Nine Japanese Americans, including six age 100 and older, have received $20,000 checks at a ceremony kicking off a three-year $1.25 billion program to compensate people imprisoned during World War II because of their ancestry.

Attorney General Dick Thornburgh knelt as he made the first presentation Tuesday to the Rev. Mamoru Eto, 107, the second-oldest survivor of the internment camps. Eto, of Los Angeles, was seated in a wheelchair.In a gesture that symbolized the nation's effort to apologize, Thornburgh also dropped to his knees as he gave checks to five other elderly men and women also seated in wheelchairs.

"By forcing us to re-examine our history, you have made us even stronger and more proud," Thornburgh said. "Your efforts have strengthened this nation's Constitution by reaffirming the inalienability of our civil rights."

The nine at Tuesday's ceremony also received a letter from President Bush that said, in part, "A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories."

"But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II."

An estimated 65,000 Japanese Americans are expected to receive $20,000 checks over the next three years under an entitlement program enacted by Congress.

In 1988, Congress passed legislation apologizing for the internment, stating that it was "motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

But it was not until this year that lawmakers appropriated money to begin paying compensation, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest survivors of the detention.

Congress has set aside $500 million for the 1991 fiscal year, $500 million for the 1992 fiscal year and an estimated $250 million for the 1993 fiscal year.