California lawmakers on Thursday became the first political leaders in the nation’s most populous state to apologize for discriminating against Japanese Americans and helping the U.S. government send them to internment camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor during World War II.
The Assembly unanimously passed the resolution and welcomed several people who were imprisoned in the camps and their families. Several lawmakers gave somber statements and gathered at the entrance of the chamber after the vote to hug and shake hands with victims like 96-year-old Kiyo Sato.
Sato said young people need to know about the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during the war.
“We need to remind them that this can’t happen again,” she said.
The resolution came a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a Day of Remembrance for Feb. 19, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1942 that led to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans across 10 camps in the U.S. West and Arkansas. The governors of Idaho and Arkansas also proclaimed it a Day of Remembrance, and events are held nationwide.
“During the years leading up to World War II, California led the nation in fanning the flames of racism,” said Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, who was born in Japan.
The resolution said anti-Japanese sentiment began in California as early as 1913, when the state passed the Alien Land Law, targeting Japanese farmers who were perceived as a threat by some in the massive agricultural industry. Seven years later, the state barred anyone with Japanese ancestry from buying farmland.
“We are specifically apologizing for wrongs that were committed on this floor,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in the chamber. “We are apologizing for what we have done.”
Senators will take up a version of the resolution later in the year and send it to the governor to sign. California is providing no financial compensation.
A congressional commission in 1983 concluded that the detentions were a result of “racial prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership.” Five years later, the U.S. government formally apologized and paid $20,000 in reparations to each victim.
Several California lawmakers noted the state’s direct role in discriminating against Japanese Americans and carrying out the federal government’s order to send residents to internment camps.
Two camps in the mid-1940s were in California: Manzanar on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and Tule Lake near the Oregon state line, the largest of all the camps.
While the Senate didn’t vote on the resolution Thursday, Sen. Richard Pan introduced two sons of Norman Yoshio Mineta, the first Asian American to serve in a presidential cabinet under George W. Bush.
Mineta was imprisoned in a camp before becoming “one of the most influential Asian Americans in the history of our nation,” Pan said, including leading a congressional effort for the U.S. apology and reparations that passed in 1988 and President Ronald Reagan signed.
Pan wrote the Senate version of the resolution, which he intends to pursue after it clears a committee later this year.
California has the largest population of people of Japanese descent of any state, numbering roughly 430,000.