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-01-0013

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LB: Can you tell me about the early days of the case? What was the kind of work that the team started doing?

DT: So Peter was basically assembling the evidence. He was writing a book at the same time which ultimately became Justice at War. And it roughly followed chapter by chapter the chronology of events. And like a book does, it was, it gave a background on the war and what was going on in the Justice Department at the time. And he had found all of this information by researching government archives. But it was written like a book, it wasn't written like a legal brief. And some of the stuff was definitely usable in the legal case, a lot of it was not. So the first step of it was to, okay, analyze what Peter had assembled in these drafts of this book, cross correlate and compare that with the documentation, the evidence, compare that with, okay, what causes of action do we have, and what's the vehicle to reopen these cases, and sort of begin to figure it out. And it was a puzzle, it was a puzzle. And in my mind, a jigsaw puzzle jumbled up on the table, and all of us trying to, first to sort the pieces, and mesh 'em together and figure out what we had. And it didn't crystallize for a long time. We were thinking, "Well, it doesn't make sense. I mean, if we take this theory, where is the evidence for that?" And then Peter had said, "Well, it's over here," and he'd pull out a document. And that took, process took weeks and months to basically organize everything around. So we basically took his book and flipped it around, you know, jumbled things, pulled out stuff that we needed, and it began to merge into a tight petition. And the distilling of that took quite a bit of time, and sort of prioritizing, okay, what's our best case, what's our strongest case, and what are other issues that we should make in the brief but probably make at the end of the brief, for instance. And wrestling, basically, with different parts of it. So a lot of it was that.

There was another separate debate on what is coram nobis and what do we do with it? And the petition itself is, as you know, it's like a writ of habeas corpus that a criminal defendant can make, who can make the claim that they've been wronged, that they've been denied, in a fundamental way, justice, there's been miscarriage of justice. And it allows a person while they're incarcerated, to have the new evidence heard. Well, coram nobis is after they've served their time, and to clear their name. And so we were wondering, okay, what do you do with this, where do you file it, who's done one of these things? They're rare. And so Peter was the resident expert on that, but there was a whole, I'm sure you talked about this with Dale, there's a whole, weeks of discussion on, do we file in the U.S. Supreme Court? Do we file in the local district courts? Do we file the petitions of Fred and Gordon and Min all together? Do we separate them in the separate jurisdictions? All with a lot of pros and cons, and all with significant consequences, you know. That if we picked the wrong path, the case could have been over very easily.

LB: So you were involved in, with everybody, drafting the petition, legal research, all of the legal portions of it. But I know that your most significant contribution to the case, cases, involved the public education aspect, community outreach. So can you tell me about your work on the public education aspect and why it was important to do?

DT: Yeah. There was two things I had experience in because of working at the Asian Law Caucus. One was raising money, and we needed to raise money to get people to fly, fly people to Washington, D.C. to go through archives, to look for documents. We didn't want any of this to be public 'cause we thought there were so many people still alive with their reputations at stake, that someone would block us, maybe the documents would disappear. So we had to do this right away, and we needed tens of thousands of dollars to cover copying, long distance telephone calls, investigator fees, researcher fees, travel, other expenses. So that was one part. And so we began by assembling lists of friends, family. And we constructed a letter, we called ourselves the Committee to Reverse the Japanese American Wartime Cases, long name. And on this letterhead, we said, basically, "Trust us, we're on to something. We can't tell you what we have, but just give us money, just because it'll go for a good cause." And we raised about $50,000 just based upon that. And I spent time just sort of working the phones, sending out letters.

LB: What kind of individuals? Nisei moms and dads?

DT: Well, yeah, moms, JACL, small checks, community organizations, my parents. And, but it had to be all done on the quiet. We couldn't reveal any of the documents that we had. And then the other piece of it was, that I did, and I had experience with, is holding press conferences and getting coverage.

LB: Let's back up to the fundraising a little bit more. Can you recall any of the people who supported the team early on just on blind faith?

DT: Yeah, they were friends of ours. They were lawyers who were working at law firms and government jobs who wrote a hundred dollar checks, five hundred dollar checks. They were Nisei who were probably in their fifties, sixties, seventies, who wrote checks for us.

LB: Was that surprising that they would do this not knowing what it was about?

DT: Well, I thought we could do this. I thought we had enough contacts out there of people we knew, that we could get startup money. And so we'd call 'em on the phone. We had to tell 'em something, that we found documents, either... we'd say something like, "It'll blow your mind, you'll be shocked and surprised. We're gonna launch this thing, but it'll be about a year from now, but we need money now." And that would be the pitch. And then, once we went public with it, of course, money was a lot easier to raise, 'cause we had national publicity behind us and people wanted to get behind it.

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