Posthumous Justice: Yamashita Passes the Bar

By Paton, Dean | The Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Posthumous Justice: Yamashita Passes the Bar


Paton, Dean, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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