Japanese Americans detained in relocation camps during World War II and never compensated can sue the federal government for property losses, the U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled yesterday.

A three-judge panel, split 2 to 1, reversed a lower court ruling that found the statute of limitations had expired.

"Nearly 40 years later . . . the government says that the time for justice has passed. We cannot agree," Judge J. Skelly Wright said in sending the suit by 19 Japanese Americans back to U.S. District Court here.

"Given the alleged damage to the real and personal property directly caused by the evacuation program, there is no question that the Japanese Americans have stated" a valid claim, Wright wrote in the majority opinion.

Calling the decision a "great day of vindication for the Japanese-American community," attorney Benjamin L. Zelenko said the ruling apparently clears the way for about 120,000 Japanese Americans whose property was seized to sue for damages.

Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), who as a child spent almost four years with his family in a detention camp in California, said he was "surprised and happy about the decision," which he said he thought originally was a "longshot."

"This really gives people who were wronged the opportunity to get compensated for their actual losses," Matsui said.

Two bills on the matter are pending in the House and Senate, but no hearings have been scheduled. In 1983, a congressional commission recommended that a $1.5 billion fund be set up to compensate those who suffered losses during the internment.

A Justice Department spokesman said the department had no comment on the ruling.

The ruling reversed U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, who said in 1984 that the suit should be dismissed because "much time has passed, memories have dimmed and many of the actors have died."

The suit was brought by 19 Japanese Americans who were among the thousands forcibly removed from their West Coast communities after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They were taken to isolated camps, many in the desert, and housed in barracks surrounded by barbed wire and military guards.

In seeking damages, the Japanese Americans alleged that the government improperly concealed from the Supreme Court analyses developed by naval intelligence in 1942 that the internment of Japanese Americans was not a military necessity.

In ruling on the constitutionality of the internments in 1944, the Supreme Court had deferred to arguments by military authorities that the massive roundup was necessary to safeguard the security of the country.

Because the government had concealed information of the military need for the internments, the panel found that the statute of limitations under the American-Japanese Evacuation Claims Act, passed by Congress in 1948 to repay survivors for lost property, was not applicable.

"We have learned that extraordinary injustice can provoke extraordinary acts of concealment. Where such concealment is alleged it ill behooves the government of a free people to evade an honest accounting," wrote Wright, who was joined by Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Not until 1980, when Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, was there a formal statement that Congress "no longer believed that the explanation provided by the military authorities was adequate and that the issue should be reopened," the panel said.

Only after that step did the statute of limitations begin to run, Wright wrote.

The suit had also sought additional compensation for Japanese Americans who previously were compensated, at a rate of about 10 cents on the dollar, under the Claims Act. The Appeals Court panel ruled that they were not entitled to additional money, and would have to press any additional claims with the Congress.

In dissenting, Judge Howard R. Markey said he believed the Appeals Court did not have jurisdiction in the case. The "majority's decision . . . rests not on the jurisdiction of precedent of this court, but on a proper sense of outrage and a laudable desire to do 'justice.' I share those sentiments, but opt for equal justice under law," he said.