Retired Marine Corps Maj. Ernie Kimoto pins captain's bars on Bruce Yamashita during a special ceremony in the U.S. Capitol in 1994, five years after the Marine Corps forced Yamashita out of its OCS program.
civil rights lawsuit
A former isle lawyer is the catalyst
for a class-action discrimination case
that seeks the Supreme Court
By Gregg K. Kakesako
It's been 14 years since former Honolulu attorney Bruce Yamashita was told by a Marine Corps review board that he had been "washed out" of a nine-week Officers Candidate School because of "unsatisfactory leadership."
At 32, Yamashita was at least 10 years older than all of the recruits in OCS Class 140 at Quantico, Va. From the day he reported to the Marine Corps school on Feb. 6, 1989, to two days before he was supposed to graduate, Yamashita, whose uncle Daniel received a Purple Heart for combat wounds in Italy as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was subjected to racial harassment.
It began the day after he entered OCS when Marine Master Sgt. K.M. Runyun would only speak to him in Japanese. Yamashita, during his weeks at Quantico, would be taunted by his drill sergeants with statements like, "During the World War II we whipped your Japanese ass," and "You speak English? We don't want your kind around here. Go back to your country."
It finally ended on March 18, 1994, in the halls of the U.S. Capitol when Yamashita, after numerous legal battles, forced the Navy and the Marine Corps to apologize and commission him as a captain.
This week, his attorney Clayton Ikei will continue that battle when he takes Yamashita's case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Ikei will argue, in a class-action lawsuit, that the military administrative process is ineffective and service members should be granted the same safeguards other civilians have under the Civil Rights Act.
"Whether it be 14 years ago or today or 14 years from now," said Yamashita, 47, a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., since 1995, "I am still impressed about the amount of people who rallied around me and the amount of good that came out of it.
"I think the Marine Corps is better off today," added Yamashita, a graduate of the University of Hawaii Lab School and the University of Hawaii in 1979 and former delegate to the Hawaii Constitutional Convention.
Yamashita appealed the OCS rejection on the grounds that he had been denied a commission because of racial discrimination. Three years later, his legal team, headed by Ikei and Ernie Kimoto, a retired Marine major who persuaded Yamashita to consider the Marine Corps, got the military to review Yamashita's OCS records.
Filmmaker Steve Okino said in 1995 Yamashita filed a class-action suit in the District of Columbia, but a federal district court there dismissed the case two years later. In December a federal appeals court refused to overturn that decision, and on Wednesday, Ikei will ask the Supreme Court to consider the matter.
Since 1990, Okino, 51, has been working on a 60-minute documentary, "A Most Unlikely Hero," which traces Yamashita's struggles from the time he left Georgetown University with a law degree to his final commissioning victory in the halls of Congress.
Okino has gotten a commitment by Hawaii Public Television to air his film this fall if he can raise at least $6,700 by the end of summer to finish a rough cut of the documentary. Okino acknowledges that he will need an additional $50,000 to $60,000 to complete the project.
That would occur shortly after Yamashita's autobiography, "Fighting Tradition," is published in July as a joint project of the University of Hawaii and the UCLA Asian America press.
Okino, who began working for a Chicago CBS news affiliate after attaining a master's in journalism from Northwestern University in 1974, believes "the turning point" came in the fall of 1992 when Yamashita was able to get the Naval Discharge Review Board to sit for eight hours to review his appeal.
"At that hearing a female Marine Corps major told Bruce," Okino said, "'We have nothing against Orientals because many of our sons marry them.'"
In the film, Stanley Sue, head of the National Asian American Mental Health Association, noted that review of the statistics kept by the Marine Corps disclosed that "if you look at the disenrollment, ethnics and Asian Americans are a high percentage when compared to whites. In psychology and social sciences, you use statistics to see the likelihood that it would happen by chance. When the statistics were run, it was incredible that by chance this would have not occurred perhaps one in a thousand cases. For us that was significant. It means there was a real difference. Minorities were being disenrolled at a much higher rate than whites."
The studies obtained by the Japanese American Citizens League under the Freedom of Information Act showed that between 1982 and 1990, minority candidates at the Marine Corps' OCS course were washed out at a rate of 41 percent as compared with 34 percent for whites. In Yamashita's class, 60 percent of the minority candidates never were allowed to complete the course, compared with 28 percent of white candidates.
The JACL study further revealed that Col. William Reinke, Yamashita's commanding officer, had the worst record of the four officers who headed the OCS course over an eight-year period. In 1991 the state Legislature asked Congress to reinstate Yamashita and punish the Marines involved in the matter. In October 1992, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye got Congress to pass legislation requiring Department of Defense schools to certify that "appropriate measures have been taken to publish and enforce" regulations prohibiting racial discrimination.
Yamashita said his case received more support following a 1993 CBS "60 Minutes" program where Gen. Carl Mundy, the Marine Corps commandant, said, "Minorities don't shoot that well, they don't swim that well, and when you give them a compass and send them off on night field exercises, they don't do well at that sort of thing."
Okino believes that even after nearly two decades, there are still lessons to be learned from the Yamashita case. "Fourteen years ago we were saying, 'How could things like this happen in the 20th century?'" Okino added. "But then there were reports of racial profiling or the Wen Ho Lee case and the current war in Iraq and hate crimes involving Muslims. ... This is a continuing battle, like Bruce's case. Unless you stand up, there is nothing that will stop it."
"Patriotism is not just going off to war," Yamashita added. "Sometimes we have to fight the cause in many different ways. It means we have to be vigilant. There are problems still there. ... Even with the changes made, minorities are still being forced out, and that is not good. The story is still relevant today. The struggle still goes on."
Yamashita's drive to publish his case is being sponsored by the Matsunaga Charitable Foundation. For more information, log on to www.unlikelyhero.org.