The East Side of the Sierra Nevada mountains has, for the last 11 years of my life, been the place we escape to when everyone else escapes to our home in Yosemite, CA. The East Side, as it is known by every resident in Yosemite, is vast. It’s a trough in the basin and range topography of the American West, with jagged peaks on the west, and a vast nothingness to the east. It is quiet and desolate.
My first summer on the East Side, my husband and I traveled south towards Lone Pine, CA. Along the way on HWY 395 smack in the middle of absolutely nowhere is Manzanar National Historic Site, a property managed by the National Park Service. Of course, we were going to stop there. That’s what rangers do when they drive by National Park Service property.
At first sight, Manzanar has the outward appearance of a prison, and that’s probably because it was built as one. The strong, white-washed buildings sharply contrast against the dark mountains behind them, and the eroding remains of so many other buildings that once held American citizens against their will clearly present the juxtaposition of an agency trying to preserve the history of this shameful site while simultaneously wishing it could just disappear.
Manzanar, CA was home to the first concentration camp built in the United States during World War II under the pretense of homeland security. Upwards of 120,000 Japanese Americans were rooted from their homes and communities to sit out the remaining years of WWII in concentration camps, lest anyone get any ideas about helping Japan in the war.1 Manzanar Relocation Center outside Lone Pine, CA was the first camp to open in the US, and at its peak, held upwards of 10,000 Japanese Americans, mostly from the Los Angeles, CA area some 200 miles away.
Japanese internment began as a knee-jerk reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 the following February granting the ability of evacuating people deemed a security threat into concentration camps set up around the western United States. Japanese Americans were unwanted in California and Oregon previous to the attack at Pearl Harbor because they appeared to pose a threat to the white agricultural owners who wanted Japanese Americans for cheap labor but feared they would try to buy their own land to work.1 The Pearl Harbor attacks only bolstered the xenophobia and gave a less nefarious appearance to eliminating the presence of an entire cultural group than just run of the mill racism. Now the Japanese American population could be removed from competition in a “patriotic” way. Despite the war in Europe against Germany and Italy, a minute fraction of German American or Italian Americans were ever “evacuated” in the name of homeland security.
Internment lasted the duration of the war, and detainees were released over an extended period of months back to homes and communities that no longer existed or no longer wanted them.2 The entirety of the 120,000 Japanese Americans that were rounded up by their government and forced into concentration camps simply for sharing cultural ties with another land were expected to just go back to life … in a country that made it very clear they were unwelcome.
In 1988, however, the United States government did something it does not usually do. It apologized. In 1988, President Ronald Regan signed the Civil Liberties Act, a bill that formally apologized and paid $1.25B in reparations for the gross Constitutional violation that was internment. In what can only be called a miracle, the United States accepted responsibility for a reprehensible act, apologized, and tried to make it better. The apology legitimized the suffering and reality of being detained by a racist process. In all, it demonstrates a pretty big step forward for a country with such dubious history of unresolved civil liberty violations. It was a step forward that Americans could be proud of.
Of course, the attempt at reconciliation did not go very far. To begin with, it took nearly 2 years for the promised $20,000 checks for survivors and their families to arrive. With such an aging population of survivors, that delay saved the government thousands of dollars while many of the survivors died, and many more aged into ailing conditions that would prevent them from ever gaining any positive benefit from the payment.3 And just as soon as it had started, the reconciliation was over. And this was the United States’ best effort at reconciling racial violence.
Efforts to atone for the internment picked up again recently. In 2018, the Supreme Court vacated a decision from 1944 that declared the internment constitutionally valid, and in 2020, California passed a bill that will produce a formal apology for California’s participation in the detention of so many its citizens. However, there is nothing further that any government entity has proposed for creating a true reconciliation with Japanese Americans.
John Paul Lederach. describes reconciliation as his “Meeting Place,” a location where Truth, Peace, Justice, and Mercy all meet to help conflicting societies fully heal a wound and move forward. Applying these four concepts to the United States government’s attempt at reconciliation with Japanese Americans shows the shortcomings and holes they’ve yet to overcome to fully reconcile the actions of Executive Order 9066.
Lederach explains Truth as, “the longing for acknowledgement of wrong and the validation of painful loss and experiences.”5 Truth brings validation, and validation can help resolve so many different negative emotions in a conflict. In a research brief about truth commissions in South Africa and Guatemala, Madeline Fullard and Nicky Rousseau discuss that truth alone cannot bridge the entire gap of conflict, but rather suggest that speaking Truth and receiving validation can allow new relationships and safer power dynamics to form, even among members of groups who have been historically marginalized.
In Columbia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), perpetrators of violations of human rights from the decades long civil war are not purely offered amnesty in exchange for peace moving forward, but are instead sent to one of two courts: One of transitional and restorative justice where victims can articulate their suffering and perpetrators must acknowledge it, or a more traditional criminal justice system where perpetrators face stiffer penalties if convicted. The intention behind this court is that acceptance of the past and confrontation of its injustices will allow both perpetrators and victims to move forward in a more positive power dynamic and relationship. The system allows for victims to be heard about their experiences by the very people who caused them, but it also offers mercy to those who are willing to accept their responsibility with prison-less sentences, taking the adage “the truth will set you free” to have several meanings in this context. Refusal to acknowledge past violence or human rights crimes sends perpetrators to a court system with steeper sentences. The JEP is still on-going with years of hearings ahead of it; however, it is unique from other post-conflict truth commissions because it truly uses the concept of Truth as a mercy. Perpetrators can cling to their truth and receive mercy for their deeds while those who refuse to acknowledge or honor their truth receive the full weight of criminal justice.
What the United States failed to do it its attempt at reconciliation is to seek Truth. The internment survivors were not given any platform to speak of their experiences, receive validation for their suffering, and begin to shift the relationship with the government. Executive Order 9066 was signed nearly 80 years ago, leaving very few survivors left to share their direct Truth. Without this vital role in reconciliation, it is unlikely Japanese Americans will ever fully be able to move past the reality that they were deemed guilty for a crime that was never committed by the very institution that should have protected them. The United States does not tell its truth in this event, either. I grew up in a state with an internment camp (Colorado), and I didn’t learn about Japanese Internment until I was a freshman in college in California. We talked about it in passing, after a student brought it up, not as part of a curriculum. This lack of Truth telling never allows the record to be set straight.
There are many private organizations and writers who have collected stories to preserve for future generations, lest we as a society ever forget what happened in the American West in the 1940’s. Perhaps the most well-known and outspoken survivor of Japanese American internment is Star Trek actor, George Takei who published a book, They Called us Enemy (2019), about his experience as a young child in an internment camp in Arkansas. Takei also stared in a Broadway musical, Allegiance, that was loosely based on his childhood in the camp.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention one government agency involved in capturing Truth before it is gone. Manzanar National Historic Site and the rangers working there created a deep reserve of videoed oral-tradition storytelling to capture the memories and recollection from Manzanar internment survivors before they are lost forever. The intention of this project, however, is not for the purpose of Truth telling towards the perpetrators of their torment, but rather in preservation of a cultural resource. The collection could be used as an element of a truth commission, though, should the United States ever decide to move towards reconciliation.
Lederach describes Peace as, “the feeling and prevalence of respect and security.”5 Peace in this conflict did not begin simply because the detention ceased. The detention was so unbelievable as to surely cause insecurity in any person sent to a camp. Additionally, such a dehumanizing act allowed racial intolerance against Japanese Americans to persist, seemingly endorsed by the United States government. Instilling feelings of Peace in the Japanese American population will still take work. The first step in the process is a formal apology and admission of wrongdoing, which the United States offered in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. The language of the Act states, “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership” were the actual driving forces behind the detention, and not wartime security as the narrative suggested. This act of contrition and apology is rather monumental considering the United States has yet to acknowledge, let alone apologize for, the atrocities of enslavement in the country.
Peace can only exist in a post-conflict situation where there is, among other things, a guarantee of non-resurgence.7 While it may be convenient to suggest there would never be a resurgence of long-term detention of Japanese Americans because there hasn’t been a resurgence of long-term detention of Japanese Americans, it is too short sighted an answer. Currently the United States is “evacuating” and detaining a different race of Americans at the southwest border. Camps similar to Manzanar dot the border between Mexico and the United States, housing individuals in the same manner as occurred in the internment camps in World War II. Again, the idea of homeland security and safety was invoked as an excuse for rounding up people of a certain color and locking them away in dusty, crowded camps. Although the population is different this time, the practice is absolutely not.
It’s difficult to ask any population for Peace about a seemingly long-over horror of civil liberty violations when those exact civil liberty violations are still occurring in the exact same manner. Although the United States isn’t currently detaining Japanese Americans in concentration camps, the fact it is detaining anyone in concentration camps is enough to plant a seed that any group could potentially be next. If the United States wishes for Peace and to reconcile the atrocities it waged on an entire culture of people, it cannot currently be waging the same atrocities on another.
Lederach described Justice as “the search for individual groups and rights, for social restructuring, and restitution.”5 Justice can be a complicated knot to untangle, and harder to achieve as time progresses and the actual perpetrators are not available to face their choices. In this particular conflict, however, the perpetrator can be generalized as the United States government. Although the specific players in Executive Order 9066 are long gone, the legacy of those decisions can, and rightfully should be, passed to the United States government.
When President Regan signed the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, he may great strides in Justice. In that Act, the Unites States government assumed responsibility for gross injustice, offered monetary reparations to survivors, and promised to do better in the future.3 The Act specifically states that the evacuation and detention of Japanese Americans was not a war-inspired panic but a racially driven civil liberty violation.3 Stating a difficult Truth and holding itself accountable to it, the United States government truly made great strides in Justice. California, the state with the largest disrupted Japanese American population, further offering contrition and accountability further pushes Justice towards the Meeting Place.
The Justice in this reconciliation is not perfect or absolute, of course. The United States government dragged its feet on paying the survivors their $20,000, while many died or became to infirmed to reap any benefits from the payment.3 By all appearance, the Act and apology played more as a photo opportunity and less like a genuine act humanity. After the loss of homes, businesses, and dignity, a monetary settlement can only heal so much a wound; if that monetary payments becomes a bureaucratic exercise in futility, it is easy to think that perhaps neither the apology nor the reparations were ever genuine, anyway.
It’s entirely possible the United States government genuinely meant every word of the Act at the time, and the government always moves slowly. Delayed payment was inevitable. However, Justice took several steps away from the Meeting Place when the United States government began rounding up a new nationality of people to lock away in detention centers. If the 1988 Civil Liberties Act acknowledged the United States government misbehaved, violated rights, and would work to ensure it never happened again, the fact it is currently undertaking near-identical behavior on another group undermines any sincerity in the apology offered to Japanese Americans.
Lederach talks about Mercy as “the need for acceptance, letting go, and a new beginning.”5 However, he also warns that Mercy alone is superficial because “it moves too quickly.” Mercy requires a level acceptance of past misdeeds, letting them go, and retaining compassion for the perpetrators. Mercy is absolutely necessary for forward movement, but it is also possibly the hardest of Lederach’s four tenants to move.
In a beautiful essay, P. Twambley describes the fundamental nature of Mercy. He explains that a misdeed inherently begets a debt, be it an apology, reparations, or otherwise, owed to the person acted against. Mercy is the decision to freely let that debt go. Mercy must be entirely freely given; it cannot be earned because it always centers around an unpaid obligation. Mercy is, therefore, always unjust because that obligation goes forever unfulfilled. Mercy is a gift.
In the conflict of Japanese American internment camps, Mercy weaves its way through Justice, Truth, and Peace. Mercy is not its own road to the Meeting Place, it is part of every road leading to the Meeting Place. In every instance of friction in the potential reconciliation with Japanese Americans, Mercy is ointment that helps further close the wound. The difficult decision that the Japanese American community must make is how much of the obligation owed by the United States government they are willing to freely release. Do they release the obligation of Truth, never receiving the opportunity to directly confront the institution that allowed xenophobia to destroy their lives? How much Peace can be removed from this debt to allow Japanese Americans to still feel safe and whole? Is the Justice received in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act sufficient to wipe the ledger clean?
The gift of Mercy is a powerful one, and it is a difficult one to give. Granting Mercy for such a dark human rights atrocity is a recognition that an owed debt will go unpaid for eternity, and the hole that freely given Mercy creates may never be filled. However, the gift of Mercy may also allow for larger, more painful wounds to close. It is a delicate balance that appears on every road to Lederach’s Meeting Place.
The United States government has many debts to pay when it comes to violating the civil liberties of racial minorities. Small efforts were made in paying Native American tribes for the unlawful seizure of their lands and the genocide of their people (and then wildly mismanaging those payments) and burying an apology for “many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect” in a Defense Appropriate Act in 2009. In the early 1990’s, the United States apologized for mowing down the Kingdom of Hawaii but offered nothing else as compensation for the actions.10 And perhaps the darkest and most shameful lack of reconciliation of any kind, the United States government has not apologized for any aspect of the long-standing period of human enslavement in the country despite its end over 150 years ago. The current detention of Mexican Americans at the US border with Mexico demonstrates that while there is some attempt of contrition for past unlawful behavior, the United States government didn’t actually learn anything from it.
The United States government’s attempt of reconciliation with Japanese Americans is still the best example it can offer. In accepting the racist realities of Executive Order 9066, genuinely apologizing for those choices, and providing reparations with only moderate disorganization and delay, the United States government demonstrated their, perhaps, best effort. However, the Civil Liberties Act only scratches the surface of what’s needed to fully reach Lederach’s Meeting Place. California’s recent work towards reconciliation gives hope that maybe other governments can generate momentum for true reconciliation.
What if the United States government had carried its momentum forward? What if that executive order was the beginning of the process and not the end? There was a moment in time that our society began to look towards the Meeting Place by moving Justice a few steps forward while flirting with Truth. Perhaps if we’d continued and asked for full Truth of this period of time, the United States government would’ve been in a better place to receive Mercy from the Japanese Americans. But more importantly, we could all, as a society, have learned so much more about Peace, and perhaps we would not find history repeating itself today.
With the ever-increasing polarization throughout the United States and the reality that white nationalism is receiving a place in national dialogue, the ripeness for these racial reconciliations may be past its prime, and the reality that we will likely incur more instances that require reconciliation before we get a real chance to address the balance already on the books is evident. However, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, with all its imperfections and incompleteness, is proof that the United States is capable of starting down that road again, and it is with the greatest hope that I imagine we will, in time, find our way again.
Burnyeat, G., Engstrom, P., Suarez, A., and Pearce, J. (3 April 2020). “Justice after war: innovations and challenges of Columbia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace.” The London School of Economics Online. Retrieved online: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/latamcaribbean/2020/04/03/justice-after-war-innovations-and-challenges-of-colombias-special-jurisdiction-for-peace/
Burton, J., Farrell, M., Lord, F. and Lord, R. (June 2000) Confinement and Ethnicity. National Park Service. Retrieved online: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/anthropology74/index.htm
Cramer, M. (19 February 2020). “California Plans to Apologize to Japanese-Americans Over Internment.” The Washington Post. Retrieved online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1990/10/10/delayed-reparations-and-an-apology/bed88529-ba5d-41de-a913-48362ec779bc/?noredirect=on
Isikoff, M. (10 October 1990). “Delayed reparations and an apology.” The Washington Post. Retrieved online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1990/10/10/delayed-reparations-and-an-apology/bed88529-ba5d-41de-a913-48362ec779bc/?noredirect=on
“Japanese American Internment During WWII.” (17 March 2020). National Archives. Retrieved online: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation
Lederach, J. (1997). Building peace: sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. Washington, D.C: United States Institute of Peace Press.
Longley, R. (02 March 2019). Did you know the US apologized to Native Americans? ThoughtCo.com. Retrieved online: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-us-apologized-to-native-americans-3974561
National Park Service. (21 April 2020). Manzanar National Historic Site: Stories. Retrieved online: https://www.nps.gov/manz/learn/historyculture/stories.htm
Rousseau, N., & Fullard, M. (2009). Accounting and reconciling in the balance sheet of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 4(2), 123–135. https://doi.org/10.1080/17447140802393313
Twambley, P. (1976). Mercy and Forgiveness. Analysis, 36(2), 84–90. https://doi.org/10.2307/3327099
 Burton, J., Farrell, M., Lord, F. and Lord, R. (June 2000) Confinement and Ethnicity. National Park Service. Retrieved online: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/anthropology74/index.htm
 “Japanese American Internment During WWII.” (17 March 2020). National Archives. Retrieved online: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation
 Isikoff, M. (10 October 1990). “Delayed reparations and an apology.” The Washington Post. Retrieved online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1990/10/10/delayed-reparations-and-an-apology/bed88529-ba5d-41de-a913-48362ec779bc/?noredirect=on
4] Cramer, M. (19 February 2020). “California Plans to Apologize to Japanese-Americans Over Internment.” The Washington Post. Retrieved online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1990/10/10/delayed-repar...
 Rousseau, N., & Fullard, M. (2009). Accounting and reconciling in the balance sheet of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 4(2), 123–135. https://doi.org/10.1080/17447140802393313
 Burnyeat, G., Engstrom, P., Suarez, A., and Pearce, J. (3 April 2020). “Justice after war: innovations and challenges of Columbia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace.” The London School of Economics Online. Retrieved online: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/latamcaribbean/2020/04/03/justice-after-war-innovations-and-challenges-of-colombias-special-jurisdiction-for-peace/
 National Park Service. (21 April 2020). Manzanar National Historic Site: Stories. Retrieved online: https://www.nps.gov/manz/learn/historyculture/stories.htm
 Longley, R. (02 March 2019). Did you know the US apologized to Native Americans? ThoughtCo.com. Retrieved online: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-us-apologized-to-native-americans-3974561