Honoring a leader in fight for Japanese American redress

Internees wait in line for their housing assignments at a camp in Manzanar, Calif., in 1942. On Friday, a ceremony at the Painted Bride will honor Grayce Uyehara for her work to win a formal U.S. apology and reparations 25 years ago.
Internees wait in line for their housing assignments at a camp in Manzanar, Calif., in 1942. On Friday, a ceremony at the Painted Bride will honor Grayce Uyehara for her work to win a formal U.S. apology and reparations 25 years ago. (AP)
Posted: November 16, 2013

Nearly everyone knows that Japanese Americans were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II.

And many people know that during the Reagan administration, the federal government offered a formal apology and a $20,000-per-person reparation.

But hardly anybody knows that it was Grayce Uyehara, a retired Philadelphia social worker, who helped lead the national grassroots effort to win redress for Japanese Americans who lost not only their freedom but their homes, jobs, and savings. After achieving that singular American victory, Uyehara returned to a quiet life in the suburbs.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. On Friday night, Uyehara will be honored with the Standing Up for Justice Award, presented by Asian Americans United, an advocacy group.

Uyehara, 94, of Medford, is too ill to attend the gala at the Painted Bride Art Center. Accepting on her behalf will be son Paul.

"They went through a lot of hard times, difficult times," said Paul Uyehara, 58, a Justice Department civil rights attorney in Washington.

He said he cannot recall his mother talking about her work to win redress, except for when community groups or news reporters asked her to speak. Perhaps because of her modesty, she has never gotten due credit for passage of the redress act, said Hiro Nishikawa, a board member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.

"Without her drive and involvement," said Nishikawa, who as a boy was interned with his parents and siblings, "I don't think it would have happened."

In fact, the redress movement easily could have failed.

Among political leaders, Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R., Calif.), the son of Japanese immigrants, vehemently opposed any official apology. He said Japanese Americans had "welcomed the evacuation as a guarantee of their personal safety," and in the camps enjoyed "three years of leisure."

Some chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars were opposed, and the California-based Americans for Historical Accuracy called internment a "big lie," contending the Japanese Americans sat out the war in relative comfort.

Everywhere Uyehara went, she insisted internment was not only a Japanese issue but an American one. In America, people aren't sent to prison based on suspicion. If Japanese Americans could be summarily locked up during one war, who would be locked up during the next?

It is 70 years since Japanese Americans were forced into bleak, overcrowded barracks surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. And 25 years since the government said it was sorry.

But the issues around internment, described by the writer John Hersey as "the bitterest national shame," remain potent.

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the United States into a war already raging in Europe and Asia. Several thousand Japanese Americans were quickly arrested. Politicians and newspaper editors demanded more, certain that saboteurs lurked.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, citing "military necessity," signed Executive Order 9066, causing the removal and incarceration of people of Japanese descent. About 120,000 were confined, at least two-thirds of them American-born. Many were children. None were charged with a crime.

Uyehara, then a music major at what is now the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., was sent with her family to a local makeshift camp, then to rural Rohwer, Ark. She played piano at church services.

When the War Relocation Authority loosened its rules, she was able to study at Minnesota State Teachers College. "I didn't even have any winter clothes when I left, but it didn't matter," she later told an interviewer.

After the war, she came to Philadelphia, where a brother was studying at Temple University. She married Hiroshi Uyehara, an engineer who also had been in the Rohwer camp. Together they helped organize the city chapter of the JACL.

Many internees never spoke of their internment experience, and their children often grew up unaware. That began to change in the late 1960s. The JACL established a National Redress Committee in 1978. The effort grew in 1982 when a commission that had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter found the internment was not caused by danger to national security but by prejudice and hysteria.

Uyehara, then retired from social-work positions in Delaware County and Lower Merion, volunteered as national director of the Legislative Education Committee, the JACL's lobbying arm. She had no experience in partisan politics, no connections in Washington beyond those forged through the League of Women Voters.

But during years of labor in the JACL, she had built a reservoir of trust. So, if she phoned a JACL contact in New Mexico and asked him to go see Sen. Pete Domenici, he would go.

"Philadelphia was really the epicenter of redress, and it was the epicenter because Grayce lived there," said Grant Ujifusa, a retired editor and redress strategist. "She was the mother of us all."

On Aug. 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed House Resolution 442, named for the decorated 442d Regimental Combat Team, composed of Japanese Americans. The act provided money for 60,000 survivors and required that the history of internment be told through monuments and museum collections and in classrooms.

"An apology is a huge thing," said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, whose parents and grandparents had been interned. "It wasn't like, 'Sorry, now let's move on.' It was, 'Sorry, and now let's get to the business of telling this history.' "


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

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