A roomful of attorneys was transported last Thursday to the early 1940s, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were forced from their homes and into internment camps.
Nisei men—first-generation Japanese-Americans born in the United States—could still be drafted to fight for the country that had stripped them of their constitutional rights.
Among those participating in Thursday's program were, from left, Eastern District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto; Yang Chen, executive director of the AABANY; Kathy Hirata Chin, a partner at Cadwalader, which hosted the event; and Second Circuit Judge Denny Chin. (Monica Paquette) At right, a photo from a Japanese-American detention camp.
Before an audience of about 200 gathered at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, 13 members of the Asian American Bar Association of New York reenacted the prosecutions of 63 Japanese-Americans who refused to report for the draft until their rights as U.S. citizens were restored. The men had been interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northwest Wyoming during World War II.
"As a limited rights citizen, I protest my drafting into the selective service," Ona Wang, a corporate partner at Baker & Hostetler, read from a March 1944 letter written by a young Japanese-American to his local draft board in Palo Alto, Calif. "I want to be a free citizen enjoying full citizenship status, enjoying all the rights and privileges of an American citizen before I enter the military service."
For the past six years, the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) has been reenacting historic events in Asian-American legal history via hourlong performances at the annual National Asian Pacific American Bar Association convention. The scripts incorporate key parts of original trial transcripts, court briefs, historic photographs, newspaper articles and letters. Performances stay true to what actually happened—right down to racial slurs used by judges and prosecutors as reflected in trial transcripts and documents.
"It is a great teaching tool," said Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who narrated Thursday's event along with his wife, Kathy Hirata Chin, a Cadwalader partner. "It's important to introduce these events to new generations of Asian-Americans as well as all lawyers. They can see how these issues have stood up over time, and hopefully see how we can still apply these concepts to this day."
Each summer, a group of about a dozen AABANY members work to track down original documents and incorporate excerpts into a performance script. They then begin many hours of rehearsals.
"We are all learning together," Chin said in an interview. "The trick is to reduce it all into a coherent, dramatic, one-hour presentation."
AABANY has lent its scripts to Asian-American and mainstream bar groups around the United States to present to their own members.
"Heart Mountain: Conscience, Loyalty and the Constitution" was first performed at last November's national convention in Washington, D.C. This was the second time Cadwalader had invited the AABANY to perform before a New York audience.
AABANY members on Thursday played the roles of judges, FBI agents, a newspaper columnist, defense counsel, prosecutors and the defendants in United States v. Fujii, 55 F. Supp. 928 (D. Wy. 1944), and United States v. Okamoto, 152 F 2d 905 (10th Cir 1946).
In Fujii, all 63 men at Heart Mountain were convicted of evading the draft and went to prison for three years. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver affirmed their convictions in Fujii v. United States, 148 F.2d 298 (1946).
In Okamoto, seven residents of the Heart Mountain camp were convicted of conspiring to organize and aid the draft resisters. In 1945, the Tenth Circuit reversed the convictions of the seven, holding that the jury should have been allowed to consider their defense of civil disobedience. President Harry Truman pardoned all wartime draft resisters, Nisei included, in 1947.
In addition to Ona Wang, AABANY performers included Eastern District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto, law clerks, a law firm consultant and lawyers from Cadwalader; Duane Morris; Baker & Hostetler; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Phillips Lytle; Saito Law Group; Varghese & Associates; Wollmuth Mahr & Deutsch; and Fox Horan & Camerini.
The participants demonstrated how a draft resistance group called the Fair Play Committee formed at the Heart Mountain camp and urged Nisei not to report to a pre-induction physical exam until they were given back their full rights as U.S. citizens. However, the committee required that its members be ready to take up arms for the United States once violations of their freedoms were rectified.
More than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II, and more than 300 refused to go to pre-draft physicals. Meanwhile, others fought in Europe as part of the 442nd all-Nisei Regimental Combat Team.
AABANY is now working on a script for a performance at the national convention this fall of "22 Lewd Chinese Women," the story of 22 women who in 1874 arrived in San Francisco on a ship carrying 600 immigrants from Hong Kong. Because the women were traveling alone, California's immigration commissioner labeled them as prostitutes, ordered their detention and attempted to send them back to Hong Kong. Their case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Chy Lung v. Freeman, 92 U.S. 275 (1875), that the women would be allowed to stay in the United States.
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