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Archive Article: Coming to Terms with History

Designer Hayes - Saturday, February 28, 2009

Australia is coming to terms with certain unpleasant facts in its history, not least those relating to racism. But Australia is not alone in this process - the US has been on its own reassessment of history.

Mr Takuji Yamashita was recently admitted to the legal profession in the state of Washington, on the US's west coast. This would normally good news for him because it would mean that he could now practise as a lawyer. Unfortunately, he has been dead for over 40 years. He first applied back in 1902. The Washington State Supreme Court has this time agreed to his admission to the bar - and thus made an attempt to repair the damage dating back almost a century.

Mr Yamashita left Japan as a teenager in 1893 to live in the US. He did very well in his studies and he went on to graduate from the University of Washington Law School at the age of 27.

However, at that time, the US Congress had only granted citizenship to whites and, after the Civil War, to people of African descent. Meanwhile, the Washington state law said that only US citizens could be lawyers and so he was in a double-bind: no US citizenship and so no admission to the legal profession.

He used his legal training to try to get that law changed. But without success. The State attorney-general replied that he could never become a US citizen because "in no classification of the human race is a native of Japan treated as belonging to any branch of the white or whitish race".

He gave up trying to be a lawyer and instead went into business in the US, where he did well - at least for a while. But once again, he ran into some problems because US law also prohibited foreigners (or "aliens") from owning US land.

Mr Yamashita was a victim of a larger historical process based on racism then underway in the US. The early settlement of the US had been open to people from a variety of backgrounds. But a Congressional enquiry, began in 1907, led to a tightening of immigration regulations. This process culminated in the 1924 Immigration Act, which drastically cut back on certain ethnic groups to be allowed into the US.

The 1924 law was also known as the Japanese Exclusion Act because it banned immigration entirely for people of Japanese ancestry. The day the Immigration Act of 1924 took effect was declared a national day of mourning in Japan. The ban lasted until 1952.

Mr Yamashita ran into another problem after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. He and his family were among the 110,000 Japanese who were rounded up and spent the war in detention camps. He could not pay his taxes or debts and so he lost all his possessions and was bankrupt. In 1957, Mr Yamashita went to live in Japan, where he died two years later.

Throughout all his life, wherever he was - including in the detention camp - he always displayed his law degree from the University of Washington as proof of his faith in the US legal system. Four decades after his death, the US legal system has now justified that faith.