In 1990, the u.s. government began mailing out envelopes, each containing a presidential letter of apology and a $20,000 check from the Treasury, to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans who, during World War II, were robbed of their homes, jobs, and rights, and incarcerated in camps. This effort, which took a decade to complete, remains a rare attempt to make reparations to a group of Americans harmed by force of law. We know how some recipients used their payment: The actor George Takei donated his redress check to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. A former incarceree named Mae Kanazawa Hara told an interviewer in 2004 that she bought an organ for her church in Madison, Wisconsin. Nikki Nojima Louis, a playwright, told me earlier this year that she used the money to pay for living expenses while pursuing her doctorate in creative writing at Florida State University. She was 65 when she decided to go back to school, and the money enabled her to move across the country from her Seattle home.
But many stories could be lost to history. My family received reparations. My grandfather, Melvin, was 6 when he was imprisoned in Tule Lake, California. As long as I’ve known about the redress effort, I’ve wondered how he felt about getting a check in the mail decades after the war. No one in my family knows how he used the money. Because he died shortly after I was born, I never had a chance to ask.
To my knowledge, no one has rigorously studied how families spent individual payments, each worth $45,000 in current dollars. Densho, a nonprofit specializing in archival history of Japanese American incarceration, and the Japanese American National Museum confirmed my suspicions. When I first started researching what the redress effort did for former incarcerees, the question seemed almost impudent, because whose business was it but theirs what they did with the money?
Still, I thought, following that money could help answer a basic question: What did reparations mean for the recipients? When I began my reporting, I expected former incarcerees and their descendants to speak positively about the redress movement. What surprised me was how intimate the experience turned out to be for so many. They didn’t just get a check in the mail; they got some of their dignity and agency back. Also striking was how interviewee after interviewee portrayed the monetary payments as only one part—though an important one—of a broader effort at healing.
The significance of reparations becomes all the more important as cities, states, and some federal lawmakers grapple with whether and how to make amends to other victims of official discrimination—most notably Black Americans. Although discussions of compensation have existed since the end of the Civil War, they have only grown in intensity and urgency in recent years, especially after this magazine published Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. In my home state, California, a task force has spent the past three years studying what restitution for Black residents would look like. The task force will deliver its final recommendations—which reportedly include direct monetary payments and a formal apology to descendants of enslaved people—to the state legislature by July 1.
In 1998, as redress for Japanese American incarcerees was winding to a close, the University of Hawaii law professor Eric Yamamoto wrote, “In every African American reparations publication, in every legal argument, in almost every discussion, the topic of Japanese American redress surfaces. Sometimes as legal precedent. Sometimes as moral compass. Sometimes as political guide.” Long after it ended, the Japanese American–redress program illustrates how honest attempts at atonement for unjust losses cascade across the decades.
The notion that recipients should use their money for noble purposes runs deep in the discussion about reparations. It helps explain why some reparations proposals end up looking more like public-policy initiatives than the unrestricted monetary payments that Japanese Americans received. For example, a 2021 initiative in Evanston, Illinois, began providing $25,000 in home repairs or down-payment assistance to Black residents and their descendants who experienced housing discrimination in the city from 1919 to 1969. Florida provides free tuition to state universities for the descendants of Black families in the town of Rosewood who were victimized during a 1923 massacre. But if the goal of reparations is to help restore dignity and opportunity, then the recipients need autonomy. Only they can decide how best to spend those funds. (Perhaps recognizing this, Evanston’s city council voted earlier this year to provide direct cash payments of $25,000.)