Oral history project highlights the little-known Japanese American redress program

a woman in wheelchair is presented with a letter of presidential apology as others crowd around her

On Oct. 9, 1990, Hisano Fujimoto, 101, of Lombard, Illinois, receives her redress check from Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress)

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, congressional legislation that sought to offer a measure of justice to Japanese Americans nearly 40 years after their forced relocation and incarceration during World War II. The resulting program was carried out by the little-known Office of Redress Administration.

This agency was charged with locating eligible survivors and providing them with a redress payment of $20,000 and a signed presidential letter of apology. Over its decade-long operation, the Office of Redress Administration was able to reach over 81,000 survivors.

Berkeley News spoke with Todd Holmes, a historian and associate academic specialist with the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, who collaborated with Stanford’s Emi Kuboyama on an oral history project about the Japanese American redress program. Holmes discussed what made the program unique and why so few people have heard about it.

Berkeley News: The Oral History Center recently partnered with Emi Kuboyama, a former Berkeley staffer who attended Berkeley’s Oral History Summer Institute in 2017 and is now on staff at Stanford University, on an oral history project about the Japanese American redress program. Why did you want to be involved with this project?

portrait of todd holmes standing outside

Todd Holmes is a historian and associate academic specialist with the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center at UC Berkeley. (Photo courtesy of Todd Holmes)

Todd Holmes: When Emi Kuboyama first discussed the idea of this project with me, I could hardly contain my excitement. As a political historian, I knew about the story of redress and saw it as an important bookend to the sad story of Japanese Internment. And yet, it was an often-overlooked story with little documentation and discussion.

Partnering with Emi on the project afforded a unique opportunity to seriously document the history of the ORA itself through oral histories with former staff and Japanese American community leaders. Emi worked as a lawyer for the Office of Redress Administration from 1993-’98. She knew the agency’s history, its staff and operation, as well as the community leaders with which the program collaborated. And more importantly, she kept in touch with many of them.

Oral history is about relationships, where a historian not only hopes to gain access to an interviewee, but also earn their trust. Emi had the respect and trust of all those involved — and therefore so did the project. So, to have the opportunity to be part of a history project of such uniqueness and importance was special indeed.

Why tell the story of the redress program? What makes it special?

It represented this little-known success story of the United States government. Unlike most government programs, eligible citizens did not apply for redress — the Office of Redress Administration was charged with locating them.

This required working with the Japanese American community and essentially rebuilding trust between the community and the very government agencies that betrayed them 40 years earlier. The community-government partnership that prevailed really underpinned the success of the redress program and the spirit of justice held by all of those involved.

Why do you think so few people have heard of the program?

It may sound a bit cynical, but political historians don’t typically score points in the profession by highlighting what the government did right. We are trained to critique, and thus, understandably, that critical eye can overlook stories, like redress.

For this oral history project, people who worked for the Oral Redress Administration were interviewed. You essentially acted as a project manager, which included advising on the interview process. What stood out to you in the interviews?

The people who were part of the Oral Redress Administration were incredibly dedicated to the effort of redress. This wasn’t just a job for them. They worked extremely long hours, traveled across the country and pursued every judicial option available to make sure this small measure of justice was awarded to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.

Another thing that stood out to me was the bipartisan spirit that underpinned the program. Japanese American redress bore the seal of three presidential administrations and had the support of Democrats and Republicans alike. In many respects, the success of redress highlighted what was possible when lawmakers reached across the aisle and the government of the people worked for the people.

The oral history interviews about the redress program have been made into a film. What comes next? Are you pursuing other related projects?

The film is scheduled to be part of events hosted by Japanese American organizations, such as the Japanese American Citizens League and Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, in the coming months. We have submitted it to the Mixed Asian Media Festival. We are hoping to get the word out more this fall as we host it at a few film festivals and college campuses.

Emi and I are exploring phase two of the project that looks at the impact that the redress program had within the Japanese American community. Ultimately, we’d like to better document their voices and experiences, which will be a great supplement to the experiences of those inside the Office of Redress Administration.

Together, we hope that students, scholars and the public better appreciate the broader story of redress, namely that it represented the best of America: recognizing and atoning for a wrong, helping others and seeking justice for those impacted by the darkest moments of our history.

Find the film and video recordings of the interviews, along with transcripts, on the Japanese American redress oral history project website.

Learn more about Berkeley’s Oral History Summer Institute.