America has lost a true hero. William Hohri, who died Nov. 12 at age 83 near Los Angeles, was a courageous and prophetic voice for redress for Americans of Japanese ancestry.
In 1942, at age 15, William Hohri and his family were exiled from their home in California and subsequently incarcerated at Manzanar, Calif., for more than three years, solely because of their Japanese ancestry. The Hohris and approximately 120,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were imprisoned and deprived of virtually every one of their constitutional rights by the U.S. government.
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, 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.
As chairman of the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR), Hohri spearheaded a legal quest for redress. Combining the dedication, energy and talents of Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig (a dedicated archivist) and other NCJAR members and supporters, his group made an extraordinary effort to bring to light the egregious facts of the government’s wartime actions.
In 1983, Hohri filed a class action lawsuit against the United States, seeking an apology and monetary redress on behalf of all Americans of Japanese ancestry who faced these unprecedented violations of their constitutional rights during World War II.
The lawsuit demonstrated fraud, concealment and uncontrolled racism in the wartime actions against Japanese-Americans. It sought monetary redress, a declaration of wrongdoing and, most importantly, a reversal of the dangerous precedent created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s wartime cases, which condoned the exile and imprisonment of an entire race of people solely because of ancestry. The case twice went before the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the high court’s recognition of these egregious wrongs.
The lawsuit was ultimately denied on procedural grounds. Hohri always knew that was a major risk. But that never swayed him from his commitment to do everything humanly possible to seek redress. His efforts helped create public attention and pressure on Congress to enact an apology and monetary redress for Americans of Japanese ancestry injured by the wartime actions.
His leadership brought a new sense of courage, pride and activism to the Japanese-American community. He inspired others to become civil rights activists on broader issues. He helped bring truth to the historical account of this era in American history in a way that makes us all stronger.
Many people who never before had the courage to speak about their wartime experiences suddenly found a voice. Cathartic healing occurred as people shared their experiences in the hope they could help prevent having similar injustices ever inflicted on others.
Hohri was a transformational agent in helping the AJA community find strength, dignity and honor from such sad experiences. A prolific writer, scholar and philosopher, he challenged people to think, to act on their beliefs, to be fearless in their approach to life, and to challenge injustices around them.
I was very blessed to have worked with William Hohri as one of the attorneys on his case. All of us who knew him know we have lost a true American hero. We are all stronger for his dedication to justice.
Ellen Godbey Carson of Honolulu is an attorney with Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing.