The Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religion and Culture launched the Black + Japanese Reparations Book Club on Thursday. The virtual sessions aim to throw light on how the reparations received by Japanese American families act as a powerful precedent for the Black community to secure the same.
The Ito Center belongs to USC Dornsife. They have curated a number of books and articles penned by both Japanese American and Black writers. “As we look at America’s racial past, we must think of America’s racial future,” informed Duncan Williams, the center’s director. He focused on the shift in the country’s racial makeup. He zoomed in on the appointment of Kamala Harris, the US’s first Vice President of Black and Asian descent, who publicly declared her support for African American reparations.
Immediately following Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation of roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. It was justified as punishment for Japan’s onslaught against the US in the Second World War. But the American government did not take punitive measures against Germany and Italy — the two remaining Axis powers. Many view this human rights violation as an act of xenophobia, especially when Americans of German and Italian descent were not targeted.
Forty years later, the descendants of former internees were compensated by way of President Ronald Regan’s Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The reparation? Payments of $20,000 each (valued at a little over $43,000 today) and a formal apology.
Not all Japanese Americans are vocal about reparations. Some book club members opened up about their personal histories. Gail Seymour is one such person who is all too familiar with the silence. “I’m 67 years old and I didn’t hear about it until high school. I think the stoicism of Asians in general, and the humiliation, have something to do with that,” she informed Culturas. Seymour belongs to a group called sansei, which means the third generation. They are the grandchildren of the issei (first generation) Japanese Americans living in the US at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.
“I definitely didn’t hear about it [the internment and the reparations] from my high school teachers. I don’t remember how I found out,” said the former environmental scientist. Seymour added: “My parents belong to the second generation or the nisei. They never talked about it. They are the ‘Quiet Americans’, as we call it.” Seymour now represents the Sonoma County Japanese Citizens League.
But the cultural phenomenon of keeping mum affected young Japanese Americans too. Third-generation Japanese American Michio Warner only learned of the reparations during a school lesson in the 12th grade. “My family never talks about the past, my grandma was still a child in Japan during the war and she never talks about it. My family is very multiethnic and I wanted to join this group to be a better ally to my Black family and better educate myself,” said the San Jose State University student.
The older generations’ silence was loud. It made them complicit in tensions brewing among other marginalized groups, while the government encouraged it. Soon after the reparations, Japanese Americans emerged as a successful group who conquered the American Dream. This notion entered popular consciousness in the 1960s with the publication of William Peterson’s article for the New York Times Magazine called Success Story, Japanese-American Style. Peterson painted the community as ideal immigrants who put their heads down and went hard to work despite the obstacles hurled at them. What followed was the government’s weaponization of Japanese Americans against Black Americans who were actively dissenting against racist treatment. It marked the emergence of the “model minority” where one group was pitted against the other.
Seymour wondered out loud: “I can see why some would think, ‘of course you’re gonna get reparations. You kept your mouth shut, never protested, never organized civil disobedience. We are gonna give the Japanese Americans money because they behaved.’ I don’t like that whole concept. We don’t need to behave, as we saw with BLM [the Black Lives Matter movement].”
So it is significant that the Ito Center book club organized a series spotlighting the Black community. Their reading list showcases works from prominent members of the community like Ta-Nehisi Coates and BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors. Coates even called reparations a national reckoning “that would lead to spiritual renewal.” The book club not only acts as a resource to strengthen the fight for African American reparations but also aims to educate fellow Japanese Americans about their violent history prone to erasure.
Higher up, conversations around Black reparation have been doing the rounds since the 1980s. House Resolution (HR) 40 granted the set-up of a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans after the generational violence inflicted upon them, starting with slavery. It was introduced by the late Congressman John Conyers in 1989. From then, the former Representative of Michigan introduced the bill during every legislative session until 2017. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-T.X., reintroduced the bill in 2019. Closer home, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB-3121 in September 2020, displaying his support for the creation of a task force that studied reparations.
“Given last year’s struggles for racial justice and Biden’s inauguration tomorrow, the conversation around HR40 and the commission that will be developed…will be heightened,” stated Ito Center’s Director Williams on their decision to launch the series now. If reparations are granted, “families could get a one-time check, receive vouchers for medical insurance or college, or have access to a trust fund to finance a business or a home,” reported the New York Times.
The book club will meet once a month for 90-minute Zoom sessions until July of this year. They will next convene on February 16 to discuss Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. Interested members can RSVP here.