President Clinton on Friday issued an official apology and the federal government pledged payments of $5,000 to each of the more than 2,200 people of Japanese ancestry who were taken from their Latin American homes during World War II and imprisoned in U.S. internment camps.
The statement and the promised compensation are designed to close a disturbing, if little known, chapter in the nation's history.
As anti-Japanese fervor mounted during the war, U.S. troops helped to forcibly remove men, women and children from 13 countries in Latin America. The majority were Peruvians of Japanese descent.
Many of the families were imprisoned in a south Texas camp encircled by barbed wire. And many were later deported to war-ravaged Japan, never returning home.
Clinton offered a six-sentence apology to the former internees "on behalf of all Americans."
"We recognize the wrongs of the past and offer our profound regret to those who endured such grave injustice," the president said. "We understand that our nation's actions were rooted in racial prejudice and wartime hysteria, and we must learn from the past and dedicate ourselves as a nation to renewing and strengthening equality, justice and freedom."
The apology and compensation payments were announced at a news conference Thursday morning at the Japanese American Cultural Center in downtown Los Angeles. In attendance were two of the former internees, who two years ago were among five plaintiffs to sue the United States.
The internees had been excluded from an earlier settlement that has, over the last decade, paid $20,000 each to more than 80,000 Japanese Americans who were locked up during the war.
The former internees called Friday's settlement announcement bittersweet, saying the government's acceptance of blame for the episode made them willing to end their lawsuit, even though they will receive less money than internees who had lived in the United States.
"In some sense you can say this is a victory," said Alice Nishimoto, whose family was shipped from Peru to Crystal City, Texas, when she was 8. "It's a victory, but this injustice is going to be in the history forever.
"Why were we discriminated [against]? We are the same human beings," said Nishimoto, 64, fighting back tears. "We were in the same camp [as Japanese American internees]. We experienced the same suffering, maybe more, because we were kidnapped from another country and brought to this country against our will."
Carmen Mochizuki--whose family was also moved from Peru to Texas, and then Japan--said: "We are victorious today, for making the United States government finally accept responsibility for its action against us." But the Montebello resident, 65, said she "will never forget the pain of the past."
Relief might have come much earlier. But in 1988, Congress excluded foreign-born detainees from the $20,000 reparations it ordered for Japanese Americans. The lawmakers justified the exclusion with a Catch-22: Since the Japanese Latin Americans were brought here against their will, they were not legal residents and thus not eligible for compensation.
An intensive effort will now begin to locate 2,264 former internees and their heirs before an Aug. 10 deadline for filing for the reparations, said Robin Toma, lead attorney in the lawsuit.
Most of those entitled to payment live in Peru or Japan, and legal notices will be published in those countries, Toma said.
Only about $6 million remains in the fund created by Congress in 1988 to pay Japanese American internees. If that money runs out, the Clinton administration will pursue legislation to pay the remaining Latin American Japanese who were incarcerated, said Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Lee said at the news conference that the $5,000 payments are "a compromise . . . and like many compromises, the essence is that your highest hopes aren't realized." Lee called even the $20,000 paid to Japanese American prisoners "inadequate recompense."
But Toma said the symbolic value of the government's apology was enough to cement the agreement, even though the payments "will never be enough to compensate for what they lost."
Those who are unhappy with the settlement can file for an exception and pursue their own claims against the government.
Nishimoto, who has lived in Gardena for 35 years, recalled Friday how she, her parents and three siblings had their comfortable lives in Peru shattered by a police raid more than 50 years ago.
The Nishimotos lost their hacienda, their cotton plantation and most of their possessions. The cruelty of being held in the Crystal City camp was only exceeded by the war's grim aftermath.
Some internees had been shipped to Japan during the war, in exchange for American civilian prisoners held in Japanese-controlled territories.
But, like many, the Nishimoto family went to Japan after the war. They settled near relatives in Hiroshima and sold clothes--even Nishimoto's mother's wedding ring--to buy food. The children were called "Yankee" in school and treated as outcasts.
"It was not just about being in prison, in camp," Nishimoto said. "We lost everything."