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Hohri, 83; Lead Plaintiff in Internees’ Lawsuit Against Government

William Hohri, center, was honored in April 2008 at the Japanese American National Museum gala for his work on redress. He is joined by his wife, Yuriko, left, and Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
RAFU CONTRIBUTOR

William Minoru Hohri, writer, civil rights activist and lead plaintiff in the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) class action lawsuit, passed away on Friday, Nov. 12. He was 83.

“I loved him dearly and will miss him terribly,” said wife Yuriko Katayama Hohri. “He was a good man.”

Had Hohri lived to March, the couple would have been married for 60 years.

* * *
Hohri, a former Manzanar inmate during World War II, is best known for spearheading the NCJAR class action lawsuit, filed on March 16, 1983, which sued the U.S. government for $27 billion for injuries suffered as the result of the World War II exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans in U.S. concentration camps.

Hohri’s group spelled out 22 “causes of action” for compensation and sought $10,000 for each cause of action, which came out to $220,000 per person. Multiply $220,000 with 125,000 former camp inmates and the total came to $27.5 billion.

The case was initially dismissed on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired, but an appeals court overturned the decision. The NCJAR team’s victory was short-lived, however. The government appealed the ruling, citing another procedural argument — that the case had been heard in the wrong appeals court. The NCJAR team would have to wait for the government’s appeal to work through the system.

During the long court battle, Yuriko described her husband’s schedule in this way: “He would get up early in the morning, around 5 a.m., and do a lot of NCJAR work before he went to work around 8:30. Then he’d return home and go straight to sleep after supper and get up at the same time in the morning before going to work. He did that for almost 10 years because it took that long to get the case to the Supreme Court.”

From left: Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Michi Weglyn, William Hohri, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, and Harry Ueno in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on April 20, 1987, the day the court held a hearing on the NCJAR lawsuit. (Photo by Jack Herzig)

For her part, Yuriko, working in the pre-computer days, typed up a weekly list of donors for the NCJAR treasurer and sent a carbon copy to another NCJAR member who sent out thank you notes. They also met the first Monday of each month at the home of Sam and Harue Ozaki to go over NCJAR strategies.

Despite the time and financial strain on the Hohri household, Yuriko never asked her husband to stop his activities. “The more you learned about what happened to us, the angrier it made you, so we never thought about stopping until we had to,” she said. “We just kept on going.”

Sohei Hohri, William’s older brother, said he felt NCJAR spoke for him. “My older Nisei sister used to get furious, saying JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) does not speak for me,” recalled Sohei, one of six siblings from the Hohri household. “So when William came forward, there was a sense that our feelings were finally being voiced.

“One of my sisters is the same age as Mike Masaoka (wartime director of the JACL). He called her one day and said he’d met my brother at a hearing, and in his way, told her my brother was not respecting the leadership. But William was very strongly against the point that no American needed to prove their loyalty to be considered a good citizen. A lot of people, especially the older leadership, were miffed by William’s statements, but he saw the truth and spoke clearly and fearlessly.”

Sohei believes William’s involvement in the civil rights movement taught him how to proceed with the redress movement. During the 1960s, William traveled to the Deep South as a representative of his Chicago church and participated in a march organized by civil rights leader James Meredith, the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi.

“William told me he arrived at the train station and got into a cab,” said Sohei. “That was the first time he felt afraid for his life because at first, the white cab driver was congenial and asked him,‘Where’re you going?’ William gave him the church name and the attitude changed.”

During the march, William saw no Nikkei involvement. “People would see William and they’d shout to him because he was different,” said Sohei. “He was neither black or white. Then he’d see Japanese Americans standing by the side of the road. They were few but they saw him and he saw them. He said it was a strange feeling, something he couldn’t quite explain.”

But even before the 1960s, Yuriko said they got a taste of segregation when they honeymooned in New Orleans in 1951.

“What really disturbed us about New Orleans was that when we got on a streetcar, the blacks were sitting in the back and the whites were sitting in the front,” recalled Yuriko. “So we stood in the middle. After that we took cabs. We hadn’t realized that there was such separation in those days. The nation has changed a great deal since we married.”
* * *
Among those who played a significant role in NCJAR’s success are Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig and her late husband, Jack Herzig. Jack introduced Hohri to the law firm that would take on the case, and Aiko, with the help of Jack, was instrumental in uncovering important primary documents at the National Archives to build NCJAR’s case.

“William Hohri was a man of integrity,” said Aiko. “His straightforwardness made a great impression on me when we first met some 30 years ago. He was a dedicated family man, a philosopher, a skilled author, and a courageous leader who took on the chairmanship of a movement that others feared to pursue — that of confronting the government directly in the courts by challenging the legality of the denial of constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties of an innocent ethnic minority during World War II, and to make restitution for the injustice.  He acted vigorously on his convictions to seek remedies for social inequities perpetrated upon oppressed minorities.  I am among those who will truly miss our good friend William.”

Chizuko Omori, co-producer of the award-winning documentary “Rabbit in the Moon,” was a named NCJAR plaintiff.

“In the years that I was active in the redress movement, I grew to admire and appreciate William for his devotion to the cause of justice for the Japanese American community,” said Omori. “He was a special person who was willing to give so much of himself for the struggle that I regard him as one of our heroes.”

In 1981, Ellen Godbey Carson had just graduated from Harvard Law School with honors when she joined the law firm of Landis, Cohen, Singman and Rauh. She was immediately appointed to work full-time preparing for the NCJAR lawsuit.

Saying Hohri was a “true hero,” Godbey Carson said, “Mr. Hohri sought recognition of the government’s injustices, to save other minorities from experiencing similar injustices. He never allowed threats, personal attacks or political opposition sway him from this pursuit of justice.

“While others pursued political reform in Congress, Mr. Hohri had an unwavering belief that the federal court system was the appropriate place to seek redress for constitutional violations. The courts, after all, have the ultimate duty to protect the constitutional rights of minorities, particularly when the political majority has failed to do so.”

At the same time NCJAR’s case was going through the legal system, the coram nobis cases filed by Sansei lawyers on behalf of Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi were also being heard in the courtrooms. Dale Minami headed up the legal team in San Francisco, while Peggy Nagae led the Portland team and Katherine Bannai, the Seattle team.

“William Hohri was brilliant, uncompromising, and totally dedicated to the idea that the United States should pay for its disgraceful treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II,” said Minami. “We traveled on parallel paths toward redress and our paths crossed many times. While we employed the coram nobis petitions to overturn the convictions of the three men whose Supreme Court cases in 1943 and 1944 justified the imprisonment, William and his group went directly at the United States government for monetary relief.

“It was a movement of pure rebellious genius and influenced the course of our cases and the legislation that eventually resulted in redress. He did not suffer fools lightly nor folks who criticized his vision, but that single-minded determination gave our community and our nation a gift of strengthening our civil rights.”

With the NCJAR lawsuit and the coram nobis cases battling on the judicial front, the redress bill came before Congress. Although NCJAR was not specifically named in the bill, a clause was inserted, stating that anyone who accepted redress payments could not sue the government for the same claim.

The court disallowed NCJAR’s lawsuit on technical grounds on Oct. 31, 1988, two months after the redress bill was signed. Many felt NCJAR’s near successful lawsuit had influenced Congress to pass the redress bill.
* * *
The idea to form NCJAR evolved when Seattle community leaders contacted Hohri, who was working for redress from Chicago. The core Seattle leaders included Frank Abe, Frank Chin, Chuck Kato, Ron Mamiya, Mitch Matsudaira, Henry Miyatake, Tomio Moriguchi, Shosuke Sasaki, Karen Seriguchi, Emi Somekawa, and Kathy Wong.

From New York, “Years of Infamy” author Michi Nishiura Weglyn was prodding Chin to contact Hohri directly.

“I admire him greatly for his great equanimity,” said Chin, who was also instrumental in proposing the first Day of Remembrance in Seattle. “He’d express his anger but it was expressed very calmly. I think that brought the Nisei together. He was able to raise money from so many diverse people to fund the lawsuit. And that lawsuit forced Congress to pass the redress bill. The government would rather pay the $20,000 each than the $220,000.”

Chin, who was also working to get the Nisei draft resisters’ experience recognized,  recalled the first time Hohri met Jack Tono, a Heart Mountain draft resister. It was at a Chicago meeting where Chin had been invited to speak. “After I spoke, Jack Tono stood up and said, ‘I was a resister,’ ” said Chin. “Bill Hohri just lit up.”

Years later, Hohri self-published “Resistance,” a book profiling the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. Among those profiled is Frank Emi, one of seven leaders of the Heart Mountain FPC.

“I am really sorry to hear about William’s passing,” said Emi. “He was a great supporter and a great man with a brilliant mind.”

Sansei Frank Abe, who produced an award-winning documentary on the draft resisters titled “Conscience and the Constitution” and helped organize the first Day of Remembrance, said, “Like the Heart Mountain resisters he admired and chronicled, William stepped up to organize Japanese America and go to court to challenge the injustice of selective incarceration based solely on race. He was a leader, a lead plaintiff, an author and an artist, and he will be deeply missed.”

Irene Kuromiya, a former Poston (Colorado River) inmate and wife of Heart Mountain draft resister Yosh Kuromiya, preferred to remember the good times with Hohri. “William always enjoyed good food,” she said. “We were at a Chinese restaurant
in West L.A. for a birthday party. Here comes his favorite chocolate cake with candles for him to blow out.  The surprise was the dusting of chocolate powder on the cake that enshrouded him and the entire table when he blew out the candles. We all enjoyed a good laugh along with the excellent Chinese food and wonderful company. We will miss his wry sense of humor and intellect.”

Both Chin and Abe fondly recalled how Hohri disregarded all of their advice about dealing with the media during the redress movement.

Chin remembered Hohri getting interviewed by CBS after the first Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) hearing. “All the advice I had given was not taken,” Chin laughed. “He had a hat pulled down low, wore dark glasses, a NCJAR T-shirt that was three sizes too large, and a jacket pulled over that. But he was really effective.”

“At the hearings where even I wore a suit and tie, William insisted on testifying to Congress in his Frank Fujii ichi-ni-san T-shirt,” said Abe. “That’s the kind of guy he was.” (The logo, which was adopted by NCJAR, represented three generations of Japanese Americans.)

In Los Angeles, Sansei Dwight Chuman, then-English section editor of the Rafu Shimpo, helped NCJAR’s cause by putting together a bilingual survey that proved there was no deep split within the Nikkei community over the redress issue, thus destroying CWRIC Commissioner Dan Lungren’s allegations of a rift.

“In the ’70s, I met a group of retired Nisei with unfinished business from 30 years before,” said Chuman. “First came Aiko and Jack Herzig, Harry Ueno, Michi Weglyn, James Omura, Frank Emi and the resisters, and then came a guy named William Hohri, whose mild manner masked emotion, passion, intellect and the spirit of a fighter. All of these Nisei patriots and heroes — all of them of my parents’ generation — are my idealized aunties and uncles. They shaped who I am, and I will never, ever forget them.”

Takeshi Nakayama, former Rohwer inmate and former Rafu Shimpo assistant editor, said of Hohri: “William was one of the heroes of the redress movement. Some people credit NCJAR’s lawsuit against the U.S. government with motivating Congress to pass the redress bill. He was truly one of the giants of the redress movement.”

Phil Tajitsu Nash, board member for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, was a staff attorney there during the redress campaign. He first met Hohri in 1979 when Hohri was trying to get New Yorkers to support NCJAR.

“While the case did not prevail due to technicalities, I can say from first-hand experience as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill in the early 1980s that this case was the hammer over the heads of Congress that allowed them to tell their constituents that they voted for the $20,000-per-person redress bill rather than wait for the $220,000-per-person class action to prevail,” said Nash.

“William’s decision to lead NCJAR, which brought the class action case, emerged from years of social justice and anti-war activism.  He knew that waiting for elected officials to do the right thing had not worked during World War II, so he pushed for a court-based strategy.  He joined with a Seattle-based Japanese American group, convened a support group in Chicago, and communicated regularly with supporters in California, New York, and Washington, D.C.  He envisioned a strategy that called for ‘47 Ronin,’ from the Japanese tale of that name, to make an extraordinary sacrifice by giving $1,000 to pay for the class action suit.  He kept us all informed by writing monthly newsletters to supporters all over the country in the pre-Internet era.”

When the Los Angeles chapter of the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (today known as Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress) put on a reception for NCJAR during the redress movement, it was held at Jim Matsuoka’s home.

“William did a lot to push redress forward,” said Matsuoka. “He wasn’t afraid to state his views, and this was at a time when it wasn’t popular to speak up about camp. His voice was very much needed.”

Wilbur Sato, another Los Angeles-based NCJAR supporter, said, “William gave a lot of his life to do what he did. I admire him for his persistence and all that he did.”

Hohri’s activities attracted the interest of scholars as well, and he became the subject of oral history interviews and articles.

It was thanks to Dr. Arthur Hansen, founder of the Japanese American Project within the Oral History Program at California State University, Fullerton, that Hohri’s papers are preserved at the Japanese American National Museum.

“William Hohri possessed a well-stocked intellect and conjoined it with a passionate dedication to social justice,” said Hansen. “There were many who were unnerved by his penchant for pursuing inconvenient truths and then boldly and baldly voicing his findings to those in power.  To such people, William was merely the dandified wearer of a bow tie and the dispenser of acrimonious dissent.  But to the all-too-few who knew William well, he was not only an accomplished writer of fiction, drama, and most especially history, but also a towering and inspirational leader in the fight for Japanese American redress and reparations.  Posterity will honor him as a patriot who took to heart the mission of repairing America.”

Hohri authored a book about the redress movement, “Repairing America,” in 1988.

Sojin Kim, formerly with JANM, recalled going to the Hohri household and picking up “boxes and boxes of files that were, of course, meticulously organized and labeled.”

Some of Hohri’s material have been put on exhibit at JANM. “William Hohri understood that the fight for redress had implications beyond the Japanese American community and was, in fact, central to the American experience,” said Patricia Wakida, JANM associate curator of history. “He was a person of great vision, conviction, and persistence; independent and brilliant; and not shy about speaking his mind. At the Japanese American National Museum, we are indebted to his work on behalf of Japanese American redress and reparations and to his commitment to sharing his experiences with future generations. His oral history, which we videotaped and transcribed as part of a project on redress, as well as his papers, which include the NCJAR administrative records as well as other materials, are in the museum’s permanent collection, where they are a treasured resource for scholars and the community.”

Dr. Rita Takahashi, professor at San Francisco State University, was another close friend of Hohri.  “William Hohri stood firmly on principles and foundations of social justice,” said Takahashi. “When it came to civil, constitutional, and human rights, he consistently and continuously worked to achieve what he knew was right, equitable, and just.  Notably, for example, he spent years of his time and enormous amount of resources to lead the class action redress suit, Hohri vs. United States.

“His contributions to the Japanese American community and broader society were enormous. The potent and effective results of his activist work were realized from the 1980s to present, and the impact of his work will continue, infinitely.  The focus of this honorable civil and human rights champion is etched in our collective minds and is an important part of our legacy.”

Hohri never lost his respect for the Nisei draft resisters. When he found out that Dr. Cherstin Lyon, currently assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino, was researching the draft resisters from Amache (Granada), he contacted her.

“I was extremely lucky to meet William Hohri very early in my research,” said Lyon. “In fact, when I was just a very young and extremely shy graduate student, he emailed me and inquired about my research before I knew that anyone even knew that I was doing this work.  I was shocked, flattered, and a little scared to have someone like him interested in my work.”

In addition to his redress contributions, Hohri, during the 1970s, worked with Nelson Kitsuse through the United Methodist churches to support the national movement to seek a presidential pardon for Iva Toguri, who had been tried, convicted of treason and served a 10-year prison term for being “Tokyo Rose.”

In addition to his wife, Hohri is survived by two daughters, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A celebration of Hohri’s life will be held on Sunday, Nov. 21, at 11 a.m. at Fukui Mortuary, 707 E. Temple St. in Los Angeles; (213) 626-0441.

One Comment

  • Phil Tajitsu Nash
    November 16, 2010 | Permalink |

    Thanks to Martha for pulling together this wonderful tribute to William Hohri. I hope others will leave their recollections below so that posterity will record the many ways he touched all of us.

    For example, William was extraordinarily kind and friendly, but his attention to principle could sometimes be abrupt. I still remember his letter to the NY Nichibei in the early 1980s criticizing my naive call for an apology and a group-based rememdy for the wartime injustice. I had called for a monument, and he said (correctly) that an injury to individuals requires a remedy that compensates individuals. He made his famous comment about wanting to buy a car with his redress money, which at first shocked me and then made me see the light. My mom reminded me of this when she herself used her redress money to buy a Toyota camry several years later!

    Thank you, William, for a life well lived.

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