Last week, Seattle’s Asian community and civil liberties groups witnessed a movement in history. Nearly all those involved in the seven-year struggle to vindicate three Japanese American men who challenged government internment orders during World War II came together for a “victory party” on the Seattle University campus.
The even celebrated the successful conclusion of the trial of Gordon Hirabayashi, one of the three. As a University of Washington student in 1942, Hirabayashi was convicted of defying government orders to report for evacuation and violating a curfew on Japanese Americans. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the convictions.
In 1984, Hirabayashi, arguing that the incarceration was based on racial prejudice rather than military necessity, was granted a new court hearing to clear his name. In 1986, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Voorhees vacated Hirabayashi’s conviction on the charge of violating the evacuation order. Last year, the U.S. Ninth District Circuit Court also cleared Hirabayashi on the charge of violating curfew. The court agreed with Hirabayashi that the U.S. military and Justice Department withheld crucial evidence from the Supreme Court and did not give him a fair trail.
In 1938, a new trail was held in San Francisco for Fred Korematsu, who was also convicted of violating the wartime evacuation order. The U.S. District Court vacated his conviction, noting that the government suppressed evidence pertinent to his trail in 1943. In 1984, the District Court in Portland, Oregon vacated a similar conviction for Min Yasui, but did not conduct a hearing on allegations of government misconduct.
Peter Irons, political science professor at the University of San Diego, uncovered key archival evidence that led to the reopening of the cases of Hirabayashi, Korematsu and Yasui. He told the Seattle University gathering that the Hirabayashi legal team plans to go “one step further” and petition the Supreme Court to strike down its wartime ruling upholding the internment. A reversal by the Court, he said, would “vindicate the entire population” of Japanese Americans.
“When we meet again, it will be for the last victory party,” Irons said. “And I’ll be very glad to be here again.”
The victory party was not only a celebration, but an opportunity to learn about the value of speaking out against injustices. Arthur Barnett, Hirabayashi’s lawyer in 1942, defended Hirabayashi because they were both members of University Friends Meeting, a Quaker organization. Barnett, now over 80-years-old, was a member of the legal team in Hirabayashi’s recent trial.
Barnett recalled losing clients because of publicity about the Hirabayashi case. Local, state and national bar associations tried to discouraged him. He said they told him, “The Army knows best.”
“You got to watch the law, you got to watch the judge, you got to protest, Barnett told the audience.
Korematsu said it was difficult to keep up his fight when “they all look at me like a foreigner.” Even his peers among the Nisei generation, he said, told him to “just forget about it—you’re stirring up a can of worms,” and “You’re not gonna make any money out of this deal.”
Korematsu credited Irons and San Francisco attorneys Dale Minami and Karen Kai with persuading him to go through with his legal petition. He also had to become accustomed to public notoriety. “Whatever I say in public, I can’t erase it,” he said. “I’m getting used to it. I’m an American citizen and I have a right to speak out. Forty to 50 years ago, I couldn’t do that.”
Holly Yasui, speaking on behalf of her late father, Min Yasui, said of the three Nisei who tested the constitutionality of the internment: “They were not wrong, they were right. They were not criminals, they were heroes.” She said she was gratified that “it has finally been written into law.”
Rod Kawakami, lead attorney for the Hirabayashi legal team, praised his “rainbow coalition” of attorneys: sansei, Chinese Americans, whites, Blacks, and Latinos. He cited the early efforts of Seattle attorney Kathryn Bannai, the “heart and soul of the whole group,” who assembled the legal team that devoted five hours a week in volunteer time until the “issue became the motivating force.” The multiracial mix of attorneys would not have come together 10 years ago, he added.
Kawakami also praised Barnett, whom he described as “our conscience who was always pushing for more, not less. Some of the meetings were lively.”
While applauding his team of attorneys, Hirabayashi also emphasized the “funny, fluky accidents that turn out in your favor.” He described how Irons arrived at the National Archives in Washington D.C. to do research. A clerk, filling in for the usual employee, asked Irons to look for the documents himself. Irons and Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig, looking through old dusty, files, found documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other intelligence agencies which proved that Japanese Americans were not a threat to national security.
The documents “were filed in the wrong places” or “not shredded like they were supposed to be,” Hirabayashi said. He recalled that, during his trail, Judge Voorhees said the evidence uncovered by Herzig was crucial in his decision to vacate Hirabayashi’s convictions.
While Irons called Hirabayashi, informing him of the discovery and the possibility of a new trail, Hirabayashi replied, “I’ve been waiting for your phone call for 40 years.”
In conclusion, Hirabayashi discussed the failure of the Constitution during times of wartime hysteria. “Documents only come through if people insist on it,” he said. “We share in the guilt.”
Kawakami said he and his legal team felt optimistic about the outcome of Hirabayashi’s case, even though attorneys for the federal government “fought every inch of the way.”
“We felt the evidence was clear and we just had to lay it out,” he said. “We were right, and it helps to be right. Lawyers like cases where they know they are right and have the evidence. We felt we had a good chance and we were comfortable with the case. We knew what the outcome should be.”
All the attorneys worked without pay. Peggy Nagae Lum, lead attorney for Min Yasui, described her pro bono work as a “privilege.”
“You look at all the government’s resources and we weren’t from prestigious law firms,” she said. “But you can’t beat the commitment people have.” Attorneys for the government, she said, “were arguing the same b.s. as in 1942—that was scary. To think that’s all we’ve come in all this time was frightening. They could use the same arguments and not even flinch—it could happen again.
“But Min always told us to ‘give ‘em hell.’ His spirit lives on.”
Arthur Barnett, who served as the role model for many of the young lawyers, in turned praised Kawakami. “Rod’s generalmanship was fantastic—he was on his feet for six or seven hours a day in court presenting evidence.
“Young people don’t have the whole story—this is only part of it,” Barnett said of the three landmark civil rights cases. Not too long ago, he said, racism and covenants prevented blacks, Asians and Jews from owning land in certain areas of Seattle. “But the way intermarriage is going, there’ll be no problem in 100 years,” he said.