Senkichi Yuge, 101, had fainted the night before and for a while it looked doubtful he could withstand the plane trip from Los Angeles. But Yuge was determined to be at the Justice Department yesterday -- "even if it was the last thing that he did," said Yumi Yuge, his granddaughter.
Frail and bound to a wheelchair, Sugi Kiriyama, 100, was equally adamant about making the trip. "She's been praying every day she would still be alive," said Janice Ikkanda Trost, Kiriyama's granddaughter.
Yesterday, 48 years after being uprooted from their homes and "relocated" to World War II internment camps, Yuge, Kiriyama and seven other elderly Japanese Americans sat stoically as Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, dropping to his knees to reach those in wheelchairs, handed each of them a U.S. government check for $20,000. They were the first payments under the 1988 Civil Liberties Act -- the landmark law in which the nation formally apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans and pledged to pay $1.25 billion to more than 60,000 survivors and their heirs.
"By finally admitting a wrong, a nation does not destroy its integrity, but rather reinforces the sincerity of its commitment to the Constitution, and hence to its people," Thornburgh said during an emotional ceremony in the Great Hall of Justice. "In forcing us to reexamine our history, you have made us only stronger and more proud."
The event culminated years of lobbying by Japanese Americans and debate in Congress over how the country should redress one of its more glaring lapses in civil liberties. Amid the anti-Japanese sentiment that followed Pearl Harbor, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans -- 70 percent of them U.S. citizens -- were herded onto trains guarded by soldiers and sent off to 10 camps scattered over six western states and Arkansas.
Surrounded by barbed wire and armed sentries, they were detained for much of the war -- allegedly to prevent any attack on U.S. strategic installations, although not a single incident of a Japanese American attempting to aid the enemy was ever documented.
With each check, Thornburgh passed along a formal letter of apology from President Bush, acknowledging that a "monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories." But there was more than a tinge of irony to the letters -- and a special urgency to yesterday's ceremony.
Since President Ronald Reagan signed the law more than two years ago, funding for the reparations has wound slowly through the congressional appropriations process and money became available only with the start of the new fiscal year last week.
In the meantime, 1,600 survivors of the camps have died and thousands more are ailing, unable to enjoy the funds they are slated to receive. "It's saddening -- it's a frustration," said Robert Bratt, executive officer of the Justice Department's Office of Redress Administration, which oversees the reparations program. When Reagan signed the law at a White House ceremony, "everybody got their picture taken" but there was little discussion about how to make the reparations a reality.
Kiriyama, a former housekeeper who with her husband had been interned at the infamous Manzanar camp in the Mojave Desert, is one of many who began to doubt they would ever see the money. "She never thought the day would come," said her granddaughter.
Befitting the long controversy that surrounded enactment of the law, there also has been a dispute over who was responsible for the delay.
Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.) accused the Reagan and Bush administrations of initially requesting only $20 million to fund the reparations -- about 2 percent of the sum needed to make all the payments. Administration officials in turn noted that the Senate last year failed to meet even that minimal request -- a reflection of what one staff member called the inevitable "fiscal realities."
But now, pending resolution of the overall federal budget dispute, the funding question has been worked out and the program turned into an entitlement: Over the next 2 1/2 years, the Justice Department will mail out more than 60,000 checks -- 25,000 this fiscal year, 25,000 next year and the remainder in 1993. Because of the advanced age of so many of the former internees, the department is targeting the oldest first with five more ceremonies over the next week in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu.
The oldest surviving internee, a 108-year-old man living in Phoenix, was suffering a painful toothache and was unable to attend yesterday's event, according to Bratt. That left Mamoru Eto, 107, a retired minister from Santa Monica, Calif., as the oldest at the ceremony.
Sade Ide of Arlington was, at 90, among the younger beneficiaries. "I've been waiting for this for a long time -- waiting, waiting, waiting," she said. After years of living in apartments after being released from the Gila River internment camp in Arizona, Ide knows exactly what she's going to do with the money. "I'm going to buy a house," she said, "and have my own garden."