Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Lorraine Bannai Interview
Narrator: Lorraine Bannai
Interviewers: Margaret Chon (primary), Alice Ito (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: March 23 & 24, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-blorraine-01-0035

<Begin Segment 35>

MC: Let's turn now to the relationship between the coram nobis team, particularly the Korematsu team, and the larger Japanese American community. Can you describe that a little bit?

LB: Certainly as attorneys on the case, we saw this case from the very beginning as a political case, and as a case, again, not only representing Fred as an individual client, but as a case in which we somewhat represented the interests of the community, the Japanese American community as a whole, that this case would reopen the landmark decision that validated the internment of the entire community. And to the extent that we could undermine the validity of those wartime cases, we would be able in some way to help vindicate not only Fred's name, but also the names of our parents and grandparents and the community's name, and lift from them the implication of guilt of espionage and sabotage that they had lived with for forty years. I recall my mother telling me that she felt that she was guilty of a crime because she had been sent to jail, but she had never been charged with a crime and never been tried or anything. But one can't help feeling like you must have done something wrong to have suffered this fate. So from the very beginning, we felt not only very connected to the community, but that the community was certainly the big reason why we were all involved in the case. That's one aspect of the relationship.

The other aspect of the relationship was that we knew we could not do this case without the community and without the community's support. And there was a huge measure of support from the members of the community. An illustration of that is, of course, that when we started in on this effort, we had no money. We knew we had to have photocopying expenses, mailing expenses, some very limited travel expenses, for example, to bring Peter Irons up from San Diego, and miscellaneous expenses like that. We absorbed those expenses to the extent that we could. As I mentioned earlier, we were all from small practices, either very small private practices or legal services practices, where we, ourselves, were trying to decide which bills to pay and how to keep ourselves afloat. So we absorbed those expenses as much as we could, but it became very clear that we needed some type of operating money.

Very early in the process, when we were preparing the petition, we did not want to make our effort public. We were working on putting together our papers and putting together the information about the governmental misconduct, and for strategic reasons we did not want to broadcast what we were doing and what we were trying to prove. So under the leadership of Don Tamaki, our master fund-raiser, community education, and press liaison, we wrote a letter to a few people in the community who we knew, some of our Nisei moms and dads from Gardena, from the Oakland area, from elsewhere, and said, "You know, we can't tell you what this is for, but we really need some financial support. We would really appreciate it if you could try to give us a donation or organize some type of fund-raiser to help us out," again, without any indication of what we were doing. And the most remarkable thing is that these people came through for us, that they trusted us that we were doing something important and that was really important to us. And on that word alone, people like Ryo Komae, like people around the community, Don Tamaki's parents, my parents, sent us checks to help us at least defray some of these photocopy expenses and mailing expenses and things like that, so that we could get our work done. Again, this was a pro bono effort. None of us were being paid for the time, and we were simply looking for money to cover the out-of-pocket expenses that we had.

After the petition was filed, then we were able to go out and do some fundraising. While we were working on the legal case, while we were doing legal research, while we were going through thousands of government documents, and while we were going around giving speeches, we also made a concerted effort to participate in fund-raisers and to go out to people in the community and say that this is what we're trying to do with this case, and if there was any way that they could support us, could they? And from that, we got $5 checks, $10 checks, $20 checks, with wonderful, wonderful notes from people in the community saying, "Thank you so much for doing this. This is really a great effort you're putting on, and we really appreciate it. This is what I can give right now, but keep up the good work."

Not only was that financial support really necessary and really important, but that emotional support and feeling that we were doing something important, to the Nisei and the Issei who had been formerly interned really helped drive us on and really helped us keep very focused on what our ultimate goal was. When we went and we gave speeches, not only as a part of fundraising, but also as a part of community education work, many Nisei, former internees, would come up to us after our speeches and just say, "Thank you." Many in tears, many relating to us how they had waited for so long to have some vindication and to have this horrible episode in their lives reach some closure. It was a powerful emotional experience for all of us working on the team. We certainly didn't enter the case to receive any glorification or adulation. But it made us feel really good that once we were involved in the case, we were told by many that the people in the community really appreciated it.

MC: There seems to be, have been a collective sense of stigma or shame or guilt that the community felt as a result of the internment. And I'm wondering whether, during any -- and it, and so it seems quite natural for you as young lawyers to have taken the course of action that you did once you discovered the facts that you could use to vacate the convictions. I'm wondering, however, whether there was any debate within the community as to whether this strategic course was the wisest thing to do?

LB: I don't think there was any real vehement debate or really very visible debate, but I think that there was certainly some concern from some quarters within the community about whether this was a wise course of action. I think that there was some concern about whether our effort would impede the national effort for redress, about whether we should coordinate perhaps more with the national effort for redress. Certainly we worked very, very closely with JACL, with NCJAR, with NCRR and the other groups working for redress, but we maintained ourselves as an independent group, certainly not only because we had to, we were lawyers working on a case, and our first allegiance was to our client, number one. Secondly, we were interested in a very different goal. Our ultimate goal was to gain justice for Japanese Americans, certainly, and to gain redress for Japanese Americans. But our certainly focused goal was to gain justice for Fred and to attack the underlying validity of the wartime cases. So we maintained our own independence, and did not become part of the larger redress effort per se, at least organizationally. So perhaps there was concern within some quarters in the community that we not go off half-cocked and perhaps undermine what people were trying to do with regard to redress. But I don't think that that was any real visible, real vocal, or real overt concern.

We received a letter or two from some people who had perhaps some concern about not wanting us to mislead the community. What we were seeking (was) that Mr. Korematsu's conviction be vacated on the basis that the U.S. Government lied to the court during World War II. We knew it was not likely that we would get the Korematsu case overturned or overruled. So I recall receiving a letter from one individual saying, "Don't misrepresent to the community that you're going to overrule Korematsu or change the law with regard to what it represents." And we have been very careful not to say that we have overruled Korematsu. In fact, Korematsu, the Korematsu U.S. Supreme Court case, still exists on the books. What we did accomplish was that the factual basis upon which the case was decided has been found to be false. That decision in some strange Constitutional Law limbo now is a Supreme Court case that was decided on a fraudulent factual record. And at least as far as we feel, it has to be read in that context. But no, Korematsu was not overruled. And as I said, I recall some concern in that regard, which I would not label as dissent or disagreement. So I think that there were some concerns, certainly not concerns that dissuaded us or discouraged us from pursuing the case.

<End Segment 35> - Copyright © 2000 Densho. All Rights Reserved.