Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Peter Irons Interview II
Narrator: Peter Irons
Interviewers: Alice Ito (primary), Lorraine Bannai (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: October 27, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-ipeter-02-0014

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PI: Now, at the same time when I first met Aiko and visited the commission in Washington, I met with their research director, a man named Charles Smith, and he told me that the commission had completed most of their, their hearings, particularly on the West Coast in Seattle and Portland and San Francisco and Los Angeles and a couple of others, and I think one in New York. But that they had planned one final session which would deal with the legal issues of the internment, and this would be held in Boston, actually in Cambridge at Radcliffe College in December, mid-December of 1981. And I had put together enough material by that time on the misconduct in the internment cases that I volunteered to testify before the commission. And I went back to Boston with this material and put together a statement, probably eight or ten pages long, to the commission and was invited to testify. Went to the hearing. And I remember during that hearing being asked, in the statement that I prepared, I'd raised the possibility of coram nobis as a remedy for the government's misconduct. And I remember being asked by Commissioner Bill Marutani, the only Japanese American member of the commission, also a lawyer -- he was then a judge, a municipal judge in Philadelphia -- who said, "I'm very interested in the statement about what you said about the prospect of coram nobis." And we discussed that, and at that point, I think, while I was testifying, I decided to go ahead as far as I could to see if we could actually bring coram nobis cases. He was very encouraging about this.

So I contacted, and I think I had already contacted Min Yasui, but I had not contacted Gordon Hirabayashi or Fred Korematsu. So I tracked down where they were. I had already, I interviewed Min Yasui in Washington, D.C. I think he'd come to Washington to do some commission business or maybe it was Japanese American Citizens League. But, at any rate I'd met him there and talked with him. And he was, I would say, basically un-encouraging about coram nobis. And his attitude basically was -- but it wasn't discouraging. His attitude was, "Well, I don't think there's anything here. And I don't think this could actually succeed, but if you want to go ahead, that's fine with me. And it, who knows what might happen." So that was his attitude. At the same time, Min, and I'd asked him, "Well, if this actually turns into some kind of legal project -- " Obviously I can't do it myself. I was then living in Boston. "What lawyers do you know on the West Coast who might be able to help?" And Min gave me a list of lawyers, starting with a friend of his in Los Angeles named Frank Chuman, who had written a book about the legal issues of the internment and Japanese Americans or Asian Americans. And I contacted Frank Chuman, and he gave me the names of more lawyers, one of whom was Dale Minami in San Francisco. Dale, in fact, was the only lawyer I think that he gave me the name of who was in San Francisco. And I knew, of course, that we would need somebody in San Francisco. Now, at the same time, I was then, I had accepted the job at the University of California, although I wouldn't move out there until the next fall. So I thought it would be a good idea to start putting together legal teams to work on these cases and also finding out if the original defendants were interested. I knew by this time that they were all still alive. I had already talked to Min Yasui. So I called up Gordon Hirabayashi, who was then living in Edmonton, Alberta, and over the phone told him that I had found some documents that might be, it might be possible to reopen his case. Well, Gordon turned out to have already heard of coram nobis. In fact, he said, "Well, there were some lawyers years ago who, at the University of Washington Law School and other places," -- and Frank Chuman was one of them -- "who had explored the possibility of coram nobis. But they didn't have any, they didn't think it would work. They didn't have any evidence to work with." All they knew was that the cases were wrong, but that wasn't enough. You can't go back to court and say, "Well, the Supreme Court was wrong. Let's start over." So Gordon said he would be very glad to see me if I came out there.

And I was then planning a trip that would start in Canada, in Alberta, talking to Gordon, go to Seattle to do some research at the University of Washington library, which had files relating to Gordon's case, then down to San Francisco, where Fred Korematsu lived. Then to Los Angeles to talk to Frank Chuman, and then to San Diego to do my job interview at the University of California. All of this would be paid for by the university so it fit in very nicely. So I made this trip. I started out, but the problem was that I had sent several letters. Took me a long time to find out Fred Korematsu's address. He was not listed in the telephone book or I couldn't find him. And I called up the ACLU in San Francisco and said, "I'm trying to locate Fred Korematsu." And the director there said, "Well, other people have tried that over the years, and he's never been willing to talk to anybody." But she did offer to give me his address and phone number. I sent him several letters that he did not respond to. So finally just before I was leaving on this trip, I called him up, told him I was coming to San Francisco, would very much like to talk to him. And Fred was very cagey. He wouldn't say "yes." He wouldn't say "no." But he did say, "Well, if you're here, call me up and we'll see if we can arrange something." And it literally wasn't until I got to San Francisco and called Fred up and said, "I'm here in San Francisco. In fact, I just talked to Ernie Besig of the ACLU who assisted you in getting a lawyer when you were arrested." Apparently that impressed him. And he said, "Well, I might be able to see you tonight if you can come over." And it wasn't even like, oh yeah, come on over, let's talk. And as it turned out, Fred had been asked by many people to talk about his experiences, but he always had felt, as he told me, "Well, what good is this going to do? This is all over. There's nothing really..." Fred had thought for years, as Gordon had and Min Yasui, of maybe there's some way we can reopen these cases, but nobody knew exactly how to do that or had any material that could make that possible. And when I talked to Gordon Hirabayashi, he was very enthusiastic. He said, "Okay. Whatever you want to do, go ahead. I'm with you." And even Min Yasui, although not overly encouraging, was willing to cooperate.

And Fred was the key to the whole thing. I had felt all along that this would never be feasible or have any chance of succeeding unless all three of them agreed to do this together and to coordinate things. So that first meeting with Fred Korematsu was very crucial, and I was very nervous when I went over there. And I remember I took a taxicab over to Fred's place in San Leandro, little, small house. And I remember walking up and hearing this dog barking, ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff. Fred had a little, little dog that he'd had for years. He loved this little dog, but the dog barked and Fred answered the door. And for a minute I wasn't even sure that he remembered that I was going to come. But he said, "Well, come on in. My wife's not here. She's out, so we've got the living room to ourselves." And we sat down. And I sat there. Fred didn't even offer me anything to drink or eat, but just sit down and like, you can tell me what you want, and I'll listen. And so for probably twenty minutes I tried to explain to him what the documents were that I'd found. And he said, "Can I see them?" And I put together a packet of about twenty pages of these Justice Department documents. Now, Fred didn't have any legal training, but he sat there puffing on his pipe, looking, not saying anything, looking at them. And then he said, looked up, and he said, totally out of the blue, "Are you a lawyer?" And I thought he already knew that I was a lawyer, but I said, "Yes, I am a lawyer." And he said, "Would you be, would you like to be my lawyer?" And I said, "Sure." And then we started talking about -- and at that point he literally opened up and relaxed. We both did. And he had agreed to go ahead with this. And so then I tried to explain to him what might happen, how much work there was to do, how there was no guarantee that this would succeed. It might take a long time. And the only thing he was really concerned about was he didn't want, as he said, he didn't want TV cameras parked in his front yard. He did not want a lot of publicity. I tried to explain. I said, "Fred, one thing that will probably happen is that there will be publicity. And I will try, I'll do what I can to make sure that this doesn't intrude on your family." But one reason that we want to do this, and I had already contacted lawyers in San Francisco, one reason we wanted to do this is to bring the public's attention to what happened.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2000 Densho. All Rights Reserved.