Escheat suits

Legal proceedings brought against Japanese American land owners by western states seeking to take possession of their land under the auspices of so-called alien land laws . While the laws were loosely enforced prior to World War II, the State of California dramatically increased escheat proceedings against Japanese Americans after they had been forcibly removed to concentration camps, a process that further expanded as they returned to the West Coast beginning in 1945. As the state took away property through escheat proceedings—or reached "settlements" in which Japanese Americans had to pay substantial sums to retain land they already owned—the community organized a series of legal test cases. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oyama v. California in 1948 effectively ended further escheat cases.


In 1913, the state of California passed the first alien land law, a measure that prohibited immigrants from Japan and other parts of Asia from purchasing agricultural land. The law did not specially mention Japanese or other Asians, using the term "aliens ineligible to citizenship" as a proxy. In 1920, following a voter initiative, the state passed a more stringent measure to close loopholes in the law. Not wanting Japanese Americans from California to move to their states, nearly all western states and various others passed similar laws in the 1920s. Japanese Americans pursued a series of test cases challenging various aspects of the law in the early 1920s, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most aspects of the laws in Terrace v. Thompson .

The California land law dictated that any property acquired or transferred "with intent to prevent, evade, or avoid" the law would "escheat" to the state. In practice, the law went largely unenforced over the next two decades. Only 14 escheat actions were instituted by the state up to December 1941, not all against Japanese Americans. Though Japanese Americans were often able to get around the law by registering land in the name of their American citizen children—a practice upheld by the California Supreme Court in the Estate and Guardianship of Tetsubumi Yano case—or of trusted white friends, the laws certainly depressed the extent of Issei farmland and influenced the types of crops they chose to grow. [1]

Wartime Uptick

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, dormant anti-Japanese sentiment sprang to life in California and other western states, culminating in calls for the mass removal of all Japanese Americans from the coast. Even after the federal government heeded those calls and made plans to evict Japanese Americans, local officials pondered other anti-Japanese measures. California Attorney General Earl Warren gathered maps showing property owned by Japanese Americans, famously brandishing them to show purported concentrations around utilities, airports, and other important installations, and arguing that ominous plans of sabotage were being hatched. Warren and county officials such as Los Angeles County Assistant District Attorney Clyde C. Shoemaker sought to use the escheat provision of the alien land law to remove Japanese Americans from these areas. [2]

Though all Japanese Americans save those in institutions were removed from the West Coast states by the fall of 1942, anti-Japanese sentiment continued to rise. Among several pieces of anti-Japanese legislation passed in California was a bill authored by California State Senator Clair Engle and signed into law by now Governor Earl Warren in June 1943 that sought to ban the practice of Issei purchasing land in the name of Nisei children and that also increased penalties for violating the land law and gave state and local authorities more power to investigate guardianship. As a result, new California Attorney General Robert Kenny created an alien land unit in his office in August of 1943 to investigate land law violations. By mid 1944 county and state attorneys were filing a succession of land law cases against Japanese American families who, being locked away in concentration camps or otherwise unable to return to the coast and with limited access to funds, would be hard pressed to defend themselves. In their zeal to prosecute cases, the state went so far as to search out Issei parents who inherited land from Nisei servicemen sons killed in the war. Interestingly, the other West Coast states mostly did not follow suit, instituting only a few escheat proceedings. [3]

In April of 1945, the California State legislature approved a $200,000 grant to the attorney general's office to investigate and prosecute land law cases. Three months later, Governor Warren signed into law legislation that, among other things, created a fund from the proceeds of escheated property that would be evenly split between state and county treasuries, the state portion going to the state school fund. This provided greater incentive for action at both the state and county level, and led to yet more escheat suits as Japanese Americans began to return to the West Coast. Unlike before the war, the state prosecuted Nisei landowners on the charge that land gifted them by their parents and held in their name had been acquired with intent to evade the provisions of the alien land act. [4]

In many cases, Japanese Americans who were able to mount a defense were able to to prevail. However, many families were unwilling or unable to contest the cases and lost their land. Kenny also began to seek "compromise settlements" on cases, in which Japanese Americans families could pay the state up to half their land's value to quiet title on property they had already paid for in the past. This "legalized blackmail" resulted in a small windfall for the state: by April 1947, Japanese Americans had lost land or paid settlements worth over $437,000 on eleven settlements and five seizures of land. By that time, some seventy more cases were pending and many more were being prepared. As a by product of the menace of escheat suits, the value of landholdings went down, as title insurance became increasingly expensive to acquire and the land could not easily be pledged as collateral for improvements. [5]

Challenges and Demise

Japanese Americans in and out of the concentration camps recognized the significance of these cases and organized to defend themselves. A landmark case was instituted on May 19, 1944, when Monterey County District Attorney Anthony Brazil filed an escheat complaint against Issei Yeizo and Satsuko Ikeda and Nisei Toshi Hanazono, claiming that 72 acres of land worth approximately $40,000 purchased in the name of the latter was used for a farm operated by the former. The case set off alarms at Poston , where the Ikeda family was incarcerated. Recognizing that the family didn't have funds with which to defend themselves and would default without assistance—and recognizing that they had a good chance of winning if they did fight the case—inmate leaders worked to put together "some kind of protection association" before the hearing for the case, set for August 15. A series of meetings ensued, and groups of inmates formed plans to raise $10,000 from individuals at the nine remaining concentration camps to fight the escheat case. By October, over $4,000 had been collected at Poston alone. [6]

Organizing continued after Japanese Americans were allowed to return to the West Coast in 1945. In December 1945, the Civil Rights Defense Union was formed at a meeting in Stockton, with the goal of fighting escheat proceedings. Organizers set a $100,000 fund raising goal. The CRDU hired the law firm of Purcell and Ferriter as general counsel for all escheat cases in Northern California. A southern California branch of the CRDU also formed in 1946, with a similar fund raising goal. The Japanese American Citizens League—which eventually absorbed the Southern California CRDU—likewise supported the fight. [7]

These and other organizations threw their support behind the Oyama test case as the most winnable. When the alien land act was upheld by the California Supreme Court against the Oyamas in 1946, the JACL then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed in mid-1947 to hear the case.

In November of 1946, California voters defeated Proposition 15, which would have added the alien land act and its amendments to the state constitution. This marked the first time western state voters had ever turned down an anti-Japanese measure. Despite this rebuke, newly elected Attorney General Fred Howser ramped up land law prosecutions, perhaps in an effort to get as many cases decided before the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on Oyama .

Though the Supreme Court did not directly overturn the alien land laws, its January 1948 decision in the Oyama case effectively made them unenforcible. In a letter to A. L. Wirin, Howser wrote, "there is little if anything left of our Alien Land Law of California." [8] His announcement that he would dismiss or abandon all remaining escheat cases effectively brought the alien land law era to a close, though purchases by Issei remained formally illegal. Subsequent decisions on the Fujii and Masaoka cases directly invalidated the laws and the Immigration Act of 1952 effectively rendered them moot by eliminating the category "alien ineligible to citizenship."

In the final act of the story, the California Legislature passed and Governor Warren signed legislation in 1951 that would repay with interest those who had reached "compromise settlements" in escheat proceedings in order to retain their land. But when eighteen parties filed claims with the State Board on Control in 1952, the legislature refused to authorize payment, arguing that the claimants had not exhausted all their legal recourses. The claimants took the issue to court, and in September 1952, the Sacramento County Superior Court ordered that the state pay the eighteen a total of $548,802. [9]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho and Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Chuman, Frank F. The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans . Del Mar, Calif.: Publisher's Inc., 1976.

Ferguson, Edwin E. "The California Alien Land Law and the Fourteenth Amendment." California Law Review 35.1 (Mar. 1947): 61-90.

Girdner, Audrie, and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II . London: Macmillan, 1969.

McGovney, Dudley O. "The Anti-Japanese Land Laws of California and Ten Other States." California Law Review 35 (1947): 7-54.

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Smith, Bradford. "Legalized Blackmail." Common Ground 9.6 (Winter 1948): 34–36.


  1. Oyama v. California, 332 U.S. 633 (1948) at 661; Greg Robinson, After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 198; Greg Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 259; Frank F. Chuman, The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans (Del Mar, Calif.: Publisher's Inc., 1976), 80–81; Yuji Ichioka, "Japanese Immigrant Response to the 1920 California Alien Land Law," Agricultural History 58.2 (Apr. 1984): 157-78.
  2. On Warren, see Mortzon Grodzins, Americans Betrayed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 92–100, 283–85; Phillip Neff, notes on interviews with Clyde C. Shoemaker, May 13, 1942 and with J. Marion Wright, May 19, 1942, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, call number BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder A18.07 (2/5), accessed on October 20, 2014 at .
  3. Fresno Bee , June 8, 1943 and August 12, 1943; Pacific Citizen , Aug. 21, 1943, 1 and Jan. 8, 1944, 7, both accessed on Jan. 11, 2018 at and ; Roger Daniels, The Japanese American Cases: The Rule of Law in Time of War (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013), 116. Examination of the Pacific Citizen reveals dozens of escheat cases beginning in mid 1944. Only one article mentioned cases outside of California: a May 1944 filing of suits by the attorney general of the state of Washington, who filed suits in several counties targeting properties worth over $1 million. See Pacific Citizen , May 20, 1944, 3, accessed on Jan. 11, 2018 at .
  4. Larry Tajiri, "The Alien Land Cases: State of California Pushes Program to Grab Nisei Lands," Pacific Citizen , Feb. 2, 1946, 1–2, accessed on Jan. 11, 2018 at
  5. Pacific Citizen , May 3, 1947, 1, 4, accessed on Jan. 11, 2018 at ; Bradford Smith, "Legalized Blackmail," Common Ground 9.6 (Winter 1948): 34–36, accessed on Oct. 20, 2014 at ; Robinson, Tragedy of Democracy , 259.
  6. Watsonville Register-Pajaronian , May 20, 1944, 1; Pacific Citizen , May 27, 1944, 3, accessed on Oct. 20, 2014 and Jan. 11, 2018 at and ; Richard S. Nishimoto Diary, June 29, 1944, Sept. 26, 1944, and Oct. 9, 1944, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, call numbers BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder J6.13 (11/15) and BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder J6.15 (32/43), accessed on Oct. 20, 2014 at and ; Brian Masaru Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment (Princeton University Press, 2004), 194.
  7. Pacific Citizen , Dec. 15, 1945, 3 and Feb. 16, 1946, 1, accessed on Jan. 11, 2018 at and ; Tom Sasaki, Report #2, "Civil Rights Defense Union of Southern California," July 24, 1946, The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement: A Digital Archive, Bancroft Library, University of California, call number BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder W 2.11:1, accessed on Oct. 20, 2014 at ; Pacific Citizen , Oct. 26, 1946, 2, accessed on Jan. 11, 2018 at .
  8. Pacific Citizen , Jan. 31, 1948, 1, accessed on Jan. 11, 2018 at .
  9. Pacific Citizen , July 28, 1951, 1; Sept. 6, 1952, 8; and Sept. 13, 1952, 8, all accessed on Jan. 11, 2018 at , , and .

Last updated Jan. 4, 2024, 1:50 a.m..