THIS WEEK’S COVER story has been a century — and then two more decades — in the making.

It updates the legacy of Takuji Yamashita, a 1902 University of Washington law graduate who waged landmark battles for Asian American rights after being denied citizenship and the chance to practice his profession.

Takuji Yamashita earned his law degree from the University of Washington in 1902. He was awarded U.S. citizenship that year, and then had it stripped away by the Washington Supreme Court because of his Japanese birth. The ruling also denied him admittance to the bar, so Yamashita went into business and farming. He would later join a U.S. Supreme Court appeal to try to reverse the ban on citizenship for Asian immigrants. Credit: UW Magazine / Courtesy Imaizumi and Yamashita families (UW Magazine / Courtesy Imaizumi / AP)
How a Japanese immigrant stood up to the injustices of his day with a pioneering civil rights message that resonates in ours

Yamashita died in 1959, but his story burst into view 20 years ago, when the Washington Supreme Court symbolically reversed that old injustice in what The New York Times called “an extraordinary ceremony” that drew worldwide media coverage.

I helped publicize the ceremony while working at UW between newspaper jobs. But afterward, curiosity took me to Yamashita’s old farm in Kitsap County, the Idaho camp where he was incarcerated in WWII, and the town in Japan where he was born and died.

As I pieced together more details of his life, my desk became covered with antique news clippings, War Relocation Authority reports, court filings and property records.


Yamashita’s great-granddaughter, Tokyo sociologist Tazuko Kobayashi, was the essential guide. With her brother Naoto and other relatives, she curated Yamashita’s hundreds of photographs, a priceless chronicle of Northwest immigrant life that the family donated to the UW.

Many scholars filled in crucial context, notably UW Asian American Studies professors emeriti Tetsuden Kashima and Gail Nomura, and librarian Scott E. “Eddy” Harrison.

Several key contributors to the rediscovery of Yamashita have died since the 2001 ceremony, including Tacoma historian Ronald Magden, UW Law Dean Roland Hjorth, UW Assistant Law Dean Paula Littlewood, archivist Karyl Winn, Yamashita’s Bainbridge relatives Sam and Kay Nakao, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Ron Mamiya and WWII incarceration resister Gordon Hirabayashi. Four of the 12 Yamashita relatives who came from Japan for the ceremony are no longer alive.

Like many of his generation, Yamashita did not overshare. He never divulged — at least to anyone I could find — whether he had expected to win his uphill court battles, or whether he regretted trying. Perhaps a journal will emerge from the bottom of a chest someday. Even if not, Yamashita’s eloquence and bravery will never again be forgotten.