RIP William Hohri, Champion of Internees’ Lawsuit Against Government

William Hohri, lead plaintiff in the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) class action lawsuit against the government regarding Japanese American internment during WWII, passed away on Friday, November 12, at the age of 83.

I just found out that William Hohri, the lead plaintiff who spear-headed the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) class action lawsuit against the American government’s forcible relocation and internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII, passed away last Friday at the age of 83. The lawsuit sought $220,000 in damages for each internee, based on 22 “causes of action”, and was making its way through the legal system when Congress’ redress bill was brought to a vote. It is largely believed that NCJAR’s lawsuit was a primary impetus for the signing of Congress’ redress bill. That bill ultimately provided $20,000 to each surviving internee.

Rafu Shimpo has a great article on the life and influence of William Hohri. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

[…]

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.”

[…]

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.”

Read the full article here: Hohri, 83; Lead Plaintiff in Internees’ Lawsuit Against Government.

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