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Redress: A film about the Office of Redress Administration

For Emi Kuboyama there was “one story that has been haunting me in a way for decades.”  Now that story has finally been told in the film Redress which was co-created by Kuboyama, a former ORA lawyer, and Todd Holmes, a UC Berkeley historian, in collaboration with filmmaker Jon Ayon. Redress is an educational short film about the Office of Redress Administration (ORA) and its relationship with the Japanese American community after the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (HR442).   

Emi Kuboyama

Emi Kuboyama was born and raised in Honolulu. Her Japanese grandparents immigrated to Maui and her dad’s family grew up in Lahaina. She does not know of any family members who were in the concentration camps. Kuboyama currently is Director of Career Education and Professional Networks at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Todd Holmes is a Historian and Associate Academic Specialist with the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. He is a specialist in California and the American West. His work focuses on the history of politics, business, environmental regulation, and agriculture in the region.

The first third of the 38 minute Redress film covers the historical background before the 1988 passage of HR442 and is a visual/ auditory collage. Flashing lights and colors (like an old TV on the blink), ominous music, clips of anguished community testimony, black and white photos, old newsreel footage and more recent interviews, help to tell the story of Executive Order 9066 and the forced removal during WWII of over 120,000 people of Japanese descent. This section also covers the fight for redress/reparations by the Japanese community, the 1981 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) hearings, and the eventual signing of HR442 by President Reagan on August 10, 1988.

This historical section also includes interviews with community leaders including Kay Ochi, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (formerly National Coalition for Redress/ Reparations or NCRR) and Bill Kaneko, Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), former JACL president of its Honolulu chapter. There is also rare black and white archival footage of the Chicago CWRIC hearings.

ORA flyer

The final two thirds of the film is mainly about the work of the Office of Redress Administration (ORA), created in September 1988 within the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ). The ORA was given a mandate by HR442 to locate and verify eligible redress recipients.

Bob Bratt was appointed as ORA Director. He and his small Washington DC staff were tasked with not only finding thousands of former concentration camp survivors throughout the US, but also creating a system to verify eligibility for the $20,000 redress payment and government apology. This section of the film has interviews with Bratt and former ORA staff, lots of photos both in the office and while doing community outreach.

Kuboyama was just out of law school when she started working a temporary job for the ORA in 1994. Her job became a fulltime staff position and she worked for the ORA until 1998. “It was myself and Tink Cooper, who was the other attorney at that time.”

“For me it was such a perfect opportunity to do what I wanted to do when I left law school, which was to have an impact on people, to promote justice, to really work with the community and having the opportunity to do it with a historic program. It was difficult to top for me.”

During the height of redress payments, there were over 100 contract employees working with Bob Bratt and about fifteen fulltime ORA staff. They did community outreach in different cities and had a Washington DC bilingual hotline. Bratt and the ORA staff found the redress work with the Japanese American community rewarding. The Japanese American community and organizations such as NCRR and JACL helped to organize workshops, locate recipients, and assist with the application process.

Bob Bratt at an early check presentation ceremony

Later, NCRR, JACL, and the community fought to help those denied redress by the ORA. The film has numerous clips of interviews with the Japanese Latin Americans, one of the groups denied redress. During WWII, the US government abducted more than 2,200 Japanese from Peru and eleven other Latin American countries to be used in a prisoner-of -war exchange with Japan. Some repatriated to Japan, but many remained in the US. Though a small number of Japanese Latin Americans were later found eligible for the $20,000 payment, most received only $5,000 and an apology letter after a lawsuit against the government (U.S. v. Carmen Mochizuki) was settled. 

One of the other categories involved Hawaii residents who were forcibly removed from their homes. The Department of Justice eventually reversed its decision. Kuboyama’s Hawaii background helped the ORA deal with the Hawaii cases that had been denied redress. “I think it helped when we were trying to resolve the Hawaii cases. I think I added to kind of a better understanding of Hawaii specifically. So it was a nice opportunity to bring skills I didn’t realize I had to doing this job.”

She hoped to one day document the story of the ORA, possibly in an academic paper, but wasn’t sure how. Then in 2017, she took a workshop at the UC Berkeley Advanced Oral History Institute. She realized, “This could be a way to do what I was looking to do.”

“I was hoping to capture and to share the stories not only of the people who were involved in doing redress on the government side, but also on the community side. What better way than through oral history?”

She met Todd Holmes, a historian with UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center who was teaching the oral history process. He agreed that this was a topic worth pursuing. “I think that was really helpful to have somebody who was a historian say that they saw value in doing something like this. I think (it) really lit a spark for me.”

Dale Minami suggested that she apply for a Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant through the National Parks Service, US Department of Interior. The grant money allowed Kuboyama and Holmes to fund oral history interviews of former ORA staff and community leaders affiliated with the program. It was easy to get interviews with former ORA staff, even though Kuboyama had not seen most of them for 20 years. Most of her former colleagues responded right away and said they would “love to be part” of the project.

ORA staff and community leaders in LA at an ORA information event.

“We kind of grew up together professionally. Something about being part of each other’s life in that time period was really significant and allowed us to kind of just jump right back in to having this type of easy rapport with each other.”

Densho was an early supporter and put the interviews on their website. The remaining money was used to make film clips to highlight the interviews. People gravitated to the film clips. Kuboyama and Holmes decided that a film would tell a more compelling story, though neither of them were filmmakers. Kuboyama contacted a Stanford professor, Anthony Antonio, who reached out to the film school. One of Antonio’s colleagues recommended filmmaker Jon Ayon.

Filmmaker, Jon Ayon, is Mestizx/ Latinx and was born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents. He moved to Oakland to attend film school at San Francisco State and Stanford University. His latest film No Soy Oscar toured the 2021-2022 film festival circuit. In No Soy Oscar, Ayon visits the location along the US/ Mexico border where a Salvadoran immigrant and his young daughter drowned.

Ayon knew little about redress, but Kuboyama felt he could bring a “fresh perspective” to the film. After deciding on the vision and style of the film and sharing resources, Ayon decided on the order of the film and “created the whole arc.” He did extensive research of his own, including unearthing archival footage.

Part of Ayon's artistic style included using flashing colors and lights at the beginning of the film and the use of “static” between some of the interviews. Kuboyama said, “I think that’s part of his style. I think it was a visual/auditory way to capture your attention and immediately ground you in that point in history by using those older fashioned, what you’d see if you watch TV.”

Ayon greatly improved the film quality of the older footage. Kuboyama said, “He worked a lot on the technical side to try to bring out a better quality so that it was standard across the whole film.” They also “arrived at a balance” of history vs redress by experimenting with the length of each section.

The Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation in San Francisco helped fund the film. Henri, Tomoye and Tomoye’s sister, Martha, were all incarcerated at Topaz, Utah. After the war, they formed the Takahashi Trading Company which imported fine products from Japan. Their foundation supports Americans of Japanese ancestry through cultural programs.

Kuboyama has no plans to make other films, but she hopes the Redress film will open conversations about what reparations programs can look like. She admits such programs are “challenging” to administer. The film was sent to all of the California commissioners for black reparations, but so far only one has responded. Kuboyama and Holmes have been invited to speak to some community groups and colleges. She welcomes community feedback on the film.


*To learn about this film project, click here


© 2023 Edna Horiuchi

Civil Liberties Act of 1988 Emi Kuboyama Jon Ayon law legislation Office of Redress Administration Redress (film) Redress movement Todd Holmes United States
About the Author

Edna Horiuchi is a retired Los Angeles teacher. She volunteers at Florence Nishida’s teaching garden in South LA and is active at Senshin Buddhist Temple. She enjoys reading, tai chi, and going to opera.

Updated June 2023

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