On the morning of August 10, 1988, redress warriors were gathering from across the country for President Reagan’s signing ceremony of H.R. 442 that afternoon at the White House.
After deplaning from the LAX-IAD red-eye, my dad and I sat in a Washington, D.C. coffee shop, killing time until Congressman Bob Matsui’s reception later that morning on the Hill. A few other LA Japanese American lions joined us; I’ll have to go back to my journal to dig up exactly who else was in that coffee shop with us.
In the almost ten years I devoted to the legislative passage of the redress bill, I had asked my dad many questions about his thoughts and feelings about his internment experience and effect upon his life. Once I asked him was what he was thinking when he heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Even as a 13-year-old, he knew at that moment that the life he and his family had in Orange County had ended forever.
Sitting at that coffee shop table, I asked him if he could have ever imagined on the morning of December 7, 1941 that 47 years later, a President of the United States would be inviting him to the White House to apologize for the wrongs of the United States government to him and other Japanese Americans? It was the first, and only, time I saw tears well up in my father’s eyes. His hands trembled slightly around his coffee cup, and he couldn’t speak. Every second I devoted to redress, every ounce of energy, was for my Nisei parents and their families – to help in some small way with that which they could not have done for themselves.
In looking at the few photos I have of the redress signing day, I’m realizing that we didn’t take nearly enough. We were all too shell-shocked trying to take in the reality and significance of the day, too busy hugging one another so tightly, too occupied with thoughts of those who had not lived to see that day. But here is the one photo I have with my dad at Bob and Doris Matsui’s reception. He went from holding a coffee cup to a champagne glass. As Doris started to hand him that glass, he looked at me, his diabetic watch-dog on hand, for permission. Doris said, “It’s a champagne kind of day.” Who could deny him?
Almost 20 years later, Akemi incorporated the coffee shop story into a paper she wrote for her U.S. history course as a junior at Polytechnic School. Her assignment was to write about a “change agent” in the 21st century, and she chose as her thesis that the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and other Japanese American military units were a driving force behind civil rights and, ultimately, the passage of redress.
When she first told me about her ideas for this paper, she could not believe my reaction. I surprised her with a dusty box from the garage, filled with my redress documents and memorabilia. She had no idea I had helped with legal research, drafted copy that got included in Senate hearing reports and in the report for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, co-chaired fundraisers, and appeared on television. For the first time, she saw newspaper articles featuring my dad, saw memoirs written by family friends, and heard about the significance of the White House photo hanging on our wall. For years, she had passed by an entire shelf of our bookcase filled with “JA” books without knowing why I even owned them. I realized that in the tidal wave of life, I had moved on from redress by the time she came along, and had short-changed telling her about all of this.
With such a lode of primary sources, Akemi picked up the Kamei torch in writing her paper. She did such a fine job that it was Poly’s single submission for the Cum Laude Society Paper of the Year award for 2008. Her expanded version “The 442nd Regimental Combat Team: More Than Heroes on the Battlefield” was published in The Concord Review 19, no. 4 (Summer 2009), 1-28.
On this Veteran’s Day, 11/11/11, I’m more than glad that on November 1st the U.S. Congress awarded the surviving members of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat team, and the Military Intelligence Service the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that can be given by the U.S. Congress. Truly I believe that these men are heroes who sacrificed all for the rights and privileges Akemi and I enjoy today. I marvel again that redress came to pass. I’m so proud that Akemi seized an opportunity to learn about this and add to the academic landscape, and I know that her grandfather has been very proud, too.