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 However, by then the Wakayamas, worn down by beatings and ostracism at Manzanar, had withdrawn their suit and requested “repatriation” to Japan.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

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