UW News

February 12, 2001

Takuji Yamashita: State’s leaders honor a man once rejected because of his race

A University of Washington Law School graduate will soon be admitted to the practice of law — 99 years after passing his bar exam.

On March 1, the Washington State Supreme Court will posthumously admit Takuji Yamashita, UW Law Class of 1902, as an honorary member of the state Bar.

Gov. Gary Locke, Attorney General Christine Gregoire and other dignitaries will join 17 of Yamashita’s descendants from Japan for the ceremony to honor a man who is emerging from history’s shadows as an important American civil-rights pioneer.

“He was one of our most courageous graduates,” said Roland Hjorth, dean of the UW Law School, which, along with the Asian Bar Association of Washington, joined the Washington State Bar Association in petitioning for Yamashita’s admission. Hjorth called the March 1 event the centerpiece of the Law School’s centennial celebration.

Yamashita, who died in obscurity in 1959, is being rediscovered as an early and articulate challenger of laws that long denied basic rights to Asians.

In 1902, fresh out of law school and ready to launch his legal career, he appealed to the state Supreme Court and attorney general after they they blocked his admission to the Bar based on their interpretation of U.S. law as precluding Asians from becoming citizens. Citizenship was a requirement in that era for practicing law.

Rather than accepting unequal treatment, Yamashita argued in Washington state’s highest court that the denial of his citizenship was an affront to the values of “the most enlightened and liberty-loving nation of them all.” The state’s attorneys responded by mocking Yamashita’s “worn out Star Spangled Banner orations.” The state won the case.

So Yamashita went into business instead of law. He became a hotelkeeper and strawberry farmer in Kitsap County. But even in middle age, he pressed for equal rights. In 1922, Yamashita challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court the state’s Alien Land Law, which barred “ineligible aliens” — again, in effect, Asians — from owning land. The U.S. ruling was the same as the Olympia decision of 1902: it was up to Congress to decide if Asians were eligible for naturalization.

Seattle Municipal Court Judge Ron Mamiya, who represents the Asian Bar Association of Washington, said Yamashita was ahead of his time. Not until 1952 could Japanese immigrants become U.S. citizens, not until 1965 did Congress put Asian immigrants on par with Europeans, not until 1966 did Washington voters (on the fourth try) repeal the Alien Land Law, and not until 1973 did the U.S. Supreme Court finally grant aliens the right to practice law in all states.

Yamashita’s cases established a record of objection to racial exclusion, Mamiya said, but for decades they were little known except as legal footnotes. After being incarcerated in World War II relocation camps, Yamashita returned to Japan in the last two years of his life. He died there in 1959 at the age of 84.

In the mid-1990s, Yamashita’s descendants and a handful of historians began to piece together his life story. UW officials saw the chance to symbolically redress the 1902 injustice to Yamashita as a meaningful way to mark the Law School’s centennial. The Law School opened in 1899 and held its first graduation in 1901.

“It’s impossible to undo what happened to Mr. Yamashita,” said current state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. “But it’s important for us to make a statement that these things were wrong. It’s a step toward healing.”

The admission will take place in the Temple of Justice in Olympia at 4 p.m.
For more information, contact Paula Littlewood, assistant dean of the Law School, at (206) 685-1998 or pcl@u.washington.edu; Judge Mamiya at (206) 684-8714, (206) 684-8709 or ron.mamiya@ci.seattle.wa.us; Chief Justice Alexander at (360) 357-2029 or j_g.alexander@courts.wa.gov