Office Of Redress Administration

An Unprecedented Mandate

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was a historic victory for the Japanese American community. For the first time in U.S. history, the federal government not only acknowledged a grave wrong, but provided compensation to those who suffered the injustice. The bill stipulated that each eligible individual receive a $20,000 payment and a letter of apology from the President. Moreover, the legislation placed the burden of the redress process on the government, meaning it fell to the Department of Justice to identify, locate, and verify an estimated 60,000 eligible residents of Japanese ancestry. That task would be the sole mission of the newly-created Office of Redress Administration (ORA).

Situated in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the ORA was formed shortly after the passage of the 1988 Act. The unit was charged with locating and verifying eligible redress recipients, as well as processing their payments and apology letters. Yet, what may have seemed like a simple procedure on the surface, in fact, proved to be quite a complicated and in-depth process—one unlike anything the government had previously undertaken. The redress bill sought to create a proactive program where the burden of the process was shouldered by the government, not the people. Thus, unlike other federal programs, the ORA's mandate prohibited the use of an application form, instead requiring the agency to locate and contact eligible recipients. Such a task was no easy feat. Nearly 60,000 residents of Japanese ancestry were initially estimated to be eligible for redress. Locating a group of people that size across the U.S., and in some cases, across the world, represented an operation as rare in scale and scope as it was in methodology. With many tools of modern technology, like the internet, not fully available, the ORA had to rely on databases and processes of their own creation to fulfill the mission. In many respects, such self-crafted methods exemplified the uniqueness of the redress operations as a whole. There were no models for the ORA to emulate; no roadmaps for it to follow. The redress process, at every step, was crafted from scratch.

Building A Record

By the early fall of 1988, the ORA established an office in Washington D.C. under the direction of Robert Bratt, a young executive within the DOJ's Civil Rights Division. The first task that faced the new unit was the need to build a record for both locating and verifying former detainees—a meticulous and time-consuming process that essentially built the foundation for all other redress work to follow. While the government had kept detailed records from the wartime camps, inaccuracies were widespread and, by 1988, none of the records were in electronic form. This required ORA staff to carefully research scores of government records and camp rosters in the National Archives. That material was then cross-referenced and supplemented by records from other repositories in the West, such as the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. ORA staff then entered the names and corresponding information for each detainee into a computer database especially created for the office, which in turn would be cross-referenced with records from other government departments, like the IRS, to find a current address. By the spring of 1989, this process had helped the ORA identify over 48,000 eligible persons.

ORA Director Bob Bratt meeting with community

Community Outreach

While ORA staff built the redress database, Bob Bratt spent much of the program's first year traveling to various locations throughout the country in the effort to foster a working relationship with the Japanese American community. As he rightly understood, the success of redress hinged on a government-community partnership, one built on transparency, cooperation, and, most importantly, trust. To be sure, such a partnership was a tall order in light of the historical event that stood at the center of the program. Yet, as many community leaders would later admit, Bratt's humble and sincere approach eventually won over even the most hardened skeptics. He outlined every aspect of the process, answered questions, and patiently listened to feedback from the community. Above all, he showed a genuine empathy to those who had suffered and an unwavering dedication to the redress mission. Bratt's outreach not only gave the ORA much needed credibility with the Japanese American community, but also played a major role in rebuilding bridges between the community and government.

The community outreach Bob Bratt initiated would become a central piece of the redress process. In the years that followed, ORA staff conducted over a hundred workshops in cities across the country. The aim of the workshops was threefold: help people register for the program and troubleshoot individual problems; reach out to and learn about potentially eligible recipients that the archival research may have missed; and continue to foster the community-government partnership in the process. Just as in the redress movement, community groups such as the Japanese American Citizen League (JACL) and National Coalition of Redress / Reparations (NCRR) continued to play a critical role, often serving as a conduit between the agency and community. Here they helped the ORA organize workshops and used their community networks to both publicize the local workshops and put former detainees in contact with agency staff. The groups also functioned as a direct line of feedback to the government office, which helped to further amplify the community's voice in the process. The spirit of community outreach even extended to the ORA's Washington office with the bilingual hotline, where residents could call for general information on the redress process as well as specific details about their individual claim.

A Promising Start

By the fall of 1990, the ORA had successfully located and verified over 50,000 former detainees, with the first round of redress checks and apology letters slated to be issued that October. The office prioritized the distribution by age, giving preference to the oldest living recipients. On October 9, 1990, the agency hosted a ceremony in Washington, D.C. where Attorney General Dick Thornburgh presented redress checks to the first nine recipients. The eldest of those recipients was Mamoru Eto at 107 years old. The ORA hosted similar ceremonies in cities on the West Coast. All told, over 20,000 former internees received a redress check and presidential apology letter in the fall of 1990. The following year, another 22,000 received their checks and letters.

Apology Letter from President Bush

Attorney General Dick Thornburgh presenting Redress checks

Washington DC, 1990

Apology Letter from President Clinton

Lobbying Capitol Hill

As the program continued into 1992, ORA leadership began to identify two looming and interrelated issues that would result in congressional amendments to the Civil Liberties Act. The first of these issues was funding. The redress program, as established by congress in 1988, placed the number of eligible former internees at around 60,000. Through their research and community work, however, the ORA soon realized that the actual number was much larger. Federal funding for the program had been an issue from the beginning. Congress initially provided redress funding through a specified budget appropriation each year—a fluctuating process that placed redress payments on unpredictable footing. In the fiscal year of 1990, for example, the budgetary appropriations for redress totaled $20 million, which was only enough to pay 1,000 people. Senator Daniel Inouye, in coordination with Justice Department staff and others, led the effort to resolve this issue by reclassifying redress as an entitlement program and thus protecting its funding from budgetary shifts. After finding a larger number of eligible recipients than previously estimated, the ORA once again reached out to members of congress. The result of their lobbying was the 1992 Amendments to the Civil Liberties Act. Among the issues addressed in these amendments was an increase in federal funding to meet the needs and mission of the redress program.

The second issue the ORA recognized by 1992 was the existence of groups directly impacted by internment that did not neatly fit within the legislated criteria of the redress program. Classified as "unique cases" by the agency's special verification unit, the existence of these groups bespoke to the extensive outreach efforts of the ORA with the Japanese American community. The bulk of government records, such as camp rosters, made no reference to these groups; nor were their wartime experiences recounted in the history books. One of these special cases was non-Japanese spouses. After Executive Order 9066, these spouses faced the difficult decision to either abandon their families or accompany them into the wartime camps. The 1992 Amendments recognized the plight of these individuals and thus made spouses of non-Japanese descent eligible for redress. Additionally, the Amendments also allowed for an expansive interpretation of the law, authorizing the ORA to give "the benefit of the doubt" to the individual in the redress process. This broadened the evidentiary standard so that the ORA could better address groups and circumstances not initially recognized by the government when the original Civil Liberties Act was passed.

Unique Cases

The 1992 Amendments legislated a solution to a number of the unique cases that confronted the ORA. Others required further action by the government and courts, which varied in results. A selection of these cases is discussed below. It should be noted that in the decade-long operation of the ORA, at least half of its time was spent grappling with these special verification cases.


Hawaii represented one of the first unique cases the ORA addressed. Most histories and government reports on wartime internment said little about Hawaii beyond the estimated 1,800 residents of Japanese descent that were evacuated from the islands and incarcerated in camps on the mainland. Through community outreach, however, the ORA learned of hundreds of families who were forced out of their homes at gunpoint and relocated to other parts of the islands. Many of these residents were not interned in camps. Since a large proportion of the population of Hawaii were people of Japanese ancestry, incarceration would have proven extremely difficult. It would have also posed potential repercussions for the local war effort. Yet, the residents did suffer a loss of liberty and property. ORA researchers combed through scores of archives and personal statements in Hawaii and California to document the situation. This research, combined with sworn testimony, allowed the agency to identify over 30 areas on the islands where residents were illegally removed. Those families were then found eligible for redress.

Minor Children

A large group impacted by internment but not initially covered in the Civil Liberties Act were minor children, both those born after their parents' evacuation and those born after their parents had left the camp. Initially, minor children in these categories were ineligible. Several lawsuits, coupled with the community outreach of the ORA, revealed the valid claims such minors had for redress. In Ishida v. United States, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the children had been illegally excluded from their parents' original home and thus suffered a loss of liberty. With that decision, the ORA amended the regulation to make this group of several hundred "Ishida Children," as they became known, eligible for redress.

Railroad & Mining Workers

Another group the ORA worked with was railroad and mining workers. Many laborers of Japanese descent in the West were unjustly fired following America's entry into World War II and the declaration of Executive Order 9066. They may not have been relocated to camps, but claimed federal government actions led to their loss of employment based on race. The case for these claimants, however, was difficult. In the lawsuit, Kaneko v United States, both the lower court and appellate court ruled that the group was ineligible for redress, finding the private companies, rather than the federal government, responsible for their termination. The ORA then conducted extensive research on the case, working with various railroad companies and historical societies. No direct government link was found. But the ORA research did uncover that army security regulations may have had an impact on rehiring protocols. This research combined with the "benefit of the doubt" standard allowed the agency to reverse the previous rulings and grant the group eligibility.

Japanese Latin Americans

One of the more bizarre and complicated cases the ORA worked on involved Japanese Latin Americans. During the war, the United States government sent a request to the countries of Central and South America to deport residents of Japanese descent to the U.S. These residents were then incarcerated with the intention of being repatriated to Japan in exchange for American POWs. Over 2,000 Japanese Latin Americans, primarily from Peru, were sent to the U.S. The government's plan never materialized, however, as Japan had no interest in the deportees, most of whom neither spoke the language nor claimed any connection to the country. To make matters worse, the vast majority of these deportees were initially found ineligible for redress since they did not have permanent residency status, a requirement for eligibility. The difference in immigration laws (the 1917, 1948, and 1952 laws) made things even more complex. Depending which immigration law they applied under, some might receive retroactive status and be eligible, others would not. The ORA conducted extensive research on behalf of the group. In the end, the agency's hands were tied as they could not change the requirements of the Civil Liberties Act. The group took their claim to court in Mochizuki v United States. The government settled the case and awarded each surviving Japanese Latin American an apology letter and redress payment of $5,000.

The Sunset of Redress

The Office of Redress Administration was officially scheduled to sunset in August 1998, fulfilling its decade-long mandate as directed by the Civil Liberties Act. To celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Act, as well as the successful work of the ORA, Attorney General Janet Reno hosted a closing ceremony in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice. Members of congress attended the ceremony, as did government officials, dignitaries, redress recipients, and various leaders of the Japanese American community. The Great Hall was decorated to pay tribute to the community and what it had endured over the last fifty years. Enlarged photographs adorned the walls, documenting the long and painful road the Japanese American community had traveled from internment to redress. A thousand origami cranes also hung throughout the Hall, offering a respectful nod to the Japanese legend that a thousand paper cranes will grant a special wish or bring good luck.

While the ORA officially sunset in August of 1998, the efforts continued into the spring and summer of 1999 as the agency sought to locate the final 3,000 eligible recipients it had identified. When the doors finally closed, the ORA had fully processed 84,762 redress cases. Of these cases, 82,264 were found eligible and paid—an increase of over 20,000 cases than initially anticipated when the officewas created in 1988. The remaining cases broke down as such: 1,581 were found ineligible for redress; 390 were deceased by the time their payment was processed and had no heirs; 541 were Japanese Latin Americans who rejected the government settlement and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit for the full $20,000 payment; and 30 refused to accept their redress payment.

Reflections on Redress

Today, there is no shortage of critiques against the U.S. government. The history of the Office of Redress Administration, however, provides a clear example of how government can actually work. Over its decade-long operation, the redress program bore the seal of three different presidential administrations, and maintained the support of both parties in congress. It located and verified nearly 85,000 eligible individuals through a process the agency crafted from scratch. Again, there was no model for the ORA to emulate; nor a roadmap to guide its operations. In many respects, the uncharted landscape the agency navigated underscores the gap that can exist between the passage of legislation and its implementation—a divide the ORA bridged admirably.

Yet, redress was not just a government program. The partnership that blossomed between the ORA and Japanese American community proved absolutely vital to the program's success. Working alongside groups such as JACL and NCRR allowed the agency to tap into community networks and have a direct line of communication with potentially eligible individuals. More importantly, it provided the ORA with the opportunity to begin to earn both credibility and trust. In all, such outreach by the ORA perhaps did more than any payment or apology letter in rebuilding relations between the government and Japanese American community.

Looking back decades later, the history of Japanese American redress offers important lessons for future movements of restitution. It highlights the need of bipartisan political support to successfully navigate the vast and complicated bureaucracy of the US government, and address the many unexpected hurdles that arise. It underscores the need for a government-community partnership, and the critical role leadership and cooperation play in such a program. Above all, the history of redress spotlights the fact that making amends for a grave injustice does not fully erase the scars of the past. Many saw value in the redress program and the precedent it set; few—if any—likely left the process fully satisfied. In this light, the history of the ORA and redress may be best described as an imperfect success story, one that gave credence to the words spoken by President Ronald Reagan at the signing of HR 442:

"The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving

Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those

lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we

admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law."