Kenji Ito, 94; Attorney Was Found Not Guilty at Spy Trial in 1942
Kenji Ito, an attorney and civic leader who in 1942 successfully fought charges that he was a spy for Japan and who later became the first Japanese American admitted to the State Bar of California after World War II, died Sunday at his Alhambra home. He was 94 and had Alzheimer’s disease.
Born in Seattle, Ito was admitted to the California bar in 1945 and practiced law in Los Angeles for more than 50 years. He served five terms as president of the Southern California Japanese Chamber of Commerce and helped found the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo.
A skillful debater who earned his law degree at the University of Washington in 1935, Ito was admitted to the Washington state bar in 1936. That year he earned a spot on a yearlong debate tour sponsored by the university that took him around the world, including stops in Australia, China, Japan, Egypt and England.
After returning to Seattle in 1937, he was frequently invited by civic groups to debate the Sino-Japanese War, which had begun with the Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1931. The United States had taken China’s side in the hostilities.
Ito agreed to take a rhetorical position in favor of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria “because I felt that both sides of the equation should be presented in a matter as important as this, and certainly there was nobody to defend or to even set forth Japan’s position in those days,” he told the Pacific Citizen, a publication of the Japanese American Citizens League, in 1985.
“I was expressing myself as an American -- of Japanese ancestry, of course -- who knew something about Japan and Japanese history,” he said.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Ito’s role in the debates became the foundation of a government case alleging that he was a subversive who had made 200 pro-Japanese speeches over a three-year period. He was arrested Dec. 8 on charges that he was an unregistered agent for Japan and was held in lieu of $25,000 bond.
He was one of hundreds of people of Japanese descent who were rounded up by the FBI in the weeks after Pearl Harbor and placed in custody “largely on the theory of guilt by association,” said University of Cincinnati emeritus professor Roger Daniels, who has written extensively about Japanese Americans during World War II. Unlike Ito, most of those arrested were Japanese immigrants; none was ever found guilty of espionage or sabotage.
Ito was acquitted by an all-white jury April 1, 1942. The jury acted after hearing Ito’s dramatic appeal during closing arguments, in which he said his loyalty to America was so strong that he would “rather live in this country behind prison bars” than in a nation under dictatorship.
Although he was found innocent, Ito could not escape the evacuation order targeting Japanese on the West Coast that had been signed a few months earlier by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Executive Order 9066 sent 110,000 Japanese Americans and nationals on the West Coast to 10 detention camps without proof of their disloyalty. Ito and his family spent the duration of the war at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in Northern California and the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho.
In the camps he provided legal assistance to other detainees. After the war, he moved to Los Angeles and opened a law office in Little Tokyo, where he helped former internees reclaim property that they had been forced to abandon.
In later years Ito concentrated on corporate law, representing major Japanese firms.
Ito is survived by his wife of 63 years, Fumiye Betty; a daughter, Ayleen Ito Lee of Palo Alto; two sons, Ron of Alhambra and Bradford of Redwood City; a brother, Henry, of Gardena; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Glenna Ito Angel.
A memorial program will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 23 at Little Tokyo’s Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St., in the Doizaki Gallery. Ito will be buried in San Jose.
Memorial donations may be sent to the Japanese American Treaty Centennial Scholarship Fund Inc., 244 S. San Pedro St., No. 504, Los Angeles, CA 90012, or Little Tokyo Service Center, 231 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.