiedi, who led the Office of Redress Administration. They were also in Hawaiʻi last week as JACL awardees.
“It was long days because these folks were dedicated to what they were doing,” said Bratt, who was the office’s director. “And they were pushing, pushing, pushing. So the group here, we went out and ate together. Bill and I play golf together once in a while, but we worked together.”
Chiedi, who served as deputy director, echoed similar sentiments. Both she and Bratt were also young leaders back then — both in their 20s and 30s.
“We were true partners,” she said. “There was that mutual respect and understanding, which really made it special.”
Kaneko said he and the JACL built on that momentum to continue fighting for civil rights and social justice.
“These events and gatherings really ensure that we remember and we recognize what happened in the past,” he said. ”But more so to appreciate what we have now in terms of our freedoms… so that these kinds of injustices don’t happen again.”