THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Buchanan YMCA Secretary Lincoln Kanai’s “courage against injustice” of World War II


In the annals of Japanese American history, a great deal of attention has been justly devoted to the four wartime “internment cases,” in which individual Nisei Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, Fred Korematsu and Mitsuye Endo challenged mass removal before the Supreme Court. In contrast, several other Nisei brought cases in the lower courts. However, because these cases were not brought up to the “major leagues” of the U.S. Supreme Court they have been all but erased from history.

The first of these cases was that of Mary Asaba Ventura of Seattle, a Nisei married to a Filipino American. In March 1942, with the help of her husband, she brought a habeas corpus petition challenging the official curfew and restrictions imposed on American citizens of Japanese ancestry under Executive Order 9066. Her petition was denied by a local judge, Hon. Lloyd D. Black (who would later preside over Gordon Hirabayashi’s trial and pronounce sentence on him). While officially Judge Black rejected the petition on the grounds that the restrictions on Asaba did not amount to imprisonment, he also proclaimed that the order and the underlying laws were constitutional, and rather gratuitously suggested that if she really was as loyal as she claimed, she ought to be glad to cooperate with the government. After being confined (solo) in Minidoka, she moved to Illinois, where she died in 2000.

Shortly afterward, in Los Angeles, African American attorney Hugh MacBeth joined ACLU attorneys A. L. Wirin and Edgar Camp in bringing a habeas corpus petition on behalf of Ernest Kinzo Wakayama, a Hawai’i-born Kibei union official and World War I veteran, and his wife Toki. Wirin and MacBeth argued that the Army had not demonstrated any military necessity for mass “evacuation,” and likewise charged that race-based confinement constituted unconstitutional discrimination. In October 1942, a three-judge panel heard the petitions, and finally granted a writ of habeas corpus on Feb. 4, 1943. However, by then the Wakayamas, worn down by beatings and ostracism at Manzanar, had withdrawn their suit and requested “repatriation” to Japan. Ernest Wakayama was over 100 years old when he died in Japan in 1999. His son Edgar (named for Edgar Camp) returned to the United States and is a career Army officer.

Perhaps the most unusual challenge to Executive Order 9066 came from Lincoln Kanai, a YMCA secretary in San Francisco. Instead of waiting for the government to expel him from the West Coast, Kanai challenged the president’s order “with his feet” by leaving the area without official permission, and had to be extradited to California to stand trial.

Lincoln Seiichi Kanai was born in Kaua’i, Hawai’i in December 1908. According to one source, he was a foundling of uncertain Asian ancestry, while another claimed that his mother was Chinese and his father mixed-race Japanese. He later explained that he had been named not for the Great Emancipator, but for an African American school principal.

He was one of four children. His older brother Matsukichi Kanai later became a doctor and practiced during World War II as a medical officer in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Lincoln Kanai grew up in Hawai’i, and later stated that the atmosphere of racial tolerance that he found in the territory shaped his conviction that all Americans, regardless of color or background, deserved equal citizenship rights. He majored in science and social work at University of Hawai’i, where he graduated in 1930. In 1937 he moved to San Francisco, where he was named secretary of the Buchanan (aka Japanese) YMCA.

In the weeks following Pearl Harbor, Kanai joined in various efforts to organize assistance for needy Japanese Americans and to avert mass removal. Once removal became a fait accompli, he wrote General John DeWitt, the West Coast defense commander, to object to the indiscriminate identification of loyal citizens with aliens. Kanai asked that the evacuation order be changed to provide for loyalty hearings for aliens and citizens, especially for those with family members serving in the armed services, and for the appointment of a property custodian to hold the belongings of Japanese Americans. He meanwhile turned his attention to the mission of encouraging resettlement.

Kanai decided to tour the country and feel out the attitude of public officials, social workers, college presidents and law enforcement authorities on arranging the absorption of Japanese Americans, especially college students. He would head first to Chicago, and then if he could find money for his expenses he would go on to New York and Washington to meet with War Relocation Authority officials. In addition to his wish to help other Nisei, he was driven by the determination to speak out against official policy, whatever the consequences. As he wrote his friend Galen Fisher, It would be easy for me to just go to camp but I can’t have my conscience bother me the time I am in there for accepting that the decision has been the wisest thing.

Kanai left San Francisco on June 1, traveling in an old car. During his trip he conferred with the faculties of 21 Midwestern colleges and with representatives of other groups. In July 1942, while attending a YMCA convention, he was arrested by FBI agents in Geneva, Wis. Kanai stated publicly that he was motivated by loyalty. I am in full sympathy with the United States. I am a citizen of the United States and many of my friends were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. How could I feel anything but loyalty to the United States?

Unable to afford bail following his arrest, he was held in the Milwaukee County jail. With aid from ACLU lawyer Perry Stearns, Kanai’s attorney Arthur W. Richter submitted a habeas corpus petition on his behalf. Arguing that the necessities of war should apply to enemies, not races, and noting that German Americans were permitted to roam the country without restriction, Richter noted that Kanai was already outside the military area and requested that Kanai remain in the free zone.

Nevertheless, on July 29, federal judge F. Ryan Duffy quashed the petition. Though he agreed that Kanai was a loyal citizen, Duffy insisted that if he were permitted to remain, other Japanese Americans would be encouraged to disobey military orders, and he commanded that Kanai be extradited to California to stand trial for disobeying laws forbidding him to leave the military area without a permit. A pair of federal marshals escorted him back by train to San Francisco. Once returned, he pleaded guilty to the charge of violating military orders by traveling without a permit. He defended his action in court, stating, I shall oppose any such action willfully whenever it is detrimental to our country’s welfare and injurious to the basic democratic ideals. This is my native land and in violating that restriction I had to choose either to support the Constitution and my convictions or to temporarily suspend them.

On Aug. 27, 1942 he was sentenced to six months in prison. He decided not to appeal, and instead was incarcerated at Fort Lewis, where he served four months before being released for good behavior in January 1943. Once released from prison, he was immediately handed over to the Army’s Prisoners of War Escort team to be sent for confinement in the camp at Heart Mountain.

Kanai’s later life remains fairly obscure. After camp, he relocated to Milwaukee as a boys advisor and teacher for the Norris Foundation, a local school for underprivileged youth. Sometime in the 1950s he moved to Battle Creek, Mich. He died there in February 1982, shortly before his fellow Nisei defendants undertook their coram nobis campaign.

Perhaps if Kanai had survived, his conviction would have been overturned, like those of Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi. Instead, his example of calm courage against injustice remains for us to rediscover.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, is an associate professor of history at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@

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