Former U.S. Senate Aide Carolyn Sugiyama Classen: Creation of National Commission which investigated the wrong done to WWII Japanese Americans

This is a recap of most of my remarks at a recent Feb. 18, 2017 Day of Remembrance event at the Tucson Desert Art Museum, where there are currently 3 ongoing art & history exhibits on the WWII internment camps. About 120,000 Japanese Americans civilians (2/3 were U.S. Citizens, ½ were children) were rounded up by the US Government and incarcerated into 10 large relocation centers in desolate parts of America (including two camps in Arizona).  It is fitting to publish these remarks today, February 19, 2017, on the 75th anniversary of the signing by President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Executive Order 9066 which caused this unjust relocation & internment.

Carolyn Sugiyama Classen speaking at Day of Remembrance, courtesy of atty. Robin Blackwood. Panelists Professors Min Yanagihashi & Kathryn Nakagawa in background.

“I am Sansei (3rd generation) from Hawaii, as my grandparents Hyakuji and Tai Sugiyama left Hiroshima and arrived in June, 1892 to the Kingdom of Hawaii before it fell in 1893.  They became impoverished, indentured servants on sugar plantations in Hawaii. My grandparents had 8 children and my father Sueo was the last and youngest.

My father was the 1st in his family to go to college (University of Hawaii at Manoa) and was unfortunately in Los Angeles at USC Dental School when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. He was summarily expelled from USC due to his race, along with other Japanese American students. My father nicknamed Francis (a U.S. Citizen) did not return home to Hawaii, but stayed in Los Angeles, later obtained a “voluntary” pass from Western Defense Command General John DeWitt and fled to Chicago. He left his belongings with a Jewish woman in L.A. and she subsequently shipped them to him. He stayed in Chicago, took classes at Loyola University, then got re-admitted to Dental School at the U. of Maryland, finishing in 1946.  (I found out later that about 500 others also got passes and voluntarily left the West Coast for inland states.)

Fast forward to me as a young attorney practicing law on the island of Kauai, when I decided to go to Washington D.C. to work for U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye. How did I know the Senator? He had always been in our family discussions (“Cousin Dan”), as he was married to first cousin Maggie, the 2nd of 6 daughters of Aunty Omitsu Sugiyama Awamura of Honolulu.  Aunty was my father’s 2nd oldest sister of the 8 children of my immigrant grandparents. My father had been the last born of the 8 children, and was more then 20 years younger than the oldest siblings.

Dan Inouye and cousin Maggie were married before I was even born.  Inouye was a decorated combat veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Battalion, lost his right arm in the war, had been elected as Hawaii’s first Congressman in 1959 (when Hawaii became a state).  He became a U.S. Senator in 1963, and attended by older brother’s high school graduation when I was 16 (when I first met him).

Years later I arrived in D.C. in January 1979 as his new Legislative Aide, and accompanied the Senator to a high level meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which was already pushing for redress/reparations of $20,000 per internee. Senator Inouye was the Senior Senator from Hawaii, and the Junior Senator Spark Matsunaga was there at the meeting, as were Congressmen Norm Mineta and  Bob Matsui, both who had been interned at various camps during WWII.  Everyone spoke, then last was the Senator who said that the time wasn’t right to push for redress yet in Congress, and he proposed a National Commission to investigate the wrong instead. The Senator felt that the injustice of the internment had to be officially established first. After some discussion it was agreed to proceed with the Commission, but many Japanese Americans were unhappy with the delay and wanted monetary redress.

As the Senator’s key Legislative Aide (and a Sansei attorney, the first woman attorney on his staff) the task fell on me to write the legislation for the Commission and push for hearings and passage of S. 1647. It was a daunting task, but based on my father’s story and what I had heard from other internees, and background research I knew we had to pass this bill quickly.  For me as an attorney, it was a due process violation to take away liberty & property without hearings/opportunity to be heard and any charges.  (As a civil rights issue, the E.O. 9066 was also neutral on its face, but had discriminatory impact by only being applied to Japanese Americans.)

As for the name of the Commission, I came up with it by neutralizing the name without saying anything “Japanese American” in the title, to be about the “relocation and internment” of “civilians” not military personnel. And it was only supposed to be about “wartime”actions.  Thus was born the ”National Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians”. (I didn’t mention that 2 interns and I hatched this name while sitting in one of the Senate dining rooms.) We also felt that a neutral title would be easier to pass in Congress (and it was).  The Commission thus would thereby also have broad powers to investigate wrongs done to non-Japanese American civilians (including Alaskan Aleuts) during the war.

Then began the huge lobbying effort by me to get other Congressman and Senators to vote for this bill.  And I worked tirelessly with JACL but lots of other civil rights, veterans groups, religious groups to lobby for passage. The House of Representatives led by the 2 Japanese American Congressmen considered the bill first in the House Judiciary Committee and it went to the House floor for passage. But the bill stalled in the U.S. Senate, despite Senator Inouye’s introduction of it, with several co-sponsors.

One day about a year after the bill (S. 1647) had been introduced, I was frustrated with the lack of action in the Senate (despite the letter writing campaign going in many of the states where the 10 internment camps had been), and I ran into the Senator in a Russell Senate Office hallway. He asked me about the progress of the bill, and I told him I couldn’t get a hearing in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. He asked me who was Chair and I replied Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington. Then the Senator turned to me and smiled and said “He owes me one.” And the next day I got the call about that committee hearing and I helped schedule speakers from across the country to testify. One was Roger Daniels, the definitive author on the subject “Concentration Camps USA”.  The rest is history – S. 1647 came out of that committee, went to the Senate floor for passage.

President Jimmy Carter signed S.1647 into law on July 31, 1980 as P.L. 96-317.  Senator Inouye mailed me the photo below of the signing at the White House with this handwritten,  personal statement on the photo:  “To Carolyn Sugiyama, This was your day, with much affection and gratitude, Aloha, Daniel K. Inouye”.  I was the right person to be there at the right time, to be instrumental in pushing through this bill.  And the Senator knew how tirelessly I had worked to make this Commission a reality.  (And he has listened solemnly when I told him what had happened to my father duringWWII, the Senator’s uncle.  The rest of our relatives in Hawaii were not interned, except for an aunt’s Buddhist priest father on the Island of Kauai, who was taken away to an FBI camp on the Mainland.)

Photo of President Jimmy Carter signing P.L. 96-317 with Senator Inouye, Congressman Mineta, Senator Matsunaga present, with JACL officials

In 1981 the National Commission was formed, traveled to 10 cities in the U.S. where there were large Japanese American populations (i.e. Washington D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago) and listened to 750 witnesses. I flew up from Hawaii to SF to testify, at my own expense, feeling the necessity to tell the Commission about my work and also what had happened to my father.

A year later in 1982 the Commission published its findings in “Personal Justice Denied”. This was stated in the conclusion (page 18): “The promulgation of E.O. 9066 was not justified by military necessity…The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the U.S. during WWII.”

my copy of “Personal Justice Denied”, published 1982

Years later the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was finally passed for redress, and signed by President Ronald Reagan, who did apologize for the wrong done, and $20,000 was given to each Japanese American  internee. About 82,000 people received these payouts, but many had already passed away.

Senator Inouye remained in the U.S. Senate and he passed away in office on December 17, 2012 at age 88.  My family attended one of his memorial services in Hilo, Hawaii.  I admired his hard work and dedication to this issue and he never gave up fighting for redress for Japanese Americans. Before the end of his life, Senator Inouye became President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, the 3rd ranking Senator in that body. He had sent me one of his President Pro Tempore commemorative coins marking this occasion.”

Carolyn Sugiyama Classen participated on a panel on December 17, 2017 at a Day of Remembrance event (to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the signing of E.O. 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 2/19/42).  Other panel members were ASU Professor Kathryn Nakagawa (Sansei whose family had been interned) and retired UA Professor Min Yanagihashi (Nisei from Hawaii), who both provided the background of the history leading up to the signing of E.O. 9066 and the internment camps themselves.  Carolyn has been a blogger here at Blog for Arizona since Feb. 11, 2014 and is a Hearing Officer in Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts Small Claims Division (since April 20, 2005).

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14 thoughts on “Former U.S. Senate Aide Carolyn Sugiyama Classen: Creation of National Commission which investigated the wrong done to WWII Japanese Americans”

  1. Thanks you so much for all you did for our people who were kept in the camps. I was one 1/2 when our family was relocated to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Even though I was very young, I have many memories of those days. Unfortunately, my cousins and I tried to get our parents to tell us about the life before, during and after camp, but they would not talk about it. It makes me very sad to think that in a way, to them it was a shameful period in their lives.
    My daughter and her family and I just saw “Allegiance” at the theater.. It brought tears to my eyes, because it reminded me of so many things from my past. I loved the play and I am grateful that Geo. Takei produced it for the world to see.
    If you ever get a chance to go to Cody, Wyoming, the Heart Mountain Camp and Informative Center is just 5 miles north of the city. Or you can go to: for more information. I’ve been there a few times and am always awestruck. Thanks for your time.
    Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

    • Carolyn Hanano — many thanks for letting me know about your family’s internment at Heart Mt. I’ve only been to the Gila River internment site memorial and know a few other former internees of Heart Mt. (some in town here in Tucson). After my talk on Saturday’s Day of Remembrance, the son/grandson of internees came up to me to shake my hand for helping get the redress $. It was very touching and helped me to realize what role I played in American history.

  2. Thanks Carolyn. I read your post with great interest. Though the information was not new (I had two san-sei housemates while an undergraduate student in the 70’s), I am always sobered to hear individual stories and to be reminded of what occurred. I hope your message of perseverance for recognition of injustices is heard, especially in our current times.

    • We had to tell the history and these stories again for the Day of Remembrance, commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the signing of E.O. 9066. Otherwise, it is too painful to bring it up. Several Tucson internees and families of those interned did not attend this panel discussion event at the Tucson Desert Art Museum, but they did attend the opening reception for Gambatte! in November. I appreciate your comments, as Chair of the East Asian Studies Dept. at the UA. Retired Professor Min Yanagihashi did a good job in explaining the history aspects of that time. I’ve recapped it here:

  3. I was just in Maui and the last sugar cane fields have been closed down. Sugarcane was responsible for many immigrant farm worker groups to first go to Hawaii, starting with Ilocanos from the Philippines, followed by Japanese, Chinese, and Portugese, each contributing to the “halo halo”, (as we say in my Filipino family) culture of Hawaii. At least it is recognized for the wonderful cultural mix that is Hawaii and the mainland now. And now the Arizona camp locations at Gila River and Poston are recognized with monuments.

    • Very true Frances, the sugar plantations in Hawaii employed immigrants from all over the world as you listed, including Puerto Rico and Korea too. There were about 1500 people rounded up and interned in Hawaii, some sent to Mainland camps (like my aunt’s Buddhist priest father Rev. Ohye on Kauai), and of course Honouliuli camp on Oahu. Mahalo for your comment. My grandparents (on both sides) were those indentured by sugar plantations on Oahu and the Big Island.

  4. Interesting story, Carolyn. Indeed, signing that executive order was probably the lowest point of FDR’s presidency. Very sad.

  5. I have visited the Japanese concentration camp at Manzanar near Lone Pine, California. The living conditions there were terrible and dehumanizing. The inmates were treated like prisoners of war and worse. Their imprisonment and the uncompensated confiscation of their property was a horrible injustice and a blot on America’s ideals. All Americans should visit Manzanar along with the many foreign visitors who do.

    • Thanks Mike for your comments about Manzanar which I have not had the opportunity to visit. We did visit Gila River to see the memorial and what’s left of the camp… it is also in a desolate area of desert. The father of a friend of mine said they figured out how to build their own swamp coolers for the heat of the summers.

  6. Appreciate the attention given to the Japanese Internment but as a white woman, when are we going to face the generations of damage this country has done to the African American people? Why were reparations kosher for the Japanese but not the African Americans? The racism of the elected leaders and the American people are obvious and need to admit the wrongs and pay them. Our president resides in a home built by African American slaves not Japanese. What are you doing to right this wrong? It’s Black History Month and you’re recognizing the Japanese when the African Americans have been shunned for centuries. I’m ashamed of this continuous discrimination by my government.

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