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California to apologize officially for historical mistreatment of Japanese Americans

Monument at the cemetery at Manzanar National Historic Site
A monument marks the cemetery at Manzanar National Historic Site, where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For decades, Japanese American activists have marked Feb. 19 as a day to reflect on one of the darkest chapters in this nation’s history.

On that date in 1942, during World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the forced removal of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent from their homes and businesses.

On Thursday, the California Assembly will do more than just remember.

It’s expected to approve, with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s endorsement, a formal apology to all Americans of Japanese descent for the state’s role in policies that culminated with their mass incarceration.

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HR 77, introduced by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) and co-authored with six others, spells out in excruciating detail California’s anti-Japanese heritage.

It mentions the California Alien Land Law of 1913 (which made land ownership for Japanese immigrants illegal) and a 1943 joint resolution by the Assembly and state Senate that called for the forfeiture of U.S. citizenship by residents who also were citizens of Japan. It calls out U.S. Army Gen. John L. DeWitt for telling California politicians shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack that “the Japanese in this country have more [arms and ammunition] in their possession than our own armed forces,” in convincing them to round up Japanese Americans.

And HR 77 also connects this history to the present.

“Given recent national events,” it states, “it is all the more important to learn from the mistakes of the past and to ensure that such an assault on freedom will never again happen to any community in the United States.”

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Muratsuchi told the Japanese American Citizens League that he pushed for the bill because he wanted “California [to] lead by example ... while our nation’s capital is hopelessly divided along party lines and President Trump is putting immigrant families and children in cages.”

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) said it is essential for the state to acknowledge its past failings in order to move forward.

“We so often talk about our need to not repeat mistakes of the past,” he said. “The first step in doing so is making sure we acknowledge wrongs. We owe it to those who suffered by acknowledging their mistreatments but also to educate our future generations so history does no repeat itself.”

This isn’t the first time Sacramento has tied California’s anti-Japanese hysteria to immigration actions by the current administration: In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that asked schools, in teaching about World War II, to connect the xenophobia of that era to the “civil liberties injustices” of Trump’s clampdown on immigration from countries he deemed suspect.

Nor is this the first time California politicians have pushed residents to reckon with past sins against Japanese Americans.

In 1988, Congressman Norman Mineta and Bob Matsui were among the co-sponsors of the Civil Liberties Act, which included a federal apology to surviving detainees and distributed $20,000 to them. The California Department of Education has long listed the 1973 young-adult memoir “Farewell to Manzanar” as “recommended literature” to be taught in schools. And for decades, principals have awarded high school diplomas to students who never formally finished their education as teens because of government-mandated incarceration.

But Muratsuchi’s efforts are also in line with a recent movement by the state’s governmental branches to use its power to make California apologize for its racist history.

In 2006, legislation authored by then-state Sen. Joe Dunn formally apologized for the California Senate’s role in the forced repatriation of over 1 million Mexican immigrants and Mexican American citizens to Mexico during the Great Depression. Three years later, the state Assembly did the same for the slew of anti-Chinese rhetoric in the Golden State that led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration for over 60 years.

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Last year, Newsom signed an executive order formally apologizing for California’s “violence, maltreatment and neglect” of Native Americans throughout its history, calling such treatment a “genocide.” And earlier this month, he announced an initiative to pardon people wrongfully convicted under anti-LGBTQ laws, saying the state needed to rectify its “abuses of the past.”


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