Takuji Yamashita passed the bar exam. His license to practice law arrived 99 years later.

What took it so long reveals much about the obstacles that Issei like Yamashita faced.

Yamashita was long in his grave on March 1, 2001, when the Washington State Supreme Court posthumously admitted the 1902 University of Washington law grad as an honorary member of the state bar. More than 300 dignitaries and community leaders paid homage to Yamashita in a moving ceremony covered by more than 60 newspapers on both sides of the Pacific.

What captured their admiration was Yamashita’s pluck. Fresh out of law school and ready to launch his career, Yamashita had been told by the state’s attorney general and Supreme Court of 1902 that his American citizenship papers were void. They cited a federal law specifying whites and blacks – but not Asians – as eligible for naturalization. More than Yamashita’s pride was at stake; you had to be a U.S. citizen to practice law.
The freshly minted graduate fought back, arguing in the state’s highest court that denying citizenship based on race was an affront to the values of “the most enlightened and liberty-loving nation of them all.”

The attorney general mocked Yamashita’s “worn out Star Spangled Banner orations.”

The Star Spangled Banner lost. The justices rejected Yamashita’s bid.

One of Yamashita’s law classmates later would preside over the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. Another served on the state Supreme Court. Yamashita ran a boarding house and harvested oysters.

But he remained an Issei community leader. Yamashita founded the Ehime-ken Club (from when he had emigrated in 1893, at age 19, after being summoned to Tacoma by townsman Kyuhachi Nishii). He also helped expand Seattle’s Japanese language school, served as an interpreter and informal legal adviser to other Issei, and deployed his eloquence as an ambassador to the larger community.

“We hope to see this country prosper,” Yamashita told Seattle’s 1907 Independence Day crowd, estimated by the Post-Intelligencer at 10,000. “As it prospers, we prosper.”

Yamashita lectured the Fourth of July celebrants: “You have a great duty to elevate others to the same plane as yourselves. Let nobody in this country be denied right and justice.”

The P-I later praised Yamashita’s words as “an answer to the agitators who perpetually preach the dangers of a Japanese peril.”

In Bremerton, Yamashita opened the Togo Hotel, a boarding house for shipyard workers and hangout for the dozens of Japanese cooks in the galleys of Navy ships based there.

Yamashita was to take one more major stand for civil rights. Following the lead of California and other states, Washington passed a law curtailing land ownership by Asian immigrants in 1921. The legal warhead was the phrase “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” Those four words made racial persecution easy – no need to mention race at all. Since it would be years before most Nisei (citizens from their birth on American soil) reached adulthood and could own land in their name, the citizenship barrier and land laws combined to pose a threat. So Yamashita, no longer a fresh graduate but a 47-year-old family man, joined the national counterattack.

Seattle editor and railroad-labor recruiter Yamaoka Otataka guided the Japanese Association’s national battle for citizenship rights. The “poster child” was to be Takao Ozawa, an educated immigrant in Hawaii. But a legal glitch had arisen having to do with the period between Ozawa’s initial and final citizenship applications. Japanese community strategists needed a backup plaintiff.

They needed Yamashita.

On Oct. 3, 1922, former U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham argued for three hours for the right to citizenship of Ozawa and Yamashita (who was joined by Montana resident Charles Hio Kono). The nation looked on with scorn.

“Probably never at any time in history has so extraordinary a cause been laid before any judicial body,” huffed the Seattle Times, only slightly more hyperbolically than most.

The Supreme Court unanimously turned down Ozawa and Yamashita-Kono.

“RULES JAPANESE CAN’T BE CITIZENS,” headlined The New York Times front page. “Supreme Court, in Two Decisions, Holds They Are Ineligible for Naturalization.”

The Times and other newspapers quoted heavily from the opinion written by Justice George Sutherland – a naturalized immigrant from England – which denied that any racial prejudice was involved.

Yamashita carried on. As the Great Depression settled in, he acquired 20 acres of waterfront farmland north of Bremerton, owned on paper by his American-born daughter. Yamashita tended the oysters. His wife cleaned and bottled the mollusks. Their daughter sold the jars in Bremerton for a nickel apiece.

Then Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The 1922 Ozawa-Yamashita-Kono rulings had played a significant role, some historians believe, in the wounding of Japanese national pride that ultimately led to this war. Whatever its root causes, Yamashita, like at least 110,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry, soon faced mass incarceration.

Yamashita was 67 when he began his three-year residency at the Tule Lake, Manzanar and Minidoka “camps” in California and Idaho, an imprisonment that accomplished what other setbacks had not – weakening his health and spirit. Despite being diagnosed with a heart disorder, the aging businessman was assigned to sweep up coal. The 8-cent hourly wage did not enable Yamashita to keep up payments on his farm. New owners tore out the strawberries and eventually brought in turkeys and cows.

Yamashita returned to Japan in the last two years of his life, to rejoin his last surviving child. He died there in 1959 at the age of 84, largely forgotten. But three decades later, a handful of historians began to notice his early record of opposition to injustice.

“Only recently,” author Roger Daniels noted in 2001, “have historians begun to see Asian Americans as subjects, rather than objects, of history.”

UW officials planning the School of Law’s centennial saw the chance to symbolically redress the rebuff of their star graduate. The Asian Bar Association and Washington State Bar Association joined them in petitioning the state Supreme Court.

By the day in 2001 when the Washington State Supreme Court convened to honor Yamashita, the world looked far different than when he and other landless, disenfranchised Issei struggled for their slice of the American dream. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 had eliminated race as a barrier to citizenship. Few now could be found to defend Yamashita’s treatment. State Attorney General Christine Gregoire proclaimed that Yamashita had been absolutely right to fight for “his place in the legal profession and his place in this country.”

And what a fight it has been!

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