The House, in what many members called a fitting tribute to the Constitution on its 200th birthday, offered the nation's apology and $1.2 billion in reparations yesterday to thousands of Japanese Americans who were forced into relocation camps during World War II.

The 243-to-141 House approval of the measure capped a long effort by two California Democrats who were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans detained under a 1942 order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Senate is expected to take up similar legislation cosponsored by 76 members next week.

For Reps. Norman Y. Mineta and Robert T. Matsui, as well as the scores of Japanese Americans who crowded the House gallery, yesterday's vote and emotional floor debate helped excise what Mineta called an "unwarranted stigma of disloyalty which clings to us still to this day."

Wiping aside tears, Mineta described how he -- in his Cub Scout uniform -- and his family were herded aboard a train under armed guard 45 years ago to begin their three-year incarceration.

After reading from a letter his father wrote from the relocation camp, Mineta noted, "We lost our homes, we lost our businesses, we lost our farms, but worst of all, we lost our basic human rights."

The legislation to redress that wrong, Mineta said, reaches deep "into the very soul of our democracy" and will "lift the unjust burden of shame that 120,000 Americans have carried for 45 painful years . . . . It is a day I will remember for the rest of my life . . . a day when justice was achieved." {Excerpts from Mineta's speech, Page A25.}

The legislation, based on recommendations of a 1981 commission that studied the mass wartime relocation, offers those detained the nation's formal apology and tax-free payments of $20,000 each. It establishes a $1.25 billion trust fund to cover costs and further study of the issue, and authorizes the attorney general to identify the estimated 60,000 individuals eligible for payments.

The measure declares that the justification for the mass internment -- that Japanese Americans posed a security risk -- was unfounded and that the relocations were "motivated in part by racial prejudice and wartime hysteria." The House adopted additional language assigning some blame to a "failure of political leadership."

Opposition centered largely on costs, and whether the reparations would set a dangerous precedent.

"What a funny way to ask us to rub ashes on our heads," said Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.). "The committee is asking us to purge ourselves of someone else's guilt with another generation's money. Should we pay blood money to cleanse this embarrassment?"

The legislation, added Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Calif.), is based on the "misguided notion that the dollar sign is the only genuine symbol of contrition." Lungren's amendment to strip the monetary reparations from the bill was easily defeated, as was another amendment to trim costs.

The bill prompted a flood of rhetoric on the Constitution and how best to honor the nation's founding document. It also unleashed a stream of often painful memories of World War II still fresh in the minds of legislators on both sides.

House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) recalled returning from combat duty in the Pacific and discovering "the horrendous wrong against our Constitution" that had occurred. "Today we finally have an opportunity to redress that ancient wrong," he said.

But "in our attempt to repair the injustices, let's not create multitudes of other injustices," said Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.), whose father was held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Wake Island.

It was the personal remembrances of Mineta and Matsui, however, that held the House transfixed.

"My father was not able to talk about this for 40 years," said Matsui, who was an infant when his family was forcibly relocated.

"I didn't understand what happened until the 1980s," he said. "My mother, if she were alive today, would be very proud of what Congress is doing."