Lincoln Seiichi Kanai / ex parte Kanai

Name Lincoln Seiichi Kanai
Born December 5 1908
Died 1982
Birth Location Koloa, HI
Generational Identifier


As a social worker with the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), Lincoln Kanai (1908–82) was a vocal advocate for Nikkei community needs and citizens' rights in the months following Pearl Harbor. Considering it a repudiation of his citizenship, Kanai strongly opposed removal and confinement en masse —an unwavering conviction that led him to quiet action as he challenged the exclusion order by disregarding the removal order and leaving Military Zone 1 without authorization. In his lesser-known court case, Lincoln Kanai unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of Public Law 503 , joining a small group of individuals who defied the evacuation order and sought redress through the legal system.

Before the War

Lincoln Seiichi Kanai was born December 5, 1908, in the small community of Koloa in Hawai'i Territory. Various accounts indicate that Kanai had possibly come from mixed parentage or was orphaned and raised by native Hawaiians. Kanai, though, identified himself as ethnic Japanese and only reported that, unlike many Nisei , he did not attend Japanese Language School. Regardless of his family circumstances, any atypical aspects of Kanai's youth did not affect his conforming to certain Nikkei social norms. Kanai, for instance, learned to read and speak Japanese, and as a young man, he made the near-perfunctory visit to Japan, leaving Hawai'i in April 1935 and returning the following August.

Like many aspiring Nisei, Kanai also pursued advanced education. In 1926, he entered the University of Hawaii, where he studied English and received his B.A. in 1930. [1] Kanai also served in the Reserves for a time, but by 1935, his experiences had led him to a career with the YMCA in Lihu'e, Kaua'i. Two years later, on October 9, 1937, the 28-year-old Kanai left Hawai'i for California. There he continued to serve the YMCA at San Francisco's newly-constructed Japanese branch.

Wartime Advocacy

In the days and months immediately following Pearl Harbor, Kanai, as the executive secretary for the Buchanan Street YMCA, identified and sought to provide for the physical, social, and psychological needs of Bay Area Nikkei. "[T]he Y.M.C.A.," he wrote, "is trying to meet the challenges...of the times: first aid, armed morale, Civilian Defense, Civilian morale, inter-racial fellowship, informal education, physical and social recreation, [and] religious education." [2] In addition to supporting the community through the YMCA's programming, Kanai struggled to increase public awareness of the Japanese situation. In a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Examiner , Kanai cautioned against the rising racism that had resulted in high unemployment, displaced students, and diminished agricultural production. He further warned that the racially-motivated effort to exclude citizens of Japanese descent from the West Coast jeopardized "American trust in American principles." [3] Such action, Kanai noted in testimony submitted to the Tolan Committee, was "in direct opposition to the constitution [and] contrary to the spirit of our fighting aims." [4]

Anticipating the civil liberties crisis that would define the World War II experience of most Japanese Americans, Kanai encouraged his countrymen to preserve justice and equality. [5] In a letter to Tom Clark , coordinator of Alien Enemy Control, Kanai defended these principles by proposing that a review board examine individual cases in order to "certify" the loyalty of resident aliens and citizens. Though his suggestion was disregarded, Kanai continued to work with Clark, in addition to Karl Bendetsen of the Wartime Civil Control Administration , Lester Ade of the War Relocation Authority , Richard Neustadt of the Federal Security Agency, and other local and national leaders during the removal process. In a letter to General DeWitt , for instance, he requested that elderly and handicapped individuals be allowed to remain and that students be permitted to complete their education. Despite his efforts, Kanai held that mass confinement was a "tragic error" that negated Nisei citizenship. In vocalizing his convictions, he was labeled an "enemy" of the Japanese American Citizens League ; in following his convictions, he was sentenced to six months in prison. [6]

Challenging the Evacuation Order

Kanai neither presented himself for arrest nor attempted to hide his movements; he simply remained in the city after May 20th—the date set for San Francisco's "evacuation"—and on June 1, Kanai tested removal and confinement orders by leaving the Bay Area.

Having expressed concern that racism would embitter young Nisei, Kanai fittingly spent his last days of freedom conferring with colleges and universities, various student groups, and other concerned individuals east of the exclusion zone. [7] On July 11, 1942, Kanai's valuable service came to an end when he was apprehended by the FBI while attending a YMCA convention near Milwaukee. Four days later, he appeared before the district court where he was charged under the terms of Public Law 503. [8]

Kanai petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus , which was heard two weeks after his initial trial. He and his legal counsel—liberal-minded lawyers Perry Stearns, Marvin Fein, and Arthur Richter—unsuccessfully argued that the exclusion zone was unconstitutional. The court denied his petition on the grounds that the defendant openly admitted that he left Military Zone 1 with full knowledge that he was violating the law and that the court would not challenge the President's executive order or the actions of military commanders in their efforts to protect the nation. [9] The judge later added that Kanai's release would have "lead thousands of Japanese to believe they could disregard any instructions of military authorities." [10] Kanai was extradited to San Francisco and, like Fred Korematsu , tried under Public Law 503. On August 27, 1942, Lincoln Kanai was sentenced to six months at Fort Lewis, Washington. [11] He declined to appeal the conviction.


On February 6, 1943, the Heart Mountain Sentinel announced Kanai's arrival from Fort Lewis. Having been released two months early for good behavior, Kanai expressed no resentment for his imprisonment, indicating, instead, that the experience strengthened his convictions. Notably, Kanai's reputation for social advocacy preceded him, and he was offered an advisory position with the Norris Foundation by the time he had arrived in camp. [12] Later that year, in October, Kanai was granted clearance to leave Heart Mountain for Milwaukee in order to teach and advise underprivileged boys for the foundation. In 1950, Kanai relocated to Battle Mountain, Michigan, where he remained until his death in 1982. The details of his life there are uncertain.

As one of only twelve attempts to challenge the evacuation order, Kanai's case—though seemingly minor—was a noteworthy act of civil disobedience. [13] At a time when community and family pressures forced many Nisei to comport with an overwhelming posture of quiet compliance, Lincoln Kanai boldly faced potential ostracism and intimidation in order to lay claim to his constitutional rights.

Authored by Kyna Herzinger , North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

For More Information

United States Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied . Wash., D.C.: Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, 1997.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America . New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.


  1. University of Hawai'i Registrar's Office, e-mail message to author, July 2012.
  2. Letter, February 16, 1942, Joseph R. Goodman Papers, California Historical Society.
  3. Letter, March 23, 1942, Joseph R. Goodman Papers, California Historical Society.
  4. Tolan Committee, Hearings , Part 29, pp. 11266-67.
  5. Letter, February 16, 1942, Joseph R. Goodman Papers, California Historical Society.
  6. James M. Omura, interviewed by Arthur A. Hansen, August 22-2, 1984, Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project, Part IV: Resisters .
  7. Letter, February 16, 1942, Joseph R. Goodman Papers, California Historical Society; "Despite Imprisonment, Kanai Defends Democratic Ideals," Heart Mountain Sentinel , February 6, 1943, 6. Kanai's efforts were part of a larger, multi-organizational effort to coordinate the resettlement of Japanese American students.
  8. Public Law 503 reads in part, "That whoever shall enter, remain in, leave, or commit any act in any military area or military zone prescribed...contrary to the restrictions applicable to any such area or zone or contrary to the order of the Secretary of War or any such military commander, shall, it if appears that he knew or should have known of the existence and extent of the restrictions or order and that his act was in violation thereof, be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be liable to a fine of not to exceed $5,000 or to imprisonment for not more than one year, or both, for each offense." "Jap Arrested By FBI Agent in Wisconsin," Capitol Times , July 12, 1942, 3; "Bay Japanese Seized by G-Men," Oakland Tribune , July 16, 1942, 1.
  9. Ex Parte Lincoln Seiichi Kanai 46 F. Supp 286 (July 29, 1942).
  10. "Release of American-Jap Is Refused," Sheboygan Press , July 30, 1942, 4.
  11. Greg Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 219.
  12. "Despite Imprisonment, Kanai Defends Democratic Ideals," Heart Mountain Sentinel , February 6, 1943, 6.
  13. Peter Irons, Justice at War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 75.

Last updated July 15, 2020, 3:23 p.m..