Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was sent to Manzanar, a relocation camp in the eastern Sierra, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Democracy needs its heroes.

That’s the lesson I took away from a Los Angeles Times story this week. It’s a tale of bravery and success against almost insurmountable odds. And it tells us a little about patience, too.

The story by Kate Linthicum opens, “Every morning, she climbed the wide marble steps of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was not trained for this work. She was a homemaker, not a historian. But she had a lifetime of simmering anger and unanswered questions.”

Those questions had to do with the “racial prejudice behind the forced relocation of citizens of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor.”

The story tells how Herzig-Yoshinaga transformed from a teenage girl whose family was imprisoned in horse stables and later an internment camp, into a woman who did the difficult research work that helped transform a nation’s response to a years-long injustice.

Eventually, her work and that of others led to an official government apology and reparations for those who had been placed in what she calls concentration camps, or gulags.

I’ve written before about Tom Ikeda and Densho, an organization that works to preserve and tell the amazing stories of those—almost every one an American citizen—who were incarcerated.

In case you think that all of that is simply ancient history, you may have missed a remarkable admission from the U.S. Government last month. Neal Katyal, then the Interim Solicitor General, made the striking admission that his Word War II-era predecessor had lied to the Supreme Court on relevant and substantive issues related to the internment. As the story says:

“Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, in an extraordinary admission of misconduct, took to task one of his predecessors for hiding evidence and deceiving the Supreme Court in two of the major cases in its history: the World War II rulings that upheld the detention of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans.”

“Katyal said Tuesday that Charles Fahy, an appointee of President Franklin Roosevelt, deliberately hid from the court a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence that concluded the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast did not pose a military threat. The report indicated there was no evidence the Japanese-Americans were disloyal, acting as spies or signaling enemy submarines, as some at the time had suggested.”

Tom Ikeda of Densho

Many in the country had posited exactly that for many years. But would the government ever have made such an acknowledgment without steady pressure from people like Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and groups like Densho? Unlikely.

Recently, I have been reading an article in the journal Western Legal History. That’s a phenomenal volume published by the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society. The article I’m focused on at the moment tells a little-known history of the treatment of Japanese Americans under martial law in Hawaii during World War II. It is a cautionary tale for any American who prizes civil liberties.

Those who would face injustice head-on and seek to make change will always be a small group. And those of us who hope we would take such action rather than remain silent can take our shot of courage from people like Herzig-Yoshinaga.

Read the whole Los Angeles Times story here.

Law Day will be here next week, and it has lessons to impart.

It is an annual event that encourages Americans to think hard about the benefits of living in what we call a nation of laws. It’s a little self-congratulatory, but as an exercise, it’s a useful one.

Each state is encouraged to develop its own curriculum. In Arizona, the focus of the Supreme Court’s Law Day will be an April 30 program titled Law, Justice, and the Holocaust:  What You Do Matters” (more information is here). A program co-sponsor is the State Bar of Arizona.

The program will examine how atrocities like the Holocaust are rarely the simple acts of madmen. Instead, they often are carefully and legally scripted.

For instance, in the Third Reich, Adolph Hitler and his henchmen wanted to be sure laws and legal structures were altered to support their Final Solution. Sadly—but not so surprisingly—lawyers and judges went along with that travesty, either through persuasion, coercion, or with pleasure.

A program I attended yesterday demonstrates that we need not leave our own continent—or our own country—to see examples of civil liberties tossed aside—and all the more immorally because it was done under the auspices of the law.

The 49th annual scholarship awards of the Arizona Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League was held—deliciously—at the Phoenix College Culinary Café on April 25. (Disclosure: My wife is Chapter President.) Along with the scholarship awards, they hosted a terrific keynote speaker who reminded everyone about the obligations we have as free Americans.

Tom Ikeda of Densho

Tom Ikeda is the Executive Director of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project. He (and their Web site) explained that:

“Densho’s mission is to preserve the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II before their memories are extinguished. We offer these irreplaceable firsthand accounts, coupled with historical images and teacher resources, to explore principles of democracy and promote equal justice.”

Ikeda spoke eloquently of the work and privilege of speaking with aging Japanese Americans whose lives were forever marked by internment in what can only be described as concentration camps. Founded in 1996 in Seattle, Densho wants to memorialize the oral histories before they are lost forever. Currently, the project is up to more than 400 interviews.

 

Those remarkable interviews are available on the Densho Web site as videos and in transcript form. They also are searchable by topic, making it easy to locate a brief discussion within even hours-long interviews.

Every bit of Tom Ikeda’s presentation was compelling. But of great interest to lawyers and anyone who cares about the law, Ikeda also showed a clip of law professor Peter Irons, as he described a seminal moment in research. He explained how he had sought and sifted through the case files on Korematsu v. United States, the case that had upheld the federal government’s exclusion and internment of United States citizens.

It was in those files that Irons found a “smoking gun.” Justice Department lawyers had written memos explaining that they had good reason to doubt the Army Department statements that the nation was imperiled by Japanese American citizens, should they be permitted to remain free. The lawyers pointed out the ethical obligation not to lie to the Supreme Court, and said that Department lawyers must provide all of the evidence to the Justices.

They did not, however, and the Supreme Court ultimately issued one of its most infamous cases, exemplary of a miscarriage of justice.

(In the 1980s, Korematsu and two other cases were overturned when evidence was presented that the U.S. government had “altered, suppressed and withheld important and relevant information from the Supreme Court.”)

Congratulations to the Arizona Supreme Court for looking hard at the legal profession’s failings in Germany in the 1940s. But let’s not forget our own profession’s failures here at home.

Happy Law Day.

Click here for a 2004 story on Densho.

Click here and here to read some more recent articles by Arizona Attorney Magazine on the anniversary of the Japanese American Redress legislation.