Japanese American advocate honored

A pioneering Japanese American advocate was granted honorary membership in the State Bar by the California Supreme Court in San Francisco May 24, 63 years after his death.

Sei Fujii, who immigrated to the United States as a child in 1903, graduated from law school at the University of Southern California in 1911.

But he was never allowed to apply for a law license by joining the bar because at the time, Asians were not permitted to become naturalized U.S. citizens, and only citizens or those eligible to be citizens could practice law in California. Nevertheless, “Fujii spent much of his career using the courts to advance the rule of law in California,” the state high court said in its order granting bar membership.

“Fujii’s work in the face of prejudice and oppression embodies thehighest tradition of those who work to make our society more just,” the court said.

After law school, Fujii teamed up with a fellow graduate, J. Marion Wright, to defend the rights of Japanese immigrants in the Los Angeles area in a series of cases.

In 1928, the pair won a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing five Japanese doctors to lease land and build a hospital in Los Angeles. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, the doctors were not allowed to admit their patients to non-Japanese hospitals. In 1948, Fujii bought a plot of land to challenge California’s Alien Land Law, which was used by the state during and after World War II to take ownership of land from Japanese immigrants. He won his challenge in 1952 when the California Supreme Court struck down the law in a case known as Fujii v. California.

Fujii also founded a bilingual newspaper that exposed organizedcrime in the Japanese community. When one of the subjects shot him, he was saved in the Japanese Hospital he helped to establish.

After the end of World War II, he organized and served as president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California.

Fujii became a citizen in 1954 after U.S. immigration laws changed, but died of a heart attack at age 72 less than two months later. The honorary admission to the bar was requested by the Los Angeles-based Little Tokyo Historical Society and Japanese American Bar Association. This year is the 65th anniversary of the Fujii v California decision, they noted.

The admission was unanimously granted by the court’s seven justices in an order issued at their San Francisco headquarters. The panel said the exclusion of Fujii and others from the bar was a loss to society as well as to the individuals.

“We do not know what more Fujii might have accomplished had he been admitted to the bar, or what others in Fujii’s position might have accomplished had our laws not wrongfully excluded or deterred them from becoming lawyers,” the justices said.

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