Today: Bill Hohri, thrown in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, he later fought for justice and against long odds, got it for himself and for others.
On December 7th, 1941 the Japanese government launched a massive air attack against U.S. forces in Honolulu. 353 Japanese fighter planes reined Hell on U.S. ships and military personnel as the frightening roar of their engines heralded deadly bombings and machine gun fire.
As the ear splitting explosions rocked the earth, orange flames torched the air and black plumes of smoke covered the area as burned and bleeding U.S. servicemen cried out in agony. When it was over 2,402 people were dead and 1,282 were wounded.
Angry and scared, Americans screamed for revenge. That afternoon in Los Angeles, 14-year-old Bill Hohri, a Japanese American heard his father, a Methodist Minister, had been arrested along with a group of other Japanese nationals, and was sent to a Montana prison.
The next day, President Roosevelt gave his famous “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress and the U.S. declared war on Japan and joined World War ll.
The U.S. was heavily bigoted against blacks and other minorities and Japanese Americans were immediately suspected of helping Japan win the war. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order directing the U.S. military to seize Japanese-Americans and nationals thought to be potential security threats and lock them up indefinitely.
In most cases it turned out to be for the nearly 4 year duration of the war.
Their Constitutional rights meant nothing. Soon after, Bill and his mother and his five brothers and sisters and thousands of other people of Japanese heritage were given a week to conclude their affairs and report for detention.
In all, 120,000 Japanese-Americans and nationals were locked up. Many lost their homes, cars and other possessions they had worked a lifetime for. In other cases, they sold to whites at fire sale prices, pennies on the dollar, rather than get nothing.
They were then forced to board busses to wherever they would be imprisoned. In the case of Bill, his mother and brothers and sisters, that meant Manzanar in the California desert.
In Manzanar, Bill and his family and other Japanese American families were packed into a tiny 20 by 25 foot military style barracks. Privacy was scarce and their toilets were outhouses. Schooling was makeshift.
The barrack walls were so thin, desert winds blew the sand inside. The summer heat scorched the prisoners and the winter snows chilled them. But there was no leaving. Guard towers manned by heavily armed guards and by others patrolling the facilities which were incased in barbed wire, kept everyone in.
Despite the deprivations, Bill was an outstanding student and graduated high school in Manzanar in 1945, as the war was ending. He was accepted at the prestigious University of Chicago and in 1949 graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree, having studied philosophy and religion.
In 1951, he married Yoriko Katayama and they would have two daughters, Sasha and Sylvia. As a devoted husband and father, Bill earned his living programming computers.
But from his bitter Manzanar experience, Bill became a social activist. In 1966 James Meredith, the first Black person admitted to the University of Mississippi and a 1963 graduate of that school, decided to make a one man civil rights march 220 miles from Memphis, Tenn. to Jackson, Miss.
The intent was to show black people they need not fear whites and to exercise their right to vote. Shortly after starting that march, James was shot three times by Aubrey James Norvell, a white man. James survived his wounds.
But rather than allow the forces of evil to prevail, his march was taken up and completed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bill was among the activists, black, white and others who joined with Dr. King.
As a civil rights activist, Bill also turned his attention to Japanese Americans. In 1979 he led an organization that was determined to hold the U.S. government accountable for what it had done to Japanese Americans.
His organization demanded a government apology for violating Japanese American Constitutional Rights during World War ll and it insisted upon compensation for the losses each person suffered.
The U.S. government refused. In 1983 Bill’s organization filed a $27 billion lawsuit. For the next five years, he worked intensively on that lawsuit, while also holding down his job. He claimed the amount of the suit was “modest compared to injuries suffered” by Japanese Americans who lost their homes and jobs and everything else they had worked for.
But in 1988, the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit because a six-year statute of limitations to have filed such a suit had expired. The U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand.
It was a crushing blow, but Bill refused to accept defeat. He and his organization presented their case to the media and the ensuing coverage pressured Congress to do something about it. Later in 1988, President Reagan apologized and signed a law paying survivors of the wartime prisons $20,000 each, tax free. At long last, Bill got justice.
“I think the idea of being interned because you are suspected of being disloyal or a military threat to this country is a very profound stigma,” Bill told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. “You begin to wonder if something is wrong with you. What happened to us was not our fault.” *
This apology and compensation also established a precedent that hopefully will help prevent such shocking legal violations from ever impacting another minority group again.
Bill then left the limelight and for the next 22 years, enjoyed his life. But on November 12, 2010, at the age of 83, he passed away in his Los Angeles area home. He is survived by Yoriko, his wife of nearly 60 years and by their daughters, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
But he is also survived by the families of those 120,000 Japanese Americans and nationals who finally received some justice, some recognition for the wrongs that had been committed against them. It helped to restore a sense of dignity and pride in their contributions to America and in their esteem as people worthy of respect.
Success Tip of the Week:
Bill courageously confronted the U.S. government to protect the legal rights of Japanese Americans and those of the rest of us as well. Would you have the courage to confront the government over today’s wrongs such as its wars and its reckless spending? If it’s not you and not me, then who shall it be?
*Quote is from the Los Angeles Times obit, “William Hohri, 1927 - 2010: Manzanar internee led the battle for redress” http://articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/21/local/la-me-william-hohri-20101121
In the next KazanToday:
How an early 20th century black man raised the money to become the father of African American film making.