Densho Digital Repository
Emi Kuboyama, Office of Redress Administration (ORA) Oral History Project Collection
Title: Martha Watanabe Interview
Narrator: Martha Watanabe
Interviewer: Emi Kuboyama
Location: Washington, D.C.
Date: May 17, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1020-2

<Begin Segment 1>

EK: Okay. Emi Kuboyama from Stanford University here with Martha Watanabe in Washington, D.C. It is May 17, 2019. Martha, could you just start by talking a little bit about... state your name and what you did with the Office of Redress Administration?

MW: Okay. My name is Martha Watanabe, originally from Chicago, Illinois. I've been out here in D.C. now for thirty, over thirty years, so it's almost like a second home. One of your questions was how did I get the job, right? And so it's actually sort of an interesting story. Bob Bratt, who was the administrator -- and we were really lucky to have him, because he really cared, not only about coming up with a good program, but involving the community. So he was doing his due diligence and he was going out and meeting with community people. And one of the people he met with was Paul and Lou Igasaki, who were the Washington representatives for JACL, the Japanese American Citizens League, at the time. And so Bob said, "We need to find ways to reach out to the community, I don't have those contacts," so Paul helped with that kind of a thing. And Bob being the "brat" that he can sometimes be, as we all know, basically said, "And so what else can I do for you, Paul?" And Paul said, "You know, you really need to hire some Japanese Americans on staff. Bob being Bob said, "Fine, find me some." And so Paul said, "I have just the person for you." And so then Paul called and he says, "They're starting this up, and you need to go over there." So that's actually how I got involved, and so I always used to tease Bob later on to say that, "Be careful what you wish for." [Laughs]

EK: Were you in Chicago at that point or already in D.C.?

MW: No, I was here. I was in D.C.

EK: So what was your educational background and how did you end up in D.C.?

MW: So I got a bachelor's of science -- I always get them mixed up -- and I went to MacMurray College, which is a small liberal arts school in central Illinois. I came out here to work at an ecumenical public policy group. So I was their office administrator, I did for them. So it was thirty different... all across the board, Catholic, Jewish, all the Protestant religions and all of that.

EK: So was that the job you had prior to joining ORA?

MW: No. And in between that, I went to the League of Women Voters. So that's actually where I was just prior to ORA.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

EK: So could you talk a little bit about what your role was at ORA? I would imagine that it probably evolved over time.

MW: It didn't change all that much. ORA was broken up into different sections. You had a management team, you had people who were trying to identify potential recipients. You also had people who were then sending out the information, the forms, as you found, the forms. And once people had been identified, so then a whole group of folks were basically just matching names, addresses, and sending out information. When the information came back in, that was my job, was to look at the information, make sure that it was correct. Did the name match, did the identification that they had to provide, was it accurate, were there questions, those kinds of things. So we had a team who basically got all the envelopes back, went through it, verified it, and then Aaron Zajic, who was my office mate at the time, the two of us then reviewed what the staff had. Did they match up the name correctly? Because the checks were being done by Treasury, so the names had to be accurate, and some people had changed names, some had gotten married, so that's what we did a lot of. And then identification, driver's license, and many of them didn't have. So sort of like with voting now, okay, what kinds of different IDs were available? So Bob and many of the others in the office did a lot of outreach to community groups all across the nation to try and identify people.

And then initially, one of the interesting things was, I think the Nisei had, there were some mixed feelings. Did they want to do this or not? Even getting to that point, right, because the whole redress movement was basically started by the Sanseis and pushed by the Sansei generation, the third generation folks, whether the parents wanted it or not. So when it came time to, oh, "Did you get your form in the mail, Mom?" "Yeah, but I don't know if I really want to fill it out." They felt, I think, bad taking government money. I mean, most did, and so it was an education thing as well as trying to find recipients.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

EK: So can you talk a little bit more about the outreach efforts and your involvement with all of that?

MW: This is where Bob, I mean, basically... JACL was one of the primary redress groups. There was also a group, NCRR, which was the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, and then there was another group, NCJAR, which was the National Coalition for Japanese American Redress, I believe. Those were the three main groups. But also, there was outreach to the churches, because we felt that that was also another place where education efforts could come up. And so one of the things that I was able to do because part of my background -- I mean, I've been a JACL member since I was sixteen, so I know a lot of the people. And then with my ecumenical group, it was also through the Asian United Methodists, so I also had that whole network. And because of the ecumenical work I was doing, I then met Asian Baptists and Episcopalians and Presbyterians as well. So I was able to give them a lot of resources to do outreach.

EK: So did you go and do those outreach efforts with them, or was it primarily kind of getting them in touch with the right people?

MW: Right, it was more connecting people up. I mean, I think all of us did a few trips along the way.

EK: So what was staffing like in the early days? How big was the office and what were the different roles that people had?

MW: So you had some administrative people, three or four, like Joanne, Carolyn Russell, and people like that, and then Bob is the administrator. And then you had a unit that was focused on research. So Alice Kale, Val O'Brien, were instrumental in, they were there at the beginning. And it was poring through the manifests from the ships that had gone back and forth, tried to identify people that way. Going through all the camp records, because each camp, they had rosters, I guess, would be the closest word. And so it was basically going through the rosters and matching it to death records and social security, those were the two government ones that they were using as the basis. Okay, is this Watanabe, oh, there's three of them. And then tried to match date of birth, social security number, and those kinds of things. So you had a unit doing that. Bob had the foresight to bring in some key researchers, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, and her husband Jack Herzig, who had been instrumental in research with the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which, for the historical perspective, that was established and that was where the recommendations eventually came for redress. The Commission did hearings in cities across the nation, and it was really the first time that many of the Nisei had shared their stories. Most of the children had never heard it before. Right, because growing up, they were like, "Oh, yeah, during the war, I was in camp." And of course, our definition of camp, we're like, "Oh, that sounds like fun," and they were like, "Yeah, it was okay." That would be the answer you would get, not realizing until later, you were older, that wait, their definition of camp is not the camp, our definition. But the hearings really was the first opportunity where people were actually giving testimony, "This is what my life was like." And I think it was really eye-opening for the whole community and the nation. So once the Commission came up with their report, which here's a pretty copy, they came up with three recommendations in the end. The first was monetary compensation, the second was a letter of apology from the government, and then the third was establishing a fund so that something like this would never occur again. So those were basically the three parts that became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

EK: So you mentioned that third prong, the fund, and my understanding is you were subsequently involved with the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. Could you talk a little bit about the Fund and that organization and kind of what your role was when you moved over to that organization?

MW: Yeah. And the Fund actually did not get established 'til 1996, which was actually towards the sunset time. The main reason was getting money. We eventually got five million to run the program, but also realized we had a very short period of time in which to do this. And the interesting piece is the board of directors were all presidential appointees with Senate confirmation. And I happened to, in between times, had a little stint at the White House Office of Personnel Management. And so there, I was actually able to help come up with the twelve names for that commission, which was actually sort of fun. And it was basically, you have to keep in mind, we were trying to do geographic, gender, age, historical perspective, as well as that. So I worked closely with all of the congressional staff, Congressman Mineta, Matsui, Senator Akaka and Inouye, getting, okay, do you have recommendations for names as well? So we were able to eventually get the names together. They actually never had to do a Senate confirmation. President Clinton actually did their appointment as a recess appointment. And part of it was, one, we had gotten the money, and two, we knew we were on a tight timeline. And these twelve people were pretty innocuous, unlike some of the confirmation hearings subsequent that you've seen. So we were able to get that through without the actual Senate confirmation.

EK: So were you detailed to the White House for this purpose, or did it just happen that way?

MW: Yes. Well, no for this purpose, but yes, I actually had a detail for six months, and it was basically to help push Asian Americans into presidential appointed positions at all levels. Well, minus cabinet. Because by the time I came on, which was June of '93, from January to June, all the cabinet secretaries, and many of the higher level appointments had been made, but there are thousands and thousands of appointments, commissions as well as actual jobs themselves. So my job was actually to then be out there talking to the community, well, on the phone talking to the community saying, "Hey, we need someone to be in the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Justice. How about some names?" those kinds of things. So we would put together, we would surface names, and I worked with... I forgot the term that they used. But I was working with African American, Hispanic, Native American, women, we were all in that cluster of groups. So it was basically sort of trading off. "Okay, I want so-and-so for this." "Wait, but we need a Hispanic female for this," so it was sort of cute. So we often would put together slates, but we were cautious of each other's needs.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

EK: So did you go from that appointment, or from that detail to the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund?

MW: No, because my detail was in '93, so no. After Office of Redress, I was there from '89 to '91. In 1991, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division had gotten a new computer system. New at the time, which was GIS, Geographic Information Systems. In '90 that was a brand new field, brand new opening. But Bob Berman, who was one of the deputies in voting, immediately saw, oh, we could use this for voting and redistricting. And so he and the company did a contract, and the Civil Rights Division, really, we had state of the art equipment in '91, because we were one of the few people using it with the company, which is ESRI. And they needed a manager to come in and help manage some of the contractors. My predecessor was a military person, and military people are very punctual. And so when staff would be wandering in at 9:05, he would get all upset, those kinds of things. And he realized, too, he says, "Okay, I don't think this is quite the job for me." And so they were looking for someone else, and so they then tapped me and I said, "Hmm." So I went over there, and while I was working for them, I did my detail to the White House and then came back. So I actually did the GIS stuff from '91 to '96, and then in '96, went over to the Public Education Fund.

EK: So could you talk a little bit more about what you did with the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund?

MW: So that, once again, sort of like Office of Redress, starting from scratch. So the very first meeting is, okay, defining our mission, and how do we get to that mission? And so one of the things is, okay, they came up with various areas for consideration because it was a grant program, it was set up as a grant program. So we came up with topics: Arts and Media, Curriculum, Research, and things along those lines. And then basically came up with a whole, very similar to ORA, okay. Here we're doing outreach, and here, apply for grants, here's your criteria for each of the five areas. And then so out we went, and then in came grants, and then the board sat around and basically said, "Oh, this looks good, that looks good," and stuff like that. And in fact, one of the grants, speaking of this, is there's a new foreword, an updated foreword to this that was actually done by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, and this is the second edition of this particular book, and that was also one of our grantees as well. And Tets Kashima, who was at the University of Washington, actually then compiled some of the new data that was added to this particular book. [Narr. note: Personal Justice Denied]

EK: Do you recall, when you were with the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, were you there when there was the discussion about using the money to pay the Japanese Latin Americans?

MW: That was not something that we could have done. So to talk a little bit about that, part of... well, one of the people you may consider interviewing is Stuart Ishimaru, and that's because he was actually instrumental in helping write the original Civil Liberties Act of 1988. As you know, one of the problems that came up was as they started the initial research on the number of people. So the initial bill thought that there only going to be eighty, ninety thousand recipients still alive when they started doing the actual research and coming up with the names, realized that there were thousands and thousands, a good twenty thousand more, I don't remember the exact number, but at least twenty thousand more people that needed to get this twenty thousand dollar check. And so then when they tried to go back for more appropriations, it didn't work, I guess would be the nice way to put it. And so they had to make decisions. Okay, of the groups that are, quote, "eligible," where are the priorities? And that was a group that eventually got left out of the final monetary reparations.

EK: Can you talk a little bit about why this particular group was not eligible?

MW: One... well, not really. I think also trying to find them was going to be a little more difficult as well. Because we were on a timeline with ORA. 1991 was when the first checks had to be issued, so I think there was a piece of that as well. And that was a group, I think, that they had no idea, as well, how many people. This was an easier group to come up with hard numbers, and they're still fighting for redress to this day.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

EK: So when you were talking earlier about the GIS system for Voting (section), I was curious, what was the technology setup, or lack of technology when you were trying to verify people on camp rosters or any other data that you had that you were comparing it to?

MW: Right. You had rosters from all of the camps, you were trying to match up names...

EK: And these were physical books.

MW: It was physical books, yes. And the rosters are, I mean, my recollection, they were fairly sizeable and thick. They listed out each family unit, and then in most cases it would be the father and the mother and then the kids and grandparents if applicable in many cases.

EK: So that was not computerized?

MW: Not at all. It was all paper and pencils and books, yeah.

EK: So can you talk a little bit more about when people submitted their information and you were in the process of verifying it? What was that process like?

MW: So... well, we did have a database, okay. I mean, we weren't totally doing everything by paper. Once people had been verified, and once people had been identified with addresses, it was all put into a database, and so we all had access to that. So mail came out, mail came back in, and it was basically matching names to what was in the computer base, matching addresses. And people had moved, so it was one of things that oftentimes we would have to go back and say, "Your driver's license doesn't match what we have in our records." And in many cases it was date of birth, but that was because people were sending in birth certificates, oftentimes the years or a few days were off in that kind of a thing as well. But that, I think, was recordkeeping at the time, not necessarily. So if we could verify another way, okay. So the birth certificate was off by two days, all right, no big deal. Yeah, we've got driver's license that has the correct birthday on it.

EK: Were you involved with the help line at all?

MW: No, very little. But once again, ORA started from scratch. The fact that people had the foresight to think of things, needs like that, I think you give Bob a lot of credit for that, really coming up with, okay, what's the best way to do this. And I think things did change along the way, but not majorly. The main structure stayed pretty much the same throughout.

EK: Can you recall any groups of people that were not possibly anticipated originally?

They weren't on the roster? Can you talk about the evolution of people who were, I'm thinking of things like non-Japanese spouses who went in, or people who weren't originally anticipated, when the regulations went out, that kind of came to light during your early years?

MW: Yeah, I don't really know, because I think by the time I came on board, it was pretty well set who was eligible and who wasn't.

EK: Do you have any other recollections or stories that you want to share about what you experienced in those early years?

MW: Well, my fun one was when I was like, "Hey, Aaron, guess what? Here's my daddy's." And he goes, "Hand it over," because obviously I had to recuse myself from my immediate family. I mean, I was like,� �this is really actually sort of cool." [Laughs]

EK: Can you talk a little bit more about your family's experience?

MW: So my dad actually was in Poston, my mom was actually at Topaz, and they met in Chicago after the war, kind of a deal. You know, they never really talked about it a whole lot. In fact, more of the stories that I know are other people's stories as opposed to theirs. So yeah, so my dad was from the San Diego area, so most of them were sent to Poston or Gila River. Then my mom was in Marysville, which was Sacramento area, so she started out at Tule Lake but moved soon to Topaz because one of my other uncles actually was already there in the area.

EK: And did you know all those details before you started with the office?

MW: No, I actually just found that out a few months ago from my cousins whose dad was the one who had driven from L.A. to Utah.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

EK: Why don't we move on to the section about personal impact of your experiences working with ORA?

MW: You know, one of the things -- and after you said that, I was thinking, one of the things that really struck me about the Office of Redress Administration is that, unlike everybody else in that office, I've got a background in redress. I grew up with it, so I know the history, knew the history. But what really struck me was the fact that the people in the office, who came from all sorts of other backgrounds, really bought into it. That for them it was more than just a job, they really were committed to what they were doing and understanding it. And to me... but that was a takeaway that I didn't realize until later. In reflection, thinking, wow, those people were really committed to the mission of what we were trying to do. The first ceremony, the first check ceremony, so the idea was to find the ten oldest recipients and have them come. Obviously, even at that time, the oldest recipients were close to a hundred or over a hundred. And so what we realized, okay, the ten oldest, able to travel people, and so that's what, ended up how they got chosen. But I remember we were down below the Great Hall, and they had, I'm not sure the mode of transportation, but we saw them coming in in their wheelchairs with their family members and all that. And I just remember, Aaron and I were just like, grabbed each other, and, "Oh, my god." Because you're seeing the fruition of those years of work, and seeing them come down the hall was, like, oh, my god. And then during the ceremony, luckily all the staff was in back, because we were all like, all sobbing. I mean, it was really, really moving.

EK: What do you think were the biggest challenges for you either personally or for the office?

MW: Like I said, thankfully I think I came in after the procedures and the process was set up, so it was relatively easy as far as that. And like I said, I don't know that we made a whole lot of major changes. Maybe little tweaks here and there, but the process was pretty well established.

EK: So what would you say were the office's biggest successes?

MW: Being able to get it done in a timely manner. Succinctly, that would be what I would say. We had that deadline of October 1991, and I don't know why we had that deadline. But anyway...

EK: I think it might have had to do with the funding cycle or something.

MW: Maybe, yeah. But that I couldn't remember why, but I know October 1991 was when those first checks had to be issued. So it was a big crunch to get to that point. But like I said, everyone pitched in, everybody did the work. One of the funny stories is that... and each of those sections really worked as a team. And that was the one thing that I think Bob instilled, and something that Aaron and I tried to instill was the whole team concept. "Okay, you guys are the verification unit." And so it really was setting up a feeling of family, which I think also helped as well. Like I said, most of them were contractors, so they really had no reason to buy into doing a good job or anything, right? But they did, and many would then... I mean, I was able to share lots of stories, a lot of history. Because I'm like, "Well, how did this come about?" So I was able to do a lot of that kind of stuff. And they were interested.

EK: Were you able to travel to do the other original, the first round of check presentation ceremonies?

MW: No.

EK: Just in D.C.?

MW: [Nods] I think we were still busy verifying people's checks. [Laughs]

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

EK: Do you have any other stories that you think, that you'd really like to share, or that you recall in this process?

MW: Well, like I said, one of the things is building the whole team concept. And because we were under the deadline, we did a lot of overtime, I guess would be the nice way to put it. And so one of the things early on Aaron and I had decided was on the Saturdays when our team was in, we would buy the pizza. I think by the end of the, I think they were sort of pizza-ed out after a while. But it was also one of those things to say we're a team. Yes, we're verifying your work, yes, we're your supervisors, but we will do the same kind of work you will. And for Aaron, that was his first job out of college. And so I think, I hope I was able to mentor him to teach him some of those kinds of skills and the importance of why. But they were a fun group. I mean, our really funny one is that many of them had young children or school-aged children. So you know how the schools have all those, selling chocolate bars and fundraisers. And so they would come in, "Oh, would you guys..." so the first time I'm like, "Oh, yeah, sure," and so we're filling out forms and all that. Then they came in and we're like, okay, there's something wrong with this picture, Aaron. We have three sausages and no cheese, we have five chocolate bars and no peanut butter. So after that we started saying, "Okay, you get cheese, I'll get sausage." And we constantly had... but we also felt that was a way for us to give back to our team as well, so it was just sort of fun. But my funny Aaron story is, Aaron's Jewish. And during Passover, there are certain things he could eat and not eat. I grew up Methodist, I had no clue, and he's just like, "Oh, no, no, next week I can only eat X, Y and Z." And so I said, "Okay, I can do this, too." So his mom would make matzo ball soup, I made egg salad, brought in matzo, and during Passover we would eat together that way. [Laughs]

EK: Now, were you in the Department of Labor building at that point?

MW: No. We were at 1333 F Street. So my whole time there, I was only at F Street.

EK: So what would you say are your primary takeaways from having, in hindsight, having gone through this experience with the Office of Redress Administration?

MW: It's like when I first got there, I kept thinking, wow, this is such a way could give back to the community. And because redress had been an integral part of my life up until it, it was like, "Wow, this is really cool," kind of a thing. And then when I got to do this Public Education Fund, it was like full circle for me. It was like, oh, I got to do both of these. So it's a unique perspective that I now have now that I'm older and wiser. But yeah, I think really what it was was the sense of community. I can give back to the Nisei generation.

EK: Were there other Japanese Americans who were involved with ORA at that point?

MW: On staff or in the community?

EK: On staff.

MW: Aileen Fukuda was also doing, helping identify people, one of the research kinds of people. And then Frank Pfeiffer was actually half Japanese but fluent in Japanese, unlike the others of us who know no Japanese. So he was also brought on partly for the help line, we were talking about that earlier. Because in case there were recipients who only spoke Japanese or were more comfortable speaking Japanese, he was able to get their questions answered or help them with the process as well.

EK: Are there any other people that you want to mention that contributed to this whole process?

MW: All along, well, a lot of the contractors, a lot of them were contractors so it was different. But key people that were there... see, the other piece is, if you look at the roster of people, many of them stayed for the duration. And I think that says something about both the mission of the office and the management of the office, that they were committed to seeing this through.

EK: And you're talking both about employees of DOJ as well as contractors.

MW: Right. Because there was very little turnover as far as that goes. I'm one of the few, but yeah, there was very little turnover, and I think it was because people were committed. Even knowing that it was going to sunset. Because very easily, it would have been easy for, especially the career folks to say, "Uh-oh, we're sunsetting in a few years, let me go find another position. All of the DOJ employees, I believe, did find other positions within the Civil Rights Division, and many of the contractors also were able to then be contractors in other sections and departments as well, and eventually some actually became career staff.

EK: Any other thoughts that you want to make sure that we capture? Stories?

MW: Not at the moment.

EK: Thank you, Martha.

<End Segment 8> - Copyright © 2019 Emi Kuboyama. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 9>

EK: Martha, could you talk a little bit about the political climate and whether you think something like this could get funded today?

MW: In today's environment, no. I mean, I would emphatically say there is no way it could happen. One of the reasons why we were able to get the money is because, at that time in Congress, people reached across the aisle to each other and they built friendships. The perfect example is Norm Mineta and Alan Simpson. I don't know if you've heard that story, but when Norm went to Heart Mountain in his Boy Scout uniform and all that, he was a Boy Scout. In Cody, Wyoming, which is the big town near where they were, is where Alan Simpson was born. His Boy Scout troop and Norm's Boy Scout troop got together, and they happened to end up being tent mates. Norm can tell you all sorts of stories of the rascalness of the two of them, but that's where they first met. They reconnected again when both were elected to Congress. So there were different friendships then, and the Simpsons and Minetas are still good friends, in fact, they're going on vacation together in a couple of weeks. But I think then it really was, to get anything passed, you had to reach across the aisle because you still needed x-amount of votes for your bill. But it was civil, and that was the thing. Recently, I heard Norm Mineta talk, and that's what he was saying. He said, "The climate is so different now that reaching across the aisle is the last thing anybody wants to do and will do." He says, "But, then, we had to do it." And then he thought about it and he goes, "No, we really didn't have to do it, but we thought that was the civil thing to do." And so, consequently, I think that's why the bill got passed. And it was a lot of nitty-gritty stuff, right? I mean, they were constantly badgering all of their coworkers, and tried to inform them and all of that. Could that happen now? No, and it's unfortunate the way Congress has changed.

I remember the day that the House was passing the bill. About a week before, I was friends with a staffer in a congressman's office from Kansas, and he was like, "You know, I don't know about this bill. I got some mixed feelings. We have few Japanese Americans in Congress, I have none in my constituency. It's a heck of a lot of money, I just don't know." And so Roger was like, "You know, let me tell you about..." so he was able to share that history with him. And they called and said, "I'm still not sure how the boss is going to vote on it, Martha, but I at least was able to give him background." I'm like, "Cool." So one of the things that I was doing when I was in the gallery watching, I said, "Oh, here he comes," and I was sort of curious. He did his vote, and he goes past, Norm Mineta was presiding over the House, and as he goes by, he gives Norm a thumbs-up, and I was like, "Yes." [Laughs]

EK: Thank you.

<Begin Segment 9>