In memoriam: William Hohri

Resistance book coverWilliam Hohri passed away Friday after a long illness. William was a seminal figure in changing the way we understand American history and Japanese American history. Like the Heart Mountain resisters he admired and chronicled, William stepped up to organize Japanese America and go to court to challenge the injustice of selective incarceration based solely on race. He was a leader, a lead plaintiff, an author and an artist, and he will be deeply missed.

William got the government’s attention with his lawsuit seeking monetary damages for illegal wartime incarceration. What seemed at first to be a quixotic action helped focus Congress on passing a real redress bill before “Hohri vs. U.S “ could come to trial in federal court.

After the first successful Days of Remembrance at the Puyallup Fairgrounds and the Portland Expo Center, and the national Open Letter to Hayakawa, we in the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee were contacted by this guy out of Chicago who wanted to keep the momentum for genuine redress going. At a time when the Nikkei in Congress and national JACL were calling for a commission to study the issue, William said it was time to organize for something better. In that, he shared the same instincts as Harry Ueno, Kiyoshi Okamoto, and Frank Emi.

Day of Remembrance logoThe one footnote I can claim in William’s legend is an edit. William, Shosuke Sasaki, Henry Miyatake and others of us were sitting around the table in our redress “war room,” the conference room in the law offices of Ron Mamiya and Rod Kawakami at 7th and Jackson – the same block where John Okada imagined Ichiro Yamada’s grocery store to be in his novel No No Boy – trying to forge the name for this new national organization that would work around JACL and lobby Congress directly for a redress bill that provided for direct compensation to incarcerees. We spitballed a number of ideas, taking awhile to decide that “Japanese American” should be included in the name, and came around to “National Coalition for Japanese American Redress,” but I thought that sounded too … sixties, and after all here we had progressed to the tail end of the 70’s. I suggested we call it a “National Council” and Shosuke quickly agreed that sounded loftier, and we were on our way. William adopted Frank Fujii’s ichi-ni-san barbed wire logo from the Days of Remembrance for the masthead of his own monthly NCJAR newsletter, keeping the spirit alive.

William Hohri 1981, c. Frank Abe
William Hohri 1981, c. Frank Abe

We were in Washington, DC for the first round of hearings of the Congressional commission in 1981, when as our informal media coordinator William casually told me he had turned down an invitation from ABC News to appear on something called “Nightline,” because it was late and he was tired and he thought it was a local broadcast. I was horrified and chewed him out for the lost opportunity to raise money for what was by then his class-action lawsuit; ABC used JACL district governor Tom Kometani instead. At the hearings where even I wore a suit and tie, William insisted on testifying to Congress in his Frank Fujii ichi-ni-san T-shirt, with the yellow redress button in his lapel.

Like myself, once redress was won and American history had been cured, William turned his attention from holding the government accountable to holding our wartime community leaders accountable and exposing the story of the largest organized resistance to wartime incarceration. Besides his well-known REPAIRING AMERICA: AN ACCOUNT OF THE MOVEMENT FOR JAPANESE AMERICAN REDRESS, William self-published three other books. He compiled and introduced RESISTANCE, a book with first-person accounts from the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. He published a bound edition of the notorious LIM REPORT, which chronicled the wartime collaboration of JACL leaders in their own words. He self-published a novel, MANZANAR RITES, that made fiction of the insurgency of Kitchen Workers Union leader Harry Ueno, the riot sparked by unrest at camp conditions and the JACL’s call for drafting the Nisei out of camp, and which climaxes with the Army’s fatal shooting of two young men. Ever the historian, William expresses relief in an end note that he did not have to footnote his sources.

My condolences to Yuriko and their family. The family is planning a celebration of William’s life at the Fukui Mortuary in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Frank Emi and Yosh Kuromiya are being asked to speak. More details as they become available.

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