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WILLIAM HOHRI | 1927-2010: Fought for restitution for wartime internment

11-19-10 William Hohri for obit

William Hohri’s high school gymnastics coach didn’t believe the boy when he said he might not return to school after Easter break of 1942, because like so many other Japanese-American families, “we might be taken away somewhere.”

The optimistic coach reassured William he’d have his things ready for him so he could compete in the next gymnastics tournament.

But instead of going back to school, the 15-year-old wound up at the Manzanar Japanese-American internment camp in the California desert. The bus driver who brought him there told him he’d be back home in two weeks.

Two years later, he was still in the desert, he wrote in a memoir. He had endured shoddy barracks that let in dust storms; slop for food; an attendant camp ailment, “the Manzanar runs”; no running water, and government-issued clothes left over from World War I. All while surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

And yet, he graduated from a makeshift high school at Manzanar and worked full-time to put himself through the University of Chicago, reading his books three times apiece to make sure he would ace tests.

Mr. Hohri, who settled in Chicago after the war and worked in the first generation of computer programmers, became a driven man who rose hours early each day to do research for a groundbreaking legal challenge.

He became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit demanding restitution for the internees. The lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

Though the court refused to hear it on a technicality, historians say his effort contributed to the momentum of the restitution movement, which ultimately led the United States to apologize in 1988 and give cash settlements to those banished to the camps.

Mr. Hohri, 83, died Nov. 12 at his home in California. He moved there after raising his family in Chicago.

“He was driven by a distinct sense of what was right and what was wrong,” said Mitch Maki, co-author of a book on the push for Japanese-American redress, Achieving the Impossible Dream.

Research by Mr. Hohri and another internee, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, “clearly articulated the constitutional violations that occurred in World War II,” said Maki, an associate vice president at California State University, Dominguez Hills. The lawsuit helped contribute to passage of the redress bill signed by President Ronald Reagan, Maki said.

“The lawsuit really put some pressure on a lot of people,” said fellow internee Sam Ozaki, who became Chicago’s first Asian-American school principal.

Mr. Hohri’s suit sought $220,000 per individual, which could have cost the United States $27 billion, Maki said. The restitution that became reality gave each individual $20,000, for a total price tag of about $1.2 billion, he said.

Some in the Japanese-American community thought his lawsuit was radical and doomed to fail, but Mr. Hohri was a bit of an iconoclast who didn’t bend to public opinion.

Even as a boy in his native California, he wouldn’t buckle, said his wife, Yuriko. He lived in an orphanage from the age of 3 to 6, after his Japanese-born mother, Asa, and his father, Daisuke, contracted tuberculosis. When the orphanage fed him oatmeal – which he hated – he went hungry rather than eat the gray mush, she said.

“To this day, he didn’t like oatmeal,” she said.

When he came home from the orphanage, “His mother didn’t speak English. He didn’t speak any Japanese at all,” his wife said. “They couldn’t communicate on a very basic level.”

Mr. Hohri thought she named him after William Shakespeare, but it turned out his mother named him after William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army.

Though his itinerant-minister father never made much money, some of Mr. Hohri’s early years were golden. He went to school with Norma Jean Baker, who became Marilyn Monroe. They attended Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High in a Richard Neutra-designed building in Westwood, Calif. “She was the prettiest girl in his class,” Yuriko said. “William said that she was the only girl who went to the beauty parlor because her hair always looked perfect.”

After the war, Mr. Hohri joined the many former internees who flocked to Chicago. Factory jobs were plentiful and Chicago was an easy jump from the rail lines at some of the camps.

He and Yuriko Katayama met at a church in Hyde Park. “I thought he was cute,” she said. They were wed 59 years. They spent their early married life in Hyde Park and later moved to Albany Park.

The University of Chicago was his salvation, said his daughter Sylvia. Despite lingering postwar anti-Japanese bigotry, “They accepted him into the university, and he just loved that.” He so admired university President Robert Maynard Hutchins that he began wearing bow ties just like him.

For a time Mr. Hohri worked at S.H. Arnolt Co. It built sports cars and imported hard-to-find parts for luxury cars. One day Mr. Hohri, a movie buff, heard a familiar voice at work. It was actor Fredric March, who owned a Rolls-Royce. “Steve McQueen also hung around that garage,” his wife said.

He set up computers for the garage, and did the same for Playboy enterprises.

He wrote the books Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese American Redress; Resistance: Challenging America’s Wartime Internment of Japanese-Americans, and a novel, Manzanar Rites.

He is also survived by his daughter Sasha and three grandchildren. A service is planned Sunday at Fukui Mortuary in Los Angeles.