Reparations in California is a series of KQED stories and videos exploring the road to racial equity in the state. 

The California Reparations Task Force will present its recommendations to the Legislature next month, the culmination of two years of examining the historic harms of slavery and anti-Black racism in the state. 

At KQED, we feel this is an appropriate time to look back at the push for redress by the last racial group to receive reparations for discrimination: Japanese Americans. For the third episode of our reparations video series, my colleague Manjula Varghese produced a video that recounts how the Civil Rights Movement inspired tens of thousands of Japanese Americans to demand remuneration for four years of imprisonment during World War II. 

“The Civil Rights Movement led by Black leaders woke us up,” Donald K. Tamaki, one of nine members of the California Reparations Task Force, says in the video. “This had an impact on the country, but it certainly had an impact on Japanese Americans. By 1970, the next generation, the third generation of Japanese Americans, began to ask questions and demand an accounting of what happened.” 

Tamaki’s parents were among the estimated 82,000 Japanese Americans who received reparations more than three decades ago for the mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry, many of whom were Americans, during World War II. About 120,000 people who had their constitutional rights revoked during the war were imprisoned at 10 sites, including two in California. 

Beginning in 1942, Japanese people living on the West Coast were ordered to abandon their homes, businesses and jobs. The U.S. government claimed that the wartime incarceration was necessary to prevent sabotage and spying following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the displacement of people of Japanese ancestry. 

For decades, traumatized Japanese Americans didn’t speak of what they had endured. But by observing Black Americans organize against social injustices during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Japanese Americans were galvanized to open up, according to Tamaki. 

“We saw ourselves as second-class citizens,” Tamaki, who was raised in Oakland, told KQED’s Annelise Finney for a story last year that marked 80 years since Japanese people were forced from their homes and imprisoned. “It wasn’t until the Black Civil Rights Movement that our community, my father included, and others began to realize that this is not normal. This is not the way it should be. And I think that motivated him to testify.” 

Tamaki’s father testified in front of a commission established to explore reparations during hearings at Golden Gate University in San Francisco in 1981. In 1988, after a two-decade drive, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 offered an official apology and a payment of $20,000 to former detainees who were still alive. 

California could pave the road for a national reparations plan for Black people — on July 1, the task force will present its recommendations to the Legislature. Last month, the group released formulas and calculations for remuneration (PDF), including $115,260 — or $2,352 for each year of residency between 1971 and 2020 — as compensation for mass incarceration and discriminatory policing and sentencing. 

To remedy health disparities, economists working with the task force suggest $966,921 per Black Californian for “total loss in value of life due to racial discrimination.” The calculation is based on the average life expectancy for Black Californians — 71 years — multiplied by $13,619 for each year lived in the state. Based on calculations by the economists, a Black resident could receive up to $1.2 million in compensation. 

John Tateishi, former executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization, played an influential role in the Japanese redress campaign. His family was forced from their home in Los Angeles and imprisoned at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in Southern California. 

In our video, Tateishi shares why he believes reparations for Black people are important. 

“When you talk about Black reparations, it’s so much more complex — the degree of damage and the harm and the legacy,” he said. “And people will say, ‘But we can’t afford it.’ And my response to that is, ‘Can we afford not to do that?’ 

“If you don’t correct this injustice, correct this wrong, what does that mean about us as a society and a nation and a democracy?” 


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