By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Sei Fujii has achieved something in death that he could not in life — admission to the California State Bar.
Remembered as an advocate for the Japanese American community and the publisher of The Kashu Mainichi, Fujii was posthumously admitted to the State Bar by the California Supreme Court on Wednesday. The Little Tokyo Historical Society and the Japanese American Bar Association had made a motion for special admission.
The court said in its order, “Fujii’s work in the face of prejudice and oppression embodies the highest traditions of those who work to make our society more just.”
It was a unanimous decision by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Kathryn Werdegar, Ming Chin, Carol Corrigan, Goodwin Liu, Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, and Leondra Kruger.
Born in 1882 in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Fujii immigrated to the U.S. in 1903. Eight years later, he graduated with a law degree from USC, but was barred from admission to the State Bar, which did not allow individuals ineligible for citizenship to practice law. Japanese immigrants could not become naturalized citizens until 1952.
Partnering with classmate J. Marion Wright, Fujii fought laws that discriminated against Japanese Americans, such as the Alien Land Law, which prohibited Issei from owning land. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Fujii was among the Issei leaders who were rounded up and held in U.S. Justice Department internment camps.
Fujii became a U.S. citizen in 1954, 51 years after arriving in America. His life as a citizen was brief, however; 51 days later, he died of a heart attack at age 72.
Until recently, Fujii’s contributions were little known, even in the Japanese American community, but a film about him, “Lil Tokyo Reporter,” was released in 2012 and a monument dedicated to his memory was placed in Little Tokyo’s Japanese Village Plaza in 2015.
The award-winning film, which starred Chris Tashima, dramatized Fujii’s fight against gangsters in Little Tokyo in the 1930s, which nearly cost him his life. Budgetary limitations did not permit the producers to make a feature-length film about Fujii’s entire career.
The director, Jeffrey Gee Chin, has also been working on an official English biography of Fujii entitled “A Rebel’s Outcry,” which was edited by noted author Naomi Hirahara and will be released this year.
LTHS, JABA Statements
“The Little Tokyo Historical Society is tremendously grateful to Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and the associate Justices of the Supreme Court of California for today granting Mr. Sei Fujii honorary posthumous membership in the State Bar of California,” said LTHS President Michael Okamura. “Sixty-three years after his death and proudly becoming a U.S. naturalized citizen after federal law restricting this was overturned, Fujii’s legacy of working towards a fair and equal society for all is ensured.
“His life’s mission was to help his fellow Japanese immigrants in the Los Angeles region deal with overt discriminatory federal and state laws against Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century and be a voice of sound reasoning for the Japanese American community. The LTHS Sei Fujii Committee, led by Fumiko Carole Fujita and Jeffrey Gee Chin, has worked tirelessly and committed many hours devoted to the posthumous award effort, so this positive outcome is a humbling experience.
“It is also timely as this year commemorates the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 that set in motion the forced removal and incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast in 1942.”
The Japanese American Bar Association said in a statement, “JABA applauds the California Supreme Court for recognizing the accomplishments of civil rights activist Sei Fujii and granting the joint petition of JABA and the Little Tokyo Historical Society to have Fujii posthumously admitted to the California State Bar. This order is not just a symbolic one but one that JABA hopes will further its mission to continue our country’s discussion about diversity and what it means to be ‘American.’
“Fujii exhibited true American values by courageously resisting prejudice and oppression and battling for what was right. It is no coincidence that this order was granted in the same year that marks the 65th anniversary of Fujii v. California, which overturned the Alien Land Law that prohibited aliens ineligible for citizenship (e.g., immigrants from Asian countries) from owning land.
“The California Supreme Court order culminates from the collective efforts of many who worked for years to make this happen. JABA thanks its partners and supporters: LTHS, the firm of McGuireWoods and its partner Sid Kanazawa, Kim Nakamaru, Jeffrey Chin, and JABA’s own members for participating in this effort, as well as the support from over 86 community and legal organizations that signed onto the petition. JABA urges everyone to learn more about Sei Fujii’s story by watching the award-winning short film directed by Chin, ‘Lil Tokyo Reporter’ (www.ltreporter.com/blog/), and reading the forthcoming official English biography of Fujii, ‘A Rebel’s Outcry.’”
“In these divisive times, it is fitting to highlight an immigrant who recognized, embraced, and enhanced the American culture of the rule of law that we often take for granted,” said Kanazawa. “For it is the culture of the rule of law that differentiates the United States from other democratically elected governments — like Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines — that embrace majority rules but do not similarly embrace the rule of law.”
JABA President Mark Furuya added, “Although he was barred from practicing law, Sei Fujii was a tireless advocate of justice. He was an important voice for the Japanese American community and told their stories as a journalist and radio show host. He fought against laws fueled by xenophobia with the help of his law school classmate, J. Marion Wright. Even after being interned and enduring severe prejudice, the fact that he became a U.S. citizen less than two months before his death challenges the traditional and narrow view of what it means to be an American.”
The court’s decision reads, in part:
“The materials before us contain no indication that Fujii took or passed a bar exam or that he applied for admission to the California Bar. But such acts by Fujii would have been futile in light of our decision in In re Hong Yen Chang (1890) … Federal law at the time limited naturalization solely to ‘free white persons’ and ‘persons of African descent.’ (Ozawa v. United States, 1922) … At the same time, California and most other states prohibited foreign-born persons from practicing law unless they were eligible for citizenship.
“This court upheld that restriction in In re Hong Yen Chang and later suggested that noncitizens were too untrustworthy to practice law. (Large v. The State Bar, 1933) … This pair of interlocking federal and state restrictions … combined to form an insurmountable barrier against persons born in Asia who wished to practice law in California. Once federal law changed in 1952 to remove race requirements for naturalization, Fujii became a citizen …
“Though Fujii both graduated from law school and made his career in California, throughout his entire professional life he was barred from obtaining a license to practice law in the state. This was an injustice that we repudiate today by granting Fujii honorary posthumous membership in the State Bar of California.
“Despite his unjust exclusion from the legal profession, Fujii undertook extraordinary efforts to apply his education and talents to advancing the rule of law in California. Fujii partnered with a classmate from his law school to assert the rights of Japanese immigrants in the Los Angeles area. The pair’s accomplishments included an early challenge to the Alien Land Law of 1913.
“That California statute, enacted two years after Fujii finished law school, barred aliens who were ‘ineligible for citizenship’ from owning land in the state. Though the legislation did not single out any particular ethnic group, this court recognized early on that the ‘object sought to be attained by these statutory provisions’ was ‘to discourage the coming of Japanese into this state.’ … Fujii is well known as the litigant whose case invalidated the Alien Land Law decades later. (See Sei Fujii v. State of California, 1952) …
“But long before that landmark ruling, Fujii contributed to other challenges of the same statute that do not bear his name. One of these earlier efforts arose from a 1918 influenza epidemic, during which Japanese doctors were barred from admitting their patients at hospitals. In response, five Japanese physicians formed a corporation to buy land for a new hospital that would serve the Japanese community. The state rejected their corporate filing. This court eventually ordered the state to accept the filing and the United States Supreme Court affirmed our ruling. (See Jordan v. Tashiro, 1928) …
“The ruling came just five years after the high court held in a series of cases that California had broad authority to prohibit aliens from owning or leasing agricultural land … Thirteen years after the Tashiro decision, Japan’s military bombed Pearl Harbor. Fujii was among the more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry — most of them American citizens — who were sent to internment camps solely because of their national origin. Many of these families who were rounded up had been forced to leave behind land in California, and the state began to use the Alien Land Law to take that property. (See Oyama v. California, 1948) …
“Indeed, though the Alien Land Law had been on the books since 1913, nearly all of the state’s escheat actions against people of Japanese ancestry were instituted after 1942 … Soon after the war ended, Fujii, undaunted, led a new challenge to the Alien Land Law. In 1948, he defied the statute by buying a small undeveloped lot in Los Angeles … The state began an escheat action to confiscate the land. The case came to this court, and we held that the Alien Land Law violated the Fourteenth Amendment …
“Even though the statute never named any ethnic group, we held that ‘the real purpose of the legislation was the elimination of competition by alien Japanese in farming California land.’ … Three justices dissented. Just two months later, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act. This law finally allowed persons of Japanese ancestry to naturalize, thus removing the legal obstacle to their joining the California Bar …
“Two years later, California voters approved a measure that repealed the Alien Land Law. Fujii did not live to see his fellow Californians vote to undo the xenophobic statute he had spent decades challenging in court.
“Despite being formally excluded from joining the ranks of the legal profession throughout his life, Fujii spent much of his career using the courts to advance the rule of law in California. We do not know what more Fujii might have accomplished had he been admitted to the bar, or what others in Fujii’s position might have accomplished had our laws not wrongfully excluded or deterred them from becoming lawyers …
“Our Fujii opinion observed that ‘[t]he only disqualification urged against Sei Fujii is that of race.’ … This statement rings with special relevance as we consider the motion presented on Fujii’s behalf. Fujii’s work in the face of prejudice and oppression embodies the highest traditions of those who work to make our society more just. We hereby grant Sei Fujii honorary posthumous membership in the State Bar of California.”