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Informing the world about mistakes of history to stop the spread of prejudice: Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, Executive Director, Robin Toma

Fighting for the Rights of Latin American Internees

In the spring of 2006, I had the opportunity to hear about the story of two Peruvian Nikkei who currently reside in Los Angeles. One of them, while he was still a child, was forcibly moved from South America and imprisoned in the United States during the Second World War in exchange for Americans who became prisoners of war. The other person was a woman who followed her deported husband to the United States. 

Before I met them, I only knew about the stories of the Japanese American incarceration. However, the more I hear about the Latin American Nikkei experiences, the more obvious it becomes that both the US and South American governments trampled over their fundamental human rights. 

These Latin American Nikkei lost everything, including their jobs, status, assets, friends, and community networks that they successfully built after they had emigrated from Japan. Furthermore, South American governments refused to allow them to return to their countries at the end of the war. Therefore, many of them had to return to Japan; some, including the people I met, relied on either friends or family and stayed in the United States.

A Nikkei Sansei Lawyer, Robin Toma

In 1999, a settlement was reached in the case of Mochizuki v. The United States, which was a lawsuit brought by survivors of the Latin American Nikkei community who fought to demand redress from the American government.  Each survivor received a formal apology by then President Bill Clinton and five thousand dollars redress payment. Robin Toma, a Nikkei Sansei lawyer, was the man who offered his legal services as a volunteer to fight for the rights of the Latin American Nikkei.

Robin had already become aware of the human rights issues of Latin American Nikkei through his legal clinic. He spoke fluent Spanish, and most significantly, has been involved in the issues of human rights as a lawyer. In 1994, Robin offered to join their cause on his own accord. As a Los Angeles County employee however, he did not have the option to take on a case where he challenged the U.S. government. So he got involved pro-bono, volunteering his time.

“What I did first was to organize a team of attorneys and call together some activists to create a group called the Campaign for Justice.  We continued to educate people and tried to send the message to Congress and President Clinton that what the US Government did to the Latin American Nikkei was an unforgivable mistake.” These campaign efforts brought successful results. The settlement was reached with the aforementioned terms, yet the redress payment was only one fourth of what the government had offered Japanese Americans. Robin said, “The fight isn’t over, even now, we must continue fighting for justice.”

Trying to right the wrongs of history

Robin's paternal grandfather was born in Okinawa. He originally immigrated to Puukoli sugar cane plant of Maui, Hawaii and later moving to Salt Lake City. Then he went back to Okinawa. Robin was born in Los Angeles where his father and mother lived after they met in Salt Lake City.
According to Robin, one of the biggest turning points of his life was getting into the University of California, Santa Cruz.  “To a middle-class Japanese American like myself, a new world opened up in front of my eyes.  There, I was blessed with friends, encouraged to study, and even had the chance to study abroad in Barcelona, Spain.”  After he graduated from college, he went on to the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law and became a lawyer. 

Robin himself said that his acceptance to UC Santa Cruz was the first big turning point in his life, but studying abroad in Spain would be his second turning point, and becoming a lawyer, likely his third. 

Though his encounter with Latin American Nikkei has come to pass, he continues to focus his efforts and profession on human rights issues. He now engages in state projects to find solutions to combat hate crimes, which are getting to be a more serious problem in Los Angeles.  

Robin mentioned, “I was so lucky that I got to work on the lawsuit for Latin American Nikkei redress.” His words gave me new insights into his character.  “If I didn’t accomplish this, they might never have been able to overcome this tragedy. We must let the world know about these mistakes of history in order to ensure that the pain they suffered never happens again.  It ultimately will help to prevent the spread of prejudice. During this case, I received thank-you letters from those who were forcibly moved from their homes and incarcerated in the U.S.  I was deeply touched. You know, this isn’t the kind of thing that you do for thanks; it’s the kind of thing that you do because it has to be done.”

After I talked with Robin, it seemed to me as if he was the one who had suffered this tragedy first hand. I wondered where his motivation for striving to improve human rights came from.

“I wish people in the world never had to experience prejudice, even if it’s just a little, and that they never had to experience discrimination, nor suffer the violence that accompanies it. We are lucky simply by virtue of being born.  The environment that one is born into changes his fate drastically.  Some children have to live in life threatening environments from the time that they are born. It is easy to show pity on those children. But, I feel some guilt in my conscience because I was born and raised without any issues. My father never graduated from college and we were a middle-class household, but my family never suffered from hunger and we never experienced hardships like not having clean clothes.” I saw his passion in his quiet repose.

Robin, who has roots in Okinawa, visited the lands of his ancestors. On that visit, he was deeply impressed by the victims of war and their memorial.  “I was astonished by the number of civilian casualties.  I even discovered some people who had the same last name as me.  Of course, I don’t know if they were some kind of distant relative or not, but that really deepened my sense of empathy for them.”

I think somebody like Robin who can feel empathy for other persons’ lives in the way that he does is a “true” lawyer.  He himself declares, “I can’t live a life that exists only for my own well being.”

He also possesses a great deal of sympathy and appreciation towards his ancestors.  “It’s been three generations since the Toma Family immigrated to the United States.  Even before that, our lineage and family history in Okinawa extended much further back. The history of the Toma Family, in short, has existed for a significantly longer period of time in Okinawa than in the United States, so I feel a very strong bond with Okinawa.”

Although Robin faces nothing but busy days ahead, he is looking forward to his trip to Okinawa with his Korean-Brazilian wife and his children in 2012.

© 2011 Keiko Fukuda

Campaign for Justice Latin America Latin America Redress lawyer okinawa redress robin toma sansei