The Magazine


Feb 15, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 21 • By MAX SCHULZ
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Once again, the Clinton administration is issuing an apology. With encouragement from his controversial civil rights chief Bill Lann Lee, President Clinton is formally apologizing to a group of Japanese civilians arrested in Latin America and interned in the United States in 1942. Like the apology for slavery the president proffered last year in Africa, this one blames past misdeeds on the nation's endemic racism; unlike the apology for slavery, however, the current mea culpa stands in flat defiance of the truth.

The spur for the new apology was a class-action lawsuit filed against the U.S. government in 1994. The suit claimed reparations on behalf of 2,264 Japanese seized shortly after Pearl Harbor and placed in internment camps in the United States. Some of these people were consular officials and their dependents representing the Empire of the Rising Sun in Latin American countries; others were Japanese nationals living, for the most part, in Peru. Many were soon repatriated to Japan in exchange for Americans held prisoner by the Japanese.

The suit was originally given little chance of success. Congress, after all, had explicitly excluded these foreigners in drafting the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. That law provided reparations and a presidential apology to the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry unjustly interned in their own country during World War II.

Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department recently announced that it was reversing course and settling the case, which previously it had worked to have dismissed. Worse, the settlement filed on January 25 provides the plaintiffs not only cash compensation of $ 5,000 apiece but also a letter from the president deploring a "serious injustice . . . rooted in racial prejudice and wartime hysteria."

In reality, the Japanese from Latin America, far from being singled out for their ethnicity, were in the same position as some 700 Germans and Italians -- nationals of the two other powers with which the United States was engaged in worldwide hostilities -- who were also rounded up in Latin America and used in prisoner exchanges during the war.

The Justice Department's bizarre about-face in a case it was virtually certain to win testifies to this administration's hypersensitivity to suggestions of racism. And it reflects the tenacity of a civil-rights attorney with well-placed friends -- though not the law -- on his side.

The prime mover of the suit on behalf of the Latin American Japanese has been attorney Robin Toma. Like Bill Lann Lee, Toma is a veteran of civil-rights battles in California. Long associated with the American Civil Liberties Union, he was recently hired as a consultant to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. To advance the cause of his Latin American Japanese clients, he helped form the Campaign for Justice, a public-advocacy organization operating in conjunction with the ACLU.

The Campaign for Justice engineered a successful media campaign on behalf of Toma's case that relied on obfuscation. Specifically, it treated the Japanese from Latin America as if their situation were no different from that of the Japanese-Americans interned during the war. Toma and company argued that, like the U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens confined in 1942 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Japanese from Latin America had seen their civil liberties violated because of the color of their skin. They therefore deserved the same $ 20,000 award and apology Congress had granted to the Japanese-Americans. Virtually every story and editorial written about the case in the major national media has assumed that the Latin American Japanese naturally deserved the same treatment as the Japanese-Americans.

But the Campaign for Justice is not the only source of information about this obscure historical episode. In drafting its reparations bill, Congress relied heavily on a 1982 report produced by the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians entitled "Personal Justice Denied." This study contains a section on the Japanese from Latin America. After wrestling with the lack of detailed records, it concludes that, of some 2,400 Japanese internees from Latin America, 1,100 were deported to Japan in July 1942, and another 1,300 left New York for Japan in September 1943, in prisoner exchanges. The majority of these people, the report asserts, were consular officials and their families. During the same period, about 700 Germans and Italians from Latin America were also interned in the United States; 500 of the Germans were repatriated in 1942 in exchange for U.S. prisoners of war.