In a stunning reversal of direction, the US Justice Department announced Feb. 27 that Japanese American railroad and mine workers—fired from their jobs in the early stages of World War II—and their families will be eligible for redress under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Originally, the Office of Redress Administration had ruled that only Japanese Americans who were held as inmates in concentration camps were eligible to receive redress. But new documentation presented early last month convinced Justice Department officials that the government was involved in the forced firing of railroad workers.
The announcement was made at a small ceremony in Los Angeles’ “Little Tokyo” district by several representatives from community organizations and railroad worker families. Representing the Justice Department was Bill Lann Lee, the recently appointed Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
“I am pleased that the federal government could come through for these individuals who suffered these hardships. I hope that this will finally end a tragic period in American history for these workers and their families,” Lee said.
Officials from ORA had previous stated the evidence was “not compelling enough. We want to pay them… [but] the problem is we have letters from the presidents of the railroad companies that said it was their ‘own actions.’”
The case languished for many years while advocates pressed forward with letter writing and media campaigns. Then on Feb. 11, a new lobbying delegation visited congressmen and Lee at the Justice Department to renew their cause.
This time they carried documents that were uncovered by Michi Weglyn, author of Years of Infamy, and Andrew Russell, a graduate student at Arizona State University who wrote a master’s thesis on the situation of Japanese Americans in wartime Nevada.
Russell’s thesis stated the federal government was responsible for the dismissal of most of the railroad workers.
Japanese Americans and their families were imprisoned in their homes or evicted from their railroad-owned houses in remote western towns.
“What we fought for in six years, they decided in two weeks,” said Fumi Shimada, a Sacramento resident and an active campaign worker who was at the ceremony. Shimada credited the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, the Japanese American Citizens League and Weglyn for the victory.
“They wouldn’t listen to us individually,” Weglyn said, and praised Russell for his research. She said she had been prepared to ‘go down fighting’ all the way to the Supreme Court.”
JACL spokesman Al Muratsuchi issued this statement: “The Japanese American community should applaud Mr. Lee for recognizing the injustices facing the railroad and mine workers and their families, and for taking immediate action to resolve this matter.”
Paul Horiuchi Jr., whose father is the renowned artist Paul Horiuchi Sr., said he received a phone call from the ORA on Mar. 3.
The call was a confirmation that his father’s application for redress would be honored. Paul Horiuchi Jr. said when his father, then 19, was given a foreman’s job at the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming, he was considered an upstanding member in his community.
“Union Pacific was planned as a lifelong commitment for my father, his brother, and their father before them,” he said.
Shortly after the U.S. declared war against Japan in 1942, Paul was fired without explanation and thrown out overnight without compensation. For a time Horiuchi, along with several other Japanese families, lived in a chicken coop lent to them by a black family.
While visiting relatives in Minidoka—the wartime concentration camp in Idaho—Horiuchi “saw two full bottles of milk on each table inverted to mix the cream. We were shocked at the luxury… life at the camp was better than our predicament.”
Denied admission to Minidoka, the family wandered through Wyoming, Utah and ended up in Spokane, WA, where Horiuchi found work in a body and fender shop.
Horiuchi Jr. said, “My father always felt that we were unfairly treated.” But now, he said he feels some satisfaction that their ordeal has finally been acknowledge.
Still in the air is another campaign for redress on behalf of the 2,264 Latin American Japanese kidnapped from Central and South America and interned in American camps during World War II. A lawsuit filed two years ago in Los Angeles is still pending. Their legal status has been clouded because in most cases critical papers were lost. The court is considering two motions by the end of this month: one from the government to dismiss; the other to give all persons class certification. There are an estimated 1,800 former abductees currently alive.
The Justice Department’s Office of Redress urges others who may be eligible under this new interpretation to apply.