A political activist and advocate for Japanese American redress, William Minoru Hohri was born on March 13, 1927, in San Francisco, California. His father was a Christian minister who led a small congregation consisting mainly of Japanese Americans. On the night of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) apprehended him and sent him to a Department of Justice internment camp in Montana. The family never learned of the charges, and there was no trial. In April 1942, the rest of the Hohri family was sent to the War Relocation Authority's Manzanar concentration camp in southern California.
Manzanar, located in a remote high desert area, was, according to Hohri, strategically placed there by the federal government to neutralize the alleged threat Japanese Americans posed to the nation's security. “In other words,” as Hohri put it, “Manzanar's geography insured that we couldn't exercise our ingrained ‘Jap’ sneakiness against power lines, aircraft factories, naval bases, shipyards, and such…. We were guilty by reason of racial perversity, but in the natural prison of Manzanar, we were harmless” (Hohri 1988, 15).
The desert conditions produced high winds and dust storms that blew dirt and sand into the unfinished barracks. The camp was still under construction when Hohri and his family arrived and the barracks lacked windows, potable tap water, and a sewage system. The facilities improved later, but Hohri truly felt they were wards of the federal government. They were given military clothes left over from World War I, forbidden to speak Japanese in public meetings, and given menial jobs for which they were paid less than 10 cents an hour because they were considered “evacuees,” not prisoners of war whose wages were subject to the Geneva Convention's minimum wage standards. “We were prisoners. Not prisoners
of war,” explained Hohri, “for we were not from the enemy nation. We felt more like criminals” (Hohri 1988, 19).
According to Hohri, one of the more demoralizing aspects of the camp was the poor education he and his peers received. Hohri was 15 when he was detained and was most affected by the boredom of life in the camps and lack of proper schooling, which was frustrating and led to later difficulties in college for many of the young people who had received their schooling in the camps. However, while at the University of Chicago, Hohri was able to take remedial classes that allowed him to catch up on material that he had never learned.
After graduating in June 1944, Hohri, like many of his classmates, left Manzanar “because camp was just destroying us psychologically—our morale” (Hohri 1998). He began working and supported his siblings by sending them money. In March 1945, Hohri tried to reenter the camp in order to talk to his parents and advise his father about future job prospects. However, he was not allowed in and the guards demanded a permit, which was not necessary as the exclusion order had been lifted in January 1945 and Japanese Americans were legally allowed to travel freely. When Hohri argued with the guards, they put him in jail and issued an individual exclusion order just for him, requiring him to leave the state of California by midnight. Of that experience, Hohri said in an interview, “And the thing about (laughs) experiences like that is, if you're running a government, don't do that to people because those kinds of people come back to haunt you. And I think that's what happened as far as the Redress Movement goes” (Hohri 1998).
True to his word, after the war, Hohri became a big proponent of the redress and reparations movement. Hohri sued the U.S. government, believing it was important for Japanese Americans to win the lawsuit in order to recover their rights and dignity. He rejected euphemisms such as “relocation” and insisted on the use of terms such as “exclusion” and “detention” to highlight the unconstitutionality of the actions of the U.S. government. In May 1979, he helped form the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) to obtain monetary compensation for the losses suffered by Japanese Americans during World War II. Hohri was the lead plaintiff in a 1983 class action lawsuit against the U.S. government. The lawsuit sought a total of $27 billion in damages to be paid to 125,000 surviving detainees for 22 causes of action. NCJAR, however, lost the suit and on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court let the judgment stand. Despite the defeat, Hohri's efforts, together with the other actions of the redress and reparations movement, led to the 1988 Civil Liberties Act that was signed by President Ronald Reagan. The act issued an apology to Japanese Americans, and through the act, a sum of $20,000 was paid to surviving detainees.
For Hohri, his lawsuit was an important step in enumerating and making public the unconstitutional actions of the U.S. government. He later stressed this point in an interview: “So it [the lawsuit] set a standard. The statement of injuries is very important, because the legislation doesn't do that. [It] doesn't define injuries. It doesn't state what they are. My own feeling is that if you had to state the injuries the legislation would have never passed, because Congress does not like to put the government in the position of having to admit to error” (Hohri 1998).
William Hohri wrote three books, one of which detailed the redress and reparations movement, Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese American Redress (1988). He died on November 12, 2010, in Los Angeles.
Hohri, William. Interview by Darcie Iki and Mitchell Maki. Discover Nikkei. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, June 12, 1998.
Hohri, William Minoru. Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese American Redress. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1988.
Martin, Douglas. “William Hohri dies at 83; Sought Money for Internees.” New York Times, November 24, 2010.
Woo, Elaine. “William Hohri, 83; Led Battle for Redress after Being Interned at Manzanar.”Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2010.