THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The tragic and engaging activist Sam Hohri

Like many other people, I was saddened by the news of William Minoru Hohri’s passing. I greatly respected his achievements in organizing the forces for Japanese American redress, and his various other contributions to racial justice in the United States. I was interested to read the various memorial tributes.

One element that seemed absent from obituaries, though, was a discussion of the Hohri family. In particular, none of the pieces mentioned the tragic and engaging figure of William’s eldest brother Sam Hohri. Sam lived barely 30 years, and much of his life lies unrecorded. Nevertheless, he left a deep impression, not only on his admiring young brother, but on countless others both inside and outside Japanese American communities. Sam’s friend Hisaye Yamamoto, herself no mean writer, later referred to Sam as “our Orwell,” for his mix of tough-minded independence and literary skill.

Samuel Shiro Hohri was born in Japan on July 4, 1916. His father Daisuke Hohri was a Christian convert who became a Methodist preacher. In 1921, the Hohris moved to the United States with five-year-old Sam and his two younger siblings. Three more siblings would be born in the United States. Although the Hohris lived for a time in Sierra Madre, the family ultimately settled in West Los Angeles. Daisuke Hohri, a veteran of the Japanese army, was described by a newspaper as in broken health when he arrived in the United States. Once in America he turned to sketching and painting on velvet and silk. According to his children, he was not a worldly man — the salary he earned as minister to his tiny flock did not begin to cover the expenses of a family of eight. Thus, the family lived in poverty, especially after the onset of the Great Depression.

Sam nonetheless managed to finish high school, and enrolled as a journalism student at Pasadena Junior College. There he was named to the staff of the school newspaper, Chronicle and Campus. However, he was able to finish only one year of school before he was struck down with tuberculosis, a deadly scourge in those pre-antibiotic days. The next years he spent time in asylums. Takuo, the next oldest brother, was forced to go to work mowing lawns to support the family once he finished high school.

Being as he termed it “an involuntary hermit” in the asylum, Sam struggled to pass the time. He received letters and listened to radio. He devoted a fair share of his attention to political interests, becoming a devoted pacifist and antifascist. At some point during this period, he joined the Socialist Party. He also kept himself busy reading and writing. He served as columnist for a publication called the Olive View, and also served as editor for Tab, a short-lived quarterly publication.

On March 13, 1940, while still in confinement in a sanitarium in the San Fernando Valley, Sam took a bold step by undertaking a regular column in the English section of the Los Angeles newspaper Sangyo Nippo (Industrial Weekly). He joked that his column, which he dubbed “Rambler’s Nemesis,” would differ from others in not reporting what the writer ate for breakfast!

His column soon became notable for its powerful support of racial democracy and intergroup alliances with other racial groups. As Sam stated in July 1940, “We should recognize the fact that we are only a segment of the minorities that abound in this nation. When we face this situation and unite our activities with that of the other minorities, we will extend the realization of that more perfect democratic state so vigorously attributed to Jefferson and Lincoln et al.” He scorned the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and other groups for supporting a proposed all-Nisei housing development in Jefferson Park that excluded other racial groups. Meanwhile, he took a maverick position on national politics.

Like other Socialists in the prewar period, Hohri denounced Republicans for reactionary politics and the Roosevelt Administration for excessive militarism. In mid-1941 he complained that the JACL had no business claiming to speak for the Nisei in support of White House policy in the Pacific, when many Nisei were skeptical or hostile.

The coming of war deeply scarred the Hohri family. On the day after Pearl Harbor, Daisuke, who had figured on government lists as a Japanese Army veteran and as a minister (thus a community leader) was arrested and sent for internment in Montana. Sam managed to find work as a publicity agent with his old adversaries, the JACL. In early 1942, he wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt on behalf of the JACL, complaining that the San Francisco Red Cross was excluding Nisei from being able to donate blood.

In the wake of Executive Order 9066, the Hohri family was removed from their home and sent together to Manzanar. Sam immediately joined three other Nisei in putting out a mimeographed sheet which they dubbed the Manzanar Free Press. Soon after, he was named the paper’s features editor. Meanwhile, he began a correspondence with Socialist party leader Norman Thomas about the plight of Japanese Americans. In his letters, Sam described the grim conditions in camp, and added that Manzanar was actually restrained: “In other camps they have the whole shebang that you associate with Germany: division of the camp in sections, each fenced and intra camp visiting verboten; sentry towers with searchlights and machine gun crews…”

Although he was too ill to work for much of the first summer, Sam returned to work in the fall. He aroused the ire of the administration by his investigation of the unprovoked shooting of a Nisei youth, Hikoji Takeuchi, by a camp sentry. In the wake of the December 1942 “Manzanar Riot,” Hohri wrote Thomas an insightful account of the event. He deplored the tactics of pro-Axis thugs who had profited from the atmosphere of tension in the camp, but did not spare camp officials and soldiers for their poor handling of the situation, “When the MPs fired several of the casualties were among the ranks of the onlookers who were neither demonstratively supporting nor opposing the storming of the bastille.”

Sam remained in Manzanar throughout the balance of the war, and then prepared to move back to the West Coast. He considered return as a moral duty for Nisei. When activist Ina Sugihara published an article in the Catholic magazine Commonweal in September 1945 entitled “I Don’t Want to Go Back,” claiming that mass return to the West Coast by Japanese Americans would lead to intergroup tension and rioting, Sam took up the challenge of responding. In a letter, he insisted that the way for Nisei to fight discrimination was by returning to their homes on the West Coast despite threats from white racists. “The night riding terrorists of the West Coast would like to spread the miasma of the South to the West. In choosing to stay away and avoid this unpleasantness, there is the danger of reverting to isolation…if the terrorists succeed in intimidating the Nisei…their success will validly encourage and incite them to depress others — the Negroes, the Mexicans, other Orientals, Jews.” He restated his case in the Pacific Citizen.

In a review of African American writer Richard Wright’s book “Black Boy,” Hohri called for interracial action against discrimination. “If we join our waiting friends (many of whom we must acknowledge are new and formerly rejected or uncultivated) to engage in creating a clean healthy social climate in California, we can go on to claim the swampland [of the South].”

Despite his powerful will, Sam’s health, never strong, soon began to give out. He suffered a recurrence of tuberculosis and was forced to return to a California sanitarium. He wrote little, though at the invitation of his friend Hisaye Yamamoto, who had taken a job as columnist for the African American Los Angeles Tribune newspaper as a bridge between blacks and Nisei, Sam contributed a pair of pieces.

Sam Hohri died of tuberculosis on March 19, 1947. His integrity and support for black-Nisei unity helped inspire not only his friends, but his brother William Hohri, who became active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and marched in Mississippi with James Meredith in 1966. Similarly, when William moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s and began writing a newspaper column for the Rafu Shimpo, he entitled it “Rambler’s Nemesis” in tribute to his admired brother.

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 du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@ uqam.ca.

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