National Council for Japanese American Redress


The National Council for Japanese Americans Redress (NCJAR) was formed for the sole purpose of organizing a national effort to obtain redress for people of Japanese descent who had been imprisoned in United States concentration camps during World War II. Originally favoring a legislative approach to reparations, the group broke from the Japanese American Citizens League over support for a study commission approach in 1979 and subsequently became best known for instituting a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government for damages caused by the wartime exclusion and incarceration.[1]

Contents

Founding

The group formed in May 1979 in Seattle but moved its base to Chicago when William Minoru Hohri, then living in Chicago, agreed to lead the group. The Seattle group was largely made up of dissident members of the Seattle JACL chapter. They included Frank Abe, Frank Chin, Chuck Kato, Rod Kawakami, Ron Mamiya, Mitch Matsudaira, Henry Miyatake, Tomio Moriguchi, Shosuke Sasaki, Emi Somekawa and Kathy Wong. Karen Seriguchi supported them from San Francisco. New York resident Michi Nishiura Weglyn, author of Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps, connected the Seattle group with Hohri. The name for the organization was formulated at the May 1979 meeting.

Hohri was noncommittal about leading the group at the May 1979 Seattle meeting but two weeks later, accepted the challenge. Hohri adopted Frank Fujii's "ichi-ni-san" barbed wire symbol from Seattle's first Day of Remembrance as the masthead for NCJAR's monthly newsletter.

The Seattle group had secured a campaign promise from freshman U.S. Congressman Mike Lowry to introduce a redress bill, and Sasaki had drafted a proposed bill. Lowry kept his promise and introduced a NCJAR-backed redress bill on November 28, 1979, although the final bill was significantly altered from the original Seattle proposal. The legislation was the first to call for direct monetary reparations to Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, a sum of $15,000 per person plus $15 for each day of imprisonment. That same year, legislation supporting a study commission was introduced in the Senate in August and in the House in September and was supported by the JACL and the Japanese American congressional delegation.

No one had any illusions that the Lowry Redress Bill would pass. What the bill did, however, was express the will of a segment of the Japanese American community and their supporters, who accepted that Constitutional violations had taken place and therefore, felt legislation should go straight to discussing financial redress.

The study commission bill passed in 1980 and established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). NCJAR knew that redress legislation could not be introduced again until the rounds of the study commission hearings were held and the final report completed.

Class Action Suit

In the meantime, NCJAR decided to focus its attention on the courts. Hohri contacted Jack Herzig, who connected NCJAR with the Washington DC-based law firm of Landis, Cohen, Singman and Rauh. Jack and Aiko Herzig had agreed to become NJCAR's Washington DC representatives.

When NCJAR met with attorneys B. Michael Rauh and Benjamin Zelenko, they proposed that a year be set aside to prepare for the case and that the firm hire a younger, less expensive attorney to work on the lawsuit full-time. The law firm set the initial legal fee at $75,000 to be paid in installments over a year.

NCJAR started a fundraising campaign, using the well-known story of the 47 ronin or masterless samurai, asking for ronin contributors to donate one thousand dollars each. NCJAR's mailing list started out from the Hohris' Christmas card list and expanded to 3,500. The public was updated through NCJAR's newsletter, which was written by William and typed up by his wife Yuriko. The NCJAR board members and core supporters then collated, folded, stamped and labeled the 3,500 newsletters. The bulk of NCJAR's donations came through the ronins, which NCJAR recognized by placing their names on the letterhead. Other donations came through book and t-shirt sales.

On May 5, 1981, NCJAR signed a contract with the law firm of Landis, Cohen, Singman and Rauh and remitted an initial check of $15,000. In November 1981, the law firm hired Ellen Godbey Carson to work on the NCJAR case. By January 1983, NCJAR was able to raise enough funds to fulfill the $75,000 commitment to the law firm.

The NCJAR class action lawsuit was filed on March 16, 1983. The group sued the U.S. government for $27 billion for injuries suffered as a result of the World War II exclusion and imprisonment of Japanese Americans in U.S. concentration camps. NCJAR spelled out 22 causes of action and sought $10,000 for each cause of action, which came out to $220,000. By multiplying $220,000 by 125,000 former camp inmates, the total came to $27.5 billion. The lawsuit not only addressed property losses but the value of constitutional and civil rights violations.

The U.S. government was represented by attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice. Lead attorney Jeffrey Axelrad filed a motion to dismiss based on three defenses: the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 as the exclusive remedy for losses; protection of sovereign immunity; and the expiration of the statute of limitations. NCJAR attorneys filed an opposition to the government's motion to dismiss on July 15, 1983. But on May 17, 1984, Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer handed down a ruling granting the government's motion to dismiss.

NCJAR filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Sept. 24, 1985. A three judge panel issued a two-to-one decision in favor of NCJAR. The victory was partial since the issue of sovereign immunity remained and the 22 causes of action were reduced to one. Not satisfied with a single cause of action, NCJAR filed a request to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, as did the DOJ. Their request was granted.

On April 20, 1987, the NCJAR case went before the Supreme Court. U.S. Solicitor General Charles Fried replaced Axelrad. The Supreme Court remanded the case to be heard by the Court of Appeals in the Federal Circuit, which handed down a two-to-one ruling on May 11, 1988, upholding the U.S. District Court's ruling.

One Aug. 5, 1988, NCJAR filed a second writ of certiorari, a request for a review by the Supreme Court. Five days after NCJAR's filing, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed and signed into law. On Halloween Day 1988, the Supreme Court issued a ruling denying the request for certiorari.

Impact on Redress Bill and Dissolution

During the time the NCJAR lawsuit was before the Supreme Court, the redress bill was making its way through Congress, and NCJAR's impact on the redress bill has been debated.

During the House debate on H.R. 442, the House version of the redress bill, Congressman Barney Frank brought up the NCJAR lawsuit, saying if the bill failed to pass, there was a pending NCJAR lawsuit that was asking for far more in monetary compensation. "So this might well save the Government money. Nobody can be sure. I would not bet on the success of that lawsuit but there is a lawsuit, and what we are saying is that here is an offer of a settlement, and if you accept that, then you are out of the lawsuit. It is an absolute bar to people pursuing the lawsuit, where if they are allowed to sue the Government and the Government is admittedly at fault, the damages would be far greater than anything in here."[2]

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga recalled that after the House passed H.R. 442, Congressman E. Clay Shaw Jr., told her and her husband, Jack Herzig, that the NCJAR lawsuit did help to persuade some House of Representative members to vote in favor of the bill.

While the NCJAR class action lawsuit was not connected to the redress bill, NCJAR's lawsuit, along with the coram nobis cases of Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Minoru Yasui, received widespread media attention. The combination of these different national efforts may have contributed to educating elected officials and the general public about what had occurred during World War II, and to view the $20,000 per former inmate compensation in the redress bill as minimal in comparison to the scope of what had occurred, thus influencing elected officials to vote in favor of the redress bill.

Once the Supreme Court's verdict was handed down, NCJAR disbanded. The board voted to donate remaining monies to the American Friends Service Committee and the books to a San Francisco bookstore.

Authored by Martha Nakagawa

For More Information

Hohri, William. "Redress as a Movement Towards Enfranchisement." 196-99. In Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. Edited by Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986. Revised edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

__________. Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese American Redress. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1988.

Maki, Mitchell T., Harry H.L. Kitano, and S. Megan Berthold. Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress. Forewords Robert T. Matsui and Roger Daniels. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Murray, Alice Yang. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Footnotes

  1. Sources for this article include correspondence with William and Yuriko Hori and Frank Abe.
  2. Rep. Barney Frank, Sept. 17, 1987, Congressional Record.