When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hurled the United States into World War II on Dec. 7, 1941, the impact on William Hohri, then a sophomore at North Hollywood High School, was almost immediate.
That afternoon his immigrant father, a Methodist minister, was arrested by the FBI and sent to an alien detention center at Fort Missoula, Mont. Four months later, with only a week’s notice, Hohri, his mother and siblings were bused to Manzanar, a prison camp for Japanese Americans at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada.
“It was a sad time,” Hohri recalled years later, when his anger and a sense of patriotism drove him to do something about the injustices they suffered.
A maverick of the movement to seek redress for the wartime incarceration, Hohri died Nov. 12 at his home in Pacific Palisades. He was 83 and had Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Yoriko.
In 1983 Hohri became the lead plaintiff in a $25-billion class-action lawsuit against the federal government, which sought $210,000 in damages for each of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who lost their liberty under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.
The case ultimately was rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but Hohri’s legal challenge helped pave the way for the official apology and redress payments authorized in a bill signed by President Reagan in 1988.
“He loved this country so much he wanted it to live up to its promise to protect its citizens and resident aliens and guarantee that their constitutional rights were carried out,” said Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a researcher and activist who worked with Hohri on the lawsuit. “He was so disappointed that didn’t happen to us. His conviction was that we need to have the court acknowledge that the government was wrong. He was a real fighter for social justice.”
The youngest of six children, Hohri was born in San Francisco on March 13, 1927, and grew up in Southern California, moving frequently because of his father’s missionary work.
In 1941, his father was leading a mostly Japanese congregation at an American Legion hall in North Hollywood. Barred from citizenship because he was a native of Japan, he was being detained in Montana with other Japanese, German and Italian nationals when the rest of the family was sent to Manzanar in April 1942. In that remote Central California camp, his wife and children were crammed into a 20-by-25-foot cubicle in military-style barracks. Bed was a bag filled with straw, and the toilet was outdoors. Hohri struggled to understand this sudden rupture in their lives.
“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,” Hohri told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. “You begin to wonder if something is wrong with you. What happened to us was not our fault.”
Decades later, Hohri turned his experiences into a novel, “Manzanar Rites.” He also wrote two nonfiction works, “Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese American Redress” and “Resistance: Challenging America’s Wartime Internment of Japanese-Americans.”
Hohri finished high school at Manzanar and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he studied religion and philosophy and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949. In an academic environment that emphasized inquiry and debate, Hohri learned skills that would sustain him through the difficult years of the redress fight. “You had to learn to stand on your own two feet. He was taught to speak his mind,” Yoriko Hohri said of her husband’s college training.
The two were married in 1951. In addition to his wife, Hohri is survived by two daughters, Sasha and Sylvia, two brothers, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Hohri worked as a computer programmer in Chicago but was drawn to social activism. He was particularly moved by his participation in James Meredith’s 1966 march for voting rights from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss. Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, was shot during the march.
In Jackson, Hohri recalled in a 1997 interview for the Densho Visual History Collection, “they gave us each a little plastic flag to carry. And it was the first time in my life that I felt proud to be an American. You know, carrying this little plastic flag and marching with all these people … blacks and whites and a couple of Asians.… It really was a great feeling.”
In the ensuing decades he turned his attention to Japanese Americans’ struggle for civil rights.
The National Council for Japanese American Redress was founded in 1979 with Hohri as its leader. It challenged the more established Japanese American Citizens League, which favored a much softer approach — legislation for a fact-finding commission to determine if the government had violated Japanese Americans’ rights during the war.
Hohri’s group researched the law and detailed numerous constitutional violations. In 1983 he became the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, which charged that the federal government had “maliciously and unlawfully conspired” to imprison Japanese Americans in a campaign of “invidious racial discrimination.”
For several years, he rose at 5 a.m. every day to work on the lawsuit before work. He considered the $25 billion in damages sought as “modest compared to the injuries suffered” by Japanese Americans who lost their homes and livelihoods.
In 1988 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that the suit was barred by a six-year statute of limitations governing such claims. The Supreme Court let the appellate ruling stand. But all was not lost. That year, Reagan signed a law that provided $20,000 tax free to survivors of the wartime camps.
Hohri “stepped up to organize Japanese America and go to court to challenge the injustice of the incarceration. He organized name plaintiffs to join him in the cause. And that arguably spurred Congress to move on a real redress bill,” said Frank Abe, a Seattle activist who worked closely with Hohri in the National Council for Japanese American Redress.
Hohri, who returned to live in California in 1996, announced that he would use his $20,000 to buy a car. That stirred criticism from some redress supporters who thought the money should be pooled for nobler purposes, such as a community fund or a monument. But Hohri staunchly defended camp survivors’ right to use the money as they wished. “He said we suffered individually to different degrees, so the government should treat us individually,” Herzig-Yoshinaga recalled.
Hohri bought the car — a Nissan — and added a custom license plate. It read: “REDRESS.”