The Father of the Japanese American Redress Movement

Byrnes Yamashita
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Writer’s note: Thursday, Aug. 10 is the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 by President Ronald Reagan. House Resolution 442 was named after the 442nd Regimental Combat Team to remind legislators of the wartime service of Nisei veterans such as Hawai‘i Senators Spark Matsunaga and Daniel K. Inouye. In the ceremonial photo, Reagan is shown surrounded by Nikkei members of Congress involved in the long road to passage. Prominent by his absence was Edison Uno, who is widely credited with formulating the concept of seeking redress from the federal government for the unlawful incarceration of the Nikkei community from the west coast of the U.S. during World War II. This article is focused on Edison; a subsequent article will discuss his family which author Tom Coffman calls, “possibly the most interesting Japanese American family in America.”

Early Life

Edison Uno was born in Los Angeles in 1929, one of ten siblings. His father, George Kumemaro Uno and his wife, Riki, emigrated from Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan in the early 1900s. After the implementation of Executive Order 9066, the Uno family was incarcerated at the Granada War Relocation Center in Colorado, then transferred to the Crystal City Family Internment Camp in Texas.

Edison’s oldest brother, Kazumaro “Buddy” Uno, traveled extensively in Asia before the war and worked for the Japanese Army Press Bureau. He was accused of mistreating Allied POWs during the war. Despite some of the other Uno sons volunteering for U.S. military service, officials held George at Crystal City until September 1947 perhaps due to Buddy’s activities in Japan. Edison remained with the family in Crystal City until the fall of 1946.

The Emergence of an Activist

After returning to Los Angeles, Edison joined the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in 1948 and became the youngest chapter president in JACL’s history in 1950. He left Hastings Law School due to poor health and had a stroke at the age of 28. Refusing to let his poor health limit his activities, he became a tireless champion for social justice.

Edison Uno (left) with his father, George, September 1946, at the Crystal City Family Internment Camp. (Photo courtesy of the Uno Family)
Edison Uno (left) with his father, George, September 1946, at the Crystal City Family Internment Camp. (Photo courtesy of the Uno Family)

Clearly, his experience and that of his family during the war shaped his perspective and ignited his social consciousness motivating him to lead a life of activism, breaking the mold of the quiet, compliant Japanese. Referring to himself as a “non-conforming progressive Nisei,” he embarked on a short but brilliant career as an educator and human rights activist.

An outspoken advocate for racial equality, Uno gave speeches and organized workshops for numerous activist groups in the San Francisco Bay Area through the 1960s and 1970s. He organized a committee to help Native Americans occupy Alcatraz and supported the 1968 Third World Strike at San Francisco State University to protest the Vietnam War and create the ethnic studies program, one of the first in the United States.

The California Historical Society asked him to advise the curators of the 1972 exhibit “Executive Order 9066” and write the introduction to the companion book. He helped plan pilgrimages to the Manzanar internment camp in southern California to facilitate the healing process of families scarred by incarceration.

Uno also taught classes on World War II incarceration at San Francisco State University (SFSU). His course, “Evacuation USA,” condemned the injustice Japanese Americans endured and urged students to join multiethnic and multiracial coalitions to combat racism and imperialism.

The Struggle for Redress

Uno hoped a redress campaign would both educate the public and provide overdue economic reparation to Japanese American victims of the mass incarceration. Initially rebuffed by the conservative leadership of the JACL, he continued pressing for redress. Eventually, the JACL changed course and began the struggle to secure legislation to provide a formal restitution to the Nikkei community members who experienced the incarceration.

The roles of Senators Spark Matsunaga and Daniel K. Inouye in the passage of the redress legislation deserves mention. Senator Inouye is credited with recommending the formation of the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. He felt that a Congressionally mandated commission would document the relocation and incarceration to a degree that could not be ignored or dismissed by his fellow legislators.

The commission’s report titled, “Personal Justice Denied,” concluded that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was not justified by military necessity. It helped convince skeptical legislators of the facts relating to the incarceration and swayed public opinion across the nation about the unjustified rationale that the incarceration was based on the threat posed by the Nikkei community to national security.

Senator Matsunaga took on the task of winning over members of the senate for what was thought to be an impossible task, getting the federal government to apologize for the unlawful and discriminatory incarceration of innocent civilians based solely on ethnic origin. He lobbied each senator and is said to have conducted after-hour tours of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History to show congressional leaders the exhibit, “A More Perfect Union,” which described the relocation and incarceration program during the war, as well as the exploits of the Nisei Army units to help win the war.


Edison Uno passed away on Christmas Eve, 1976, at the age of 47, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. His contributions were recognized by numerous awards including the American Civil Liberties Union’s first Alexander Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Award and the San Francisco Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award. The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) established the Edison Uno Public Service Award.

President Ronald Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. (NARA Photo)
8/10/1988 President Reagan signs the Reparations Bill for Japanese-Americans with Pete Wilson Spark Matsunaga Norman Mineta Robert Masui and Bill Lowrey looking on in the Old Executive Office Building

The National JACL honored Uno’s legacy as “a strong and vocal advocate of human and civil rights” and “one of the first to call for the government to redress Japanese Americans for wartime incarceration” by establishing the Edison Uno Civil Rights Award in 1985.

In a tribute to Uno in 1990, former Hawai‘i Herald editor Karleen Chinen wrote that she attended his class at the University of Hawai‘i and was moved by his message. He opened her eyes to the unlawful wartime internment of more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. Chinen noted that Uno “helped give birth to a new breed of Japanese Americans. A prouder, smarter, more vigilant breed — not ruled by vengeance, but moved by their newly awakened sense of justice.”

Carole Hayashino is a California-born Sansei who was very active in the JACL efforts for redress. She is one of the new breed of Japanese Americans that Chinen referred to in her tribute. Hayashino was a student in Asian American Studies at SFSU when she took Uno’s class on incarceration in the 1970s. The experience changed the course of her life. Many of us know her as the former president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i.

When asked to comment on Uno, she said, “Edison was a teacher, a mentor and friend. Second to my father, he had the greatest influence on my life. He inspired me to action and through him, I got involved in many community and social justice issues.” Those activities brought Hayashino to the attention of John Tateishi, chairman of the JACL National Committee for Redress and a key figure in the campaign for reparations. Tateishi recruited her to join the JACL national headquarters where she worked for 15 years.

Hayashino was present at the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. She recalls bittersweet emotions that Uno was not present to witness the realization of his dream of restitution to the Nikkei community incarcerated during the war.

Uno receiving the UCSF Chancellor’s Award for public service. (Photo courtesy of Densho Encyclopedia)
Uno receiving the UCSF Chancellor’s Award for public service. (Photo courtesy of Densho Encyclopedia)

His Legacy

Edison Uno left behind a legacy of community and political involvement in the pursuit of justice for disadvantaged and minority communities. As we reflect on the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and its significance in American Nikkei history, let us remember Edison Uno, a societal healer and man before his time. His activism and commitment to social justice is an inspiration for our younger generations, many of whom have attained the social and professional achievements that our forefathers sacrificed for.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here