Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Donald K. Tamaki Interview
Narrator: Donald K. Tamaki
Interviewers: Tom Ikeda (primary); Lorraine Bannai (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: April 17, 2009
Densho ID: denshovh-tdonald-01-0012

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LB: Can you tell me about the first time you met Peter?

DT: I'm trying to think. Was I sober when I met him? [Laughs] 'Cause we'd get together over beers and whatever. But he, he hadn't... I don't know that he met any Japanese Americans before us, really, and he didn't, he's tremendously smart and a good researcher, but he wasn't fully aware, I think, of Japanese American history. And we didn't know him either. So I think there was a getting-to-know process that was going on, that needed to go on, and we didn't know whether we could trust him. I mean, what were his motives for doing this? Why would he come to Japanese Americans with this? Why wouldn't he go to some major law firm? Why wouldn't he go to people he knew rather than reach out to total strangers? So I think there was a lot of questioning: who was this guy? What does he have? Is this really as good, was this as advertised, did he really have information that we might be able to reopen these cases? There was a lot of skepticism. But after we met Peter, I mean, he's very persuasive, and he is totally anti-authoritarian. He questions authority, he's a total independent, free thinker. And after his presentation and Dale's endorsement of him, we realized that we might be on to something. And the next day, I believe, we met, we went over to meet Fred Korematsu, and that was interesting. There was about a dozen of us there.

LB: Tell me about that.

DT: So the family was very protective of Fred. By family, I mean Kathryn, his wife, Korematsu, Karen, and Ken, son and daughter. And understandably so, because Fred had been the topic of many articles and news studies and scholarly kind of work about this case, because it was basically known as the civil liberties disaster, one of the worst cases that ever came out of the United States Supreme Court. There was also, Japanese Americans lost. And after your case is heard in the High Court, the American public thinks, "Well, Japanese Americans must have been spies. There must have been disloyalty, or why would the Supreme Court rule that way?" On top of that, Fred himself, he went through some minor plastic surgery, he evaded the internment, who is this person? And the family would naturally want to protect him from that, that kind of scrutiny. And Fred had suffered a lot. He had put himself out there, he had a criminal record because he defied the internment, he was now fairly successful as a draftsman in the community, he was a respected member of the Lion's Club. So he had a lot at stake in terms of coming out now.

And so when we came in, I'm sure we all looked liked kids. I mean, we looked like babies fresh out of law school. And I think there was a lot of cross-examination, as I recall, about, "What are your motives? Why are you doing this? How much are you going to charge?" And all of the right questions. And so I think it was a little tense in the beginning. And we didn't know whether the family and Fred would trust us. And so I think the meeting was, it was a good meeting, but it was a tense one. 'Cause they weren't, nor should they have been willing to immediately say, "We're with you, let's go forward." I think they were very careful, and rightfully so.

LB: So did that turn around at some point?

DT: Yeah, I think the turning point was each of us talked about what we thought about this case. In other words, the centerpiece, of course, was the shocking discovery of the evidence. And the strength of the case was because it was nothing that we were saying, it was that these were, evidence had come out of the Justice Department's own files. There was a file full of "smoking guns." It had admissions by government authorities and high officials that there, that the internment, that there was no reason for it. There was no good reason for the internment. All of the claims that the army was making, that Japanese Americans were committing acts of treason, were all discredited. And in fact, the government was saying it never happened. And these Justice Department lawyers are now fighting with each other about their ethical duties to tell the truth. Something a six-year-old would know, you don't lie. And you have memos going back and forth where they're debating what they should do. And when Fred and the family heard that, they were as stunned as my parents, I think. They understood that, "This happened in America?" I think that was their reaction. I know Peter, when he talked to Fred -- I wasn't there at this point -- but Peter said Fred took a long time reading these documents, and he looks up and he says to him, "They done me a great wrong." And a man of very few words, but that was pretty darn accurate: "They done me a great wrong." And you could multiply that sentiment over 110,000, 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, as well as the hole, big hole that's driven right through the Constitution.

So that was part of the process, "Okay, look what we've got," and then the second piece of it was we explained what we would do. And the first part of it was the legal strategy. That there was a basis to reopen the case, not to get any money out of it, basically to restore Fred's reputation and correct this wrong. Secondly, we would do it without fees; we wouldn't charge anything. And I think, I think Ken and Karen said, "No lawyer does," they were thinking, "Lawyers don't do this for free. Why would you do this?" And we had explained that our own families were interned. I mean, we had, we were fighting our own fight, basically, in representing Fred. And I think that was part of the, the sales pitch, for lack of another word, that we were... which was true. I guess it wasn't a sales pitch in that sense, it was just the truth. That this was a mission to vindicate our own families, okay, and Fred was part of that. So in doing that, we would also be helping ourselves. And I think that would, at least gave some insight as to our sincerity. And in doing that legal strategy, we also said that we would pursue a strategy to inform the American public what happened. And so it wouldn't be something that would just be between lawyers and filing in court, but we would go for the maximum amount of publicity. Because we felt that this evidence was explosive. Any time you have a government cover up at the highest levels of the Justice Department, and the lawyer that is charged with enforcing the Constitution in America, the Attorney General, and the lawyers responsible for making the arguments before the Supreme Court, that's front page news. And we had said that what Fred went through was wrong, and it's late to try to correct it, but better late than never. And I think, I think after that, they were, they needed to think about it, but I think we did a good job in making our presentation. It lasted probably a couple of hours.

LB: What was it like for you to meet Fred after being aware of his case personally?

DT: Well, I was struck by, he had a sense of quiet dignity. Later, we were able to meet Min Yasui, and in contrast, it's kind of like night and day. I mean, Min was... I hated to follow him in public speaking events because that guy would bring the house down. He'd look really kind of frail, he'd walk to the podium, and then he had a booming voice, and he literally, he'd be so charismatic. Gordon Hirabayashi, who we met later, was very professorial and complex. Whereas Fred might say, "They done me a great wrong," Gordon would give you a lecture on the Constitution and history. But Fred was just simple, straightforward, straight shooter, a quiet man, quiet dignity, and kind of like our parents. I mean, he was, he reflected that kind of average Nisei, if there is such a thing, average American. And so we liked him immediately, we identified with him. So we were hoping that he would trust us and go along with us. I look at pictures of ourselves, and I wouldn't have trusted us, really. [Laughs] 'Cause we were extremely young and green.

LB: So Fred obviously gave the go-ahead to the team to go ahead with the case.

DT: Right.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2009 Densho. All Rights Reserved.