U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry awaiting a bus to take them to an internment camp in April 1942. (Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
By Danielle Iwata
In February, we observed the 80th Day of Remembrance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which removed over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to remote incarceration camps for over four years.
My grandmother never talked about her time in the camps. It wasn’t until she passed away that we found her collection of books and photographs about Japanese American incarceration. We have her scrapbook with the names of her classmates. We have her hand-drawn maps of the camps. And we have the letter she received from the U.S. government: an official apology reading, “A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories … but we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done.”
She left a folder “for Danielle.” In it were recent articles about how Japanese Americans were speaking out against the Muslim registry because they knew the pain of these racist policies. Even though she didn’t speak to me about it, I believe my grandmother wanted people to use our history to create better futures.
We know reparations are possible because they happened for our community. We have had the privilege of redress, and now, it is time to use our history to advocate for others.
Many Japanese Americans have testified in support of Congressional bill HR 40, calling for a commission to study the legacy of slavery, including racial disparities in wealth, health care, education, and housing, and consider a formal national apology.
Last month, a coalition led by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, the National African American Reparations Commission, Human Rights Watch, and the NAACP published a letter signed by over 350 organizations. Signatories include over 60 Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations. The letter references the commission created to study the harm of Japanese American incarceration, holding up the Japanese American redress awarded by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 as a precedent that should not be ignored.
Here in New Jersey, a multiracial and multi-faith coalition led by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s Say the Word campaign has been calling for action on Reparations Task Force Bill (A938/S386), a bill with diverse co-sponsors that would require New Jersey to study its role in slavery and to make policy recommendations.
This process is critical in educating New Jerseyans about the deep and often forgotten history of slavery and its aftermath of structural racism, and beginning the process of repairing that harm. California recently became the first state to pass reparations task force legislation; New Jersey should be the second.
New Jersey’s more than 1 million Asian Americans owe so much of our progress to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. We also share beautiful and often overlooked histories of Asian American and Black solidarity, exemplified by Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Ram Manohar Lohia, and others. Our country and state have waited too long to formally acknowledge the grave wrong of slavery and must take steps to repair that harm, as was done for Japanese Americans.
Last year, in a conversation with Duncan Ryuken Williams of the USC Ito Center, Ta-Nehisi Coates said we have a “responsibility across history” and “have to fight for what we cannot see.”
Today I’m sharing my grandmother’s map of a history that I couldn’t see, with the optimism that we can follow it toward a more just future for all.
Danielle Iwata is a board member of AAPI Montclair, founded in 2021, which recently became the first Asian American group in New Jersey to join the Say the Word Campaign. She wrote this piece for the New Jersey Monitor, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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