Japanese in U.S. Win Right to Sue Over Internment

Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court Tuesday reversed a lower court and ruled that Japanese-Americans interned during World War II may sue the federal government for damages that one plaintiff estimated could total as much as $24 billion.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overruled District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, who held in 1984 that the federal statute of limitations barred the Japanese-Americans from making any claims against the government after six years. The panel voted 2 to 1 to reverse that ruling.

Judge J. Skelly Wright, who wrote the decision for the panel, declared the statutory limit irrelevant. The government has conceded in other cases, Wright said, that the Justice Department concealed evidence showing that the confinement of all Japanese-Americans in the Pacific Coast states was not necessary to preserve the national security.


“Extraordinary injustice can provoke extraordinary acts of concealment,” Wright said. “Where such concealment is alleged, it ill behooves the government of a free people to evade an honest accounting.”

William Hohri, a Chicago computer programmer and one of the 19 Japanese-Americans detained in “relocation” camps who brought the suit, said in a telephone interview that he was “very happy” over the outcome. He emphasized that he and the other plaintiffs were interested not so much in the money as in a court ruling that their constitutional rights had been violated.

Business Taken

“That issue has never been adjudicated,” said Hohri, who was born in San Francisco in 1927 and moved with his father, a Protestant minister, to the Los Angeles area the following year. When the family was sent to the Lake Manzanar internment camp in 1942, he said, his brother’s gardening business was taken without compensation.

Hohri estimated that the average claim would reach about $200,000. The government placed about 120,000 persons in camps, and Hohri said that the typical confinement lasted about three years.

A law enacted in the 1950s already entitles the interned Japanese-Americans to receive partial compensation for seized property, and legislation pending in Congress would provide an automatic $20,000 for each of about 66,000 survivors of the relocation process. The bill would also make a formal apology for the confinement and establish an educational foundation for Japanese-Americans.

California Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said that he and Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) will press for passage of the bill, which has 120 co-sponsors. Both Matsui and Mineta were interned during World War II.


Evidence of Damage

“The bill would not put people in an adversarial position against the government, having to prove their losses,” he said. By contrast, he said, those seeking redress through the courts would be required to submit evidence of damage suffered as a result of their confinement.

Mineta, hailing the appeals court’s decision, said in a statement that the court “recognized that an unusual response is necessary to this tragedy. As the court said, those who suffered injustice should be ‘free to press this case to its conclusion.’ Now that the statute of limitations problem has been set aside, we can have our day in court and present the facts which for far too long have been hidden from review.”

The ruling by the three-judge panel follows a series of recent court cases that have shaken the federal government’s wartime claim that removal of Japanese-Americans from the coastal states was justified because there was no quick method of determining which of them might be disloyal and therefore unacceptable security risks.

In these cases, in which the Supreme Court has reversed the convictions of Japanese-Americans who refused to obey relocation orders, Justice Department officials have admitted that they suppressed evidence from U.S. naval intelligence experts indicating that the great majority of the Japanese-Americans posed no threat. Testimony in the cases revealed that even J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI, questioned the need for the relocation program.