Posthumous justice: Yamashita passes the bar

Takuji Yamashita will be admitted to the bar today - more than 40 years after his death.

It was nearly 100 years ago when Yamashita, a Japanese immigrant who graduated from the University of Washington Law School, first applied to the bar and was blocked from joining because of his race.

Now, as the Washington State Supreme Court prepares to right that wrong, Yamashita's story of courage, resilience, and unwavering faith in the law may also propel him into history books and classrooms, as an early civil rights pioneer.

"He fought to show that everybody is equal under law," says Naoto Kobayashi, Yamashita's great-grandson, who teaches Japanese near Manchester, Maine, and is one of about 20 family members who will attend today's ceremony here. "Skin color may be different. But people are people. This story's not only important for my family, or for Japanese Americans. This is everybody's victory."

It's also an indication of how far the state has come in reversing its long, complicated history of racism against Asians. The posthumous degree is both a mea culpa and an active attempt at reparations. Indeed, participating in the ceremony is Washington's governor, Gary Locke, a Chinese American.

Yamashita left Japan as a teenager in 1893 and landed in Tacoma, south of Seattle. He excelled in high school and became fluent in English. His hard work and quick mind earned him a degree from the University of Washington's new law school - in fact, the 1902 yearbook cites his "commendable performance" in moot court.

Yet, within days of his graduation, Yamashita found himself before the state's highest court, fighting for the right to practice law. At that time, Congress granted citizenship only to whites and, after the Civil War, people of African ancestry - and state law said only US citizens could be lawyers.

The 28-page brief Yamashita wrote argued that denying citizenship on the basis of race is unworthy of a country "founded on the fundamental principles of freedom and equality" and an affront to the values of "the most enlightened and liberty-loving nation of them all."

The state attorney general mocked his reference to America's venerable ideals and contended that the 27-year-old could never be a US citizen because "in no classification of the human race is a native of Japan treated as belonging to any branch of the white or whitish race."

Yamashita lost. But he did not turn bitter or sail back across the ocean. He went into business - and excelled.

Across Puget Sound, in Bremerton, he opened the Tojo Hotel and, later, The People's Cafe. He married and had five children.

But the Japanese, like the Chinese here before them, were ongoing targets of racism, particularly from white workers who felt they were losing jobs to immigrants. Early in the 20th century, says historian David Takami, Japanese were labeled "unassimilable." Politicians and editorialists warned that "Japs" would "mongrelize" the white race.

In 1919, the same year that trade unionists organized the General Strike here, fearful Seattle businessmen formed the Anti-Japanese League because, in the words of its president, "They constantly demonstrate their ability to best the white man at his own game in farming, fishing, and business. They will work harder, deprive themselves of every comfort and luxury, make beasts of burden of their women, and stick together, making a combination that America cannot defeat."

In 1921, the state passed the Alien Land Law. Though it already forbade the sale of land to "aliens ineligible in citizenship," this extended restrictions to leasing and renting land.

Yamashita was outraged. To challenge the law, he created the Japanese Real Estate Holding Co. and set out to buy land. When his purchases were blocked, he took his case all the way to the US Supreme Court. Not only did he lose, but the high court cited his 1902 defeat at the Washington state court to justify its ruling.

Although Japanese could not own or lease land, they could work it. During the 1920s, Japanese farmers provided this region with 75 percent of its produce and half its milk. Many circumvented the land law with help from sympathetic whites, who would own the land technically and "hire" the Japanese as "managers."

Under this type of arrangement, the Yamashitas moved to a 20-acre farm in Silverdale, and began farming strawberries.

"They were just super-nice people," remembers Carrie Somers LaPoint, who grew up on a chicken ranch nearby. "Very hardworking. It was Depression times, and they were awful good to us kids.... Their daughter would drive us into town and pay our way into the movie theater."

Life was good - until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Within months, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and late in the winter of 1942, the Yamashita family was given a week to dispose of its belongings and report to the internment camp at Tule Lake in California.

Like most of the 110,000 Japanese who spent wartime years in camps, Yamashita was unable to pay his taxes or service his debts. When the war was over he and his wife had lost everything and were forced to live with a daughter in Seattle.

In 1952, Congress finally granted Japanese the privilege of US citizenship, but Yamashita never applied. In 1957, he and his wife repatriated to Japan, where he died two years later.

On the wall of his ancestral home, however, hung one item he had carried with him for nearly six decades, preserving it carefully even during those years in the internment camps: his law degree from the University of Washington.

"It's kind of a haiku of how he loved the law," says Seattle Municipal Court Judge Ron Mamiya. "Yamashita knew that everything was stacked against him, and yet he took his principles to court - twice."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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