DALE MINAMI: Change goes slowly. We had to rewrite history in a sense and promulgate the true history of what happened to Japanese Americans.
NARRATION: In 1941, Yae Wada owned and operated a hair salon in Oakland, California.
YAE WADA: This is our shop. Thats me. I was very young. Id say about 1819.
NARRATION: But when the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor
ARCHIVAL (12-7-41):NEWS REEL: A surprise attack born of infamy!
NARRATION: Yae began to realize that some of her fellow Americans would treat her with suspicion.
YAE WADA: We looked in the mirror, we looked exactly like the enemy.
PETER IRONS (ATTORNEY AND LEGAL HISTORIAN): There were reports in the press, wild and absolutely false stories that there had been acts of sabotage or espionage. Japanese Americans who were signaling to submarines off the coast with flashlights and that allowed the government to cast them as dangerous alien enemies.
ARCHIVAL (MOVIE, LITTLE TOKYO, U.S.A., 1942):JIMMY: Let me at him!ADULT: Now take it easy, Jimmy. Who said anything about the Japanese taking over California.JIMMY: He did! Didnt he, fellas?
NARRATION: But as anti-Japanese American sentiment rose, along with suspicions about their secret loyalty to the enemy
ARCHIVAL (MOVIE, LITTLE TOKYO, U.S.A., 1942):JAPANESE AMERICAN BOY: My father talks to Tokyo every night on the radio.
NARRATION: Yae believed that the government would not take drastic measures against people like her.
YAE WADA: I was an American citizen. I said, They might call me in. They might ask me for some papers. Uh, and I had my birth certificate. I had my drivers license. You know, its the only country we knew. You were born here. You were raised here. You go to school here.
NARRATION: But just months after Pearl Harbor, Yae saw the notices posted on telephone poles.
YAE WADA: Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry!
NARRATION: She learned that she, her family, and 120,000 other Japanese Americans would have to abandon their homes and be imprisoned in internment camps.
YAE WADA: We could take anything we wanted as long as we could carry it.
NARRATION: On the way to their designated camp named Topaz, in the Utah desert Yae and her family were made to stay in a repurposed horse stable.
YAE WADA: I told my father, Papa, I am not going to go in there. I am not a horse The first thing we saw was the barbed wires. And that scared me. I felt very betrayed, but the only way to prove loyalty was to do as they said. So I did.
NARRATION: Some Japanese Americans refused to do what the government said like 23-year-old Fred Korematsu. A welder, born in Oakland, Korematsu hid from the authorities and had facial surgery to change his appearance. But he was ultimately arrested.
ARCHIVAL (DOCUMENTARY, UNFINISHED BUSINESS, 1984):FRED KOREMATSU: I didnt feel guilty because I dont think I did anything wrong. I felt I was an American citizen and I had just as many rights as anyone else.
NARRATION: From Topaz, where he was imprisoned, Korematsu appealed his conviction, charging that internment based on race was unconstitutional not just for him, but other Japanese Americans, like Dale Minamis family.
DALE MINAMI (CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY): My parents knew that they were not saboteurs or spies. And yet, they were taken away with my then one-year-old brother who obviously posed no threat to this country. My parents felt ashamed.
NARRATION: Dale Minamis parents, Sam and May Minami, were imprisoned in Arkansas during the war. He says their hopes lay on the outcome of Korematsus case, which ended up before the Supreme Court.
DALE MINAMI: Public opinion was very much against Japanese Americans at the time, but the Supreme Court is supposed to be devoid of all of those different influences. And its supposed to dispense justice without passion or without prejudice.
NARRATION: But in 1944, the Supreme Court ruled against Korematsu and dashed those hopes.
DALE MINAMI: The core of the courts decision was political. That they had to uphold the president during a time of war. It affected me deeply about my, my sense of justice.
NARRATION: By the 1980s, Dale Minami would become a leading legal advocate in the emerging redress movement which sought cash reparations and an apology from the government.
ARCHIVAL (WARTIME RELOCATION HEARINGS, 1981):WOMAN: The trauma of being uprooted left me confused and with a deep sense of personal loss.
DALE MINAMI: The stage was set by the civil rights movement. African Americans who were demanding their rights inspired and ignited the imagination of Japanese-Americans to push for their own rights.
ARCHIVAL (WARTIME RELOCATION HEARINGS, 1981):MAN: Monetary reparations will at least be a symbolic recognition of the wrongs and injustice which I suffered.
NARRATION: In 1982, Minami got a call from lawyer Peter Irons, whod made a shocking discovery deep in government archives.
PETER IRONS: It was a memorandum from a Justice Department lawyer, Edward Ennis. And Mr. Ennis said, I have obtained records all showing that no acts of espionage or sabotage had ever been verified. And I found more records backing that up. It was one of those holy cow moments.
ARCHIVAL (DOCUMENTARY, UNFINISHED BUSINESS, 1984):PETER IRONS: The government intentionally withheld the evidence proving the falsity of these charges from the Supreme Court.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1-19-83):NEWS REPORT: This secret memo to the Attorney General from J. Edgar Hoover, saying military claims of espionage were investigated and were unfounded.
NARRATION: Irons and Minami joined forces with Fred Korematsu, then living quietly in California, and together they reopened his case.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1-19-83):NEWS REPORT: They walked into the federal courthouse to file a lawsuit, not to start a new fight but to continue an old one.
NARRATION: At first, the government offered simply to give Korematsu a pardon.
ARCHIVAL (DOCUMENTARY, UNFINISHED BUSINESS, 1984):DALE MINAMI: Fred Korematsu told me, he said, We, we shouldnt accept a pardon. If anything we should pardon the government.
NARRATION: A federal judge wiped Korematsus conviction from his record and acknowledged that hed been grievously wronged.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-5-83):FRED KOREMATSU: Its quite a victory for me, and also, its a victory for the 120,000 Japanese that, that had to be evacuated and put in concentration camps.
NARRATION: That victory bolstered the redress movement, which scored an historic win of its own, five years later.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS, 11-10-88):NEWS REPORT: Today, the government apologized and agreed to pay $20,000, tax free, to each of the 62,000 survivors. But the president said no payment can make up for those lost years.PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: So what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor, for here we admit a wrong.
DALE MINAMI: It was liberating for this community to help regain their political birthright which was to be a full American citizen.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS, 11-10-88):MAN (CRYING): I am sure happy that it ended this way.MAN: For the first time in the past 46 years that I was an American like the rest of the people.
NARRATION: But even after the government apologized and Korematsu received the presidential medal of freedom in 1998 the Supreme Courts 1944 decision remained on the books. Then, in 2018, a different case came before the court.
ARCHIVAL (1-29-17):PROTESTORS: Let them in! Let them in!
NARRATION: After President Trump restricted travel to the U.S. by people from five Muslim-majority countries on national security grounds, the policy was challenged in the Supreme Court. Justice Sonya Sotomayor compared the travel ban to the internment of Japanese Americans. The court upheld the ban, but Chief Justice John Roberts took the opportunity to officially address the Korematsu ruling, writing that Korematsu was, gravely wrong the day it was decided and has no place in law under the Constitution statements interpreted as disavowing Korematsu as legal precedent.
It was a fraught ending to the Korematsu decision but for Dale Minami, there was still some satisfaction in it.
DALE MINAMI: There are so many differences in this country. So, its hard to keep cohesive. So if you can correct a wrong, if you could admit youre wrong, if you can create a tolerance within a society about mistakes. I think it helps you move forward.
NARRATION: Perhaps no one understands that better than Yae Wada, now 102 years old.
YAE WADA (READING FROM A LETTER): President of the United States, October 1990.
NARRATION: She waited over four decades for her letter of apology from the government, as well as the $20,000 reparation check for her incarceration at Topaz.
YAE WADA: Twenty thousand is a lot of money to a lot of people. But for those of us who lost our homes and our business, it really wasnt very much. I was very angry. And I was that way for years, but when I got this reparation and a sincere letter from the president, I had to accept it.