By DENNIS HAYASHI and FRANK WU
Students from University of California Hastings College of the Law celebrated their commencement May 15, ready to enter the profession. With them, students who were denied the same opportunity generations ago, because they were Japanese Americans, also received honorary degrees.
The ceremony righted a wrong as best as possible not only for the individuals and an institution but also our democracy.
There were at least 10 students of Japanese ancestry enrolled at Hastings, the oldest law school in the American West, when World War II began. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942. Like the other approximately 120,000 persons on the Pacific Coast who happened to have roots in Japan — two-thirds of them native-born citizens of the United States — these would-be attorneys then were subjected to incarceration.
Ironically, they were just then studying the Constitution, due process and the rule of law. Nonetheless, they were deprived of their equal rights.
False allegations of disloyalty were raised against Japanese Americans by community, state and national leaders. As a result, these Americans lost everything: jobs, homes, businesses, friends, and dignity.
Japanese Americans displayed remarkable equanimity in the face of such discrimination. Hundreds served in the military as their families remained behind barbed wire and under the armed guard of soldiers who wore the same uniform.
After the war, they did what they could to continue with their lives. Encouraged by government resettlement efforts to leave behind historic communities, such as here in San Francisco, many tried to cope with their experience through silence. Their stoicism meant that some in the next generation who heard vague references to “the camps” thought their parents meant a summer camp.
In 1980, the federal government impaneled a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the internment. It found that decision-makers of the time knew, or should have known, that there was no basis for the hostile reactions against this minority group. It concluded, to the contrary, that the choices that were made resulted from lack of leadership, wartime panic and racial prejudice.
Presidents of both political parties have apologized for the actions that were taken. Congress passed legislation that paid reparations (estimated to be pennies on the dollar) in 1988.
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that the criminal conviction of Fred Korematsu, a welder in the East Bay, had been wrong, and she vacated it in a rare legal action. Korematsu later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom before his death in 2005. A state holiday named for him was celebrated last year, for the first time.
The board of Hastings and its faculty, both in unanimous votes, agreed that the students who were unable to complete their educations should receive a special degree, with the Latin inscription “inter silvas academi restituere iustitiam,” which translates to the felicitous phrase “to restore justice to the groves of the academy.”
Receiving the distinction were seven persons: Toshio Ando, Abe Megumi Fuji, Pearl Virginia Mayeda, Roy Gancho Mita, Kenichi Nishimoto, James Hiroshi Ogisaka and Clark Kuichi Saito. Ninety-two-year-old Saito was able to attend in person to be recognized. Another three students were able to return to finish their degrees at the time: Victor Senjiro Abe, Harry Goza, and Mamoru Sakuma.
For a law school especially, it is important to recognize the unique power of our system of government. While we make mistakes, we are able to correct them. To do so reflects the highest confidence in our society. All of us can be proud to see justice done.
Dennis Hayashi, a Hastings alumnus, is an Alameda County Superior Court. Frank H. Wu is chancellor and dean of UC Hastings.