Masaoka v. California

The 1950-52 California court case Haruye Masaoka v. California (39 Cal 2nd 883) was the final victory in a series of postwar legal cases by Japanese Americans in California courts that led to the demise of the state's established Alien Land Act . The Act, which barred Japanese and other Asian aliens "ineligible to citizenship" from purchasing agricultural property, was a bulwark of racial discrimination on the Pacific Coast. Together with Fujii v. California , Masaoka settled the question of whether Japanese aliens could legally own land in California, which had been left unresolved by the Supreme Court's landmark 1948 decision Oyama v. California . The multiple origins of the Masaoka case have long remained concealed behind a patriotic narrative.

Land Law Background

The Masaoka case grew out of California's Alien Land Act, enacted in 1913, further amended in 1920, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Terrace v. Thompson in 1923. According to this law (and the copycat laws subsequently enacted in other Western states) Japanese and other Asian immigrants "ineligible for citizenship" under federal law were forbidden to own property, although provisions of the law limiting the right of aliens to act as guardians of property for minor citizens were successfully challenged in court. The law was widely evaded and seldom enforced during the prewar period. However, following the wartime removal of West Coast Japanese Americans, California legislators enacted provisions in 1944 and 1945 providing funding for "escheat" suits to challenge property ownership by Japanese aliens. The goal of the suits was to express hostility to Japanese aliens and discourage them from returning to California after their release from camp. Within a few years, some 59 cases had been brought. Even though by 1946 there were barely 10,000 "aliens ineligible to citizenship" farming in California, most of whom were elderly, these escheat proceedings left title to land uncertain, and made it onerous and expensive for all Japanese American landowners to obtain insurance or secure funding for improvements. In numerous cases, families were forced to pay a ransom to the state, usually half the assessed value of the land, in order to quiet title—a profitable racket for the state officials.

Mounting a Test Case

In mid-1945, Kajiro and Fred Oyama challenged the law in court, with assistance from the Japanese American Citizens League. In January 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in their favor in the landmark constitutional case Oyama v. California . While the Court's majority opinion struck down the law based on the equal rights of American citizens of Japanese ancestry to receive property from their alien parents, the language of the concurrences called the entire act into question. Following the decision, California's Attorney General Fred Howser—recognizing that there was "very little left" of the Alien Land Act, as he put it—froze all escheat suits. Still, the matter of whether the state could constitutionally forbid land ownership to Japanese aliens remained untested. It was in this context that a pair of legal challenges to the Act emerged.

First, Los Angeles newspaperman Sei Fujii, a Japanese immigrant, decided to undertake a test case with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union. Meanwhile, the Japanese American Citizens League (whom Fujii had not invited to join his case) examined whether it wished to support a separate case. According to both contemporaneous mainstream accounts and existing historical works, it was in this context that the Masaoka family was enlisted as plaintiffs. They made ideal litigants: five of the six brothers had served in the U.S. Army during World War II, where one of them had lost his life and another became permanently disabled. Two of the surviving brothers, Mike and Joe Grant Masaoka, were leading figures in the JACL. The Masaokas announced that they wished to build a home for their widowed mother Haruye, a Japanese alien, so that she could move from her longtime residence in Sawtelle and have a home of her own. [1] As in the Fujii case, the legal challenge was not based on purchase of agricultural property, but of residential land. (The California law distinguished between the recognized right of a Japanese alien to own a home, and the right to own the land it sat upon!). Since the gift of property to an alien was theoretically forbidden by Section 8 of the Alien Land law, the Masaokas brought a legal challenge to quiet title.

In reality, the origins of the lawsuit were not quite as simple as its public presentation suggested. While the Masaoka family served as plaintiffs, it was William C. Carr who was the real driving force behind the test case. Carr was a real estate agent from Pasadena, California who had founded the Friends of the American Way , a local "fair play" committee, in 1944 and served as its first chair. An outspoken defender of Japanese Americans, he distinguished himself by his vehement letters to Governor Earl Warren and other state officials denouncing anti-Japanese bigotry. In 1949, Carr proposed a legal challenge to Mike Masaoka, declaring it was not only important to settle the legality of the Alien Land Act, but to help implement the Supreme Court's 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kraemer holding racially restrictive covenants unenforceable. Carr pledged his support for a test case as seller of real estate, although it meant tying up a piece of his property in Pasadena during the time needed for litigation. He simultaneously asked for photos and bios of the Masaoka family for distribution in order to win the support of his neighbors for the case. San Francisco civil rights lawyer James Purcell , who had formerly represented Mitsuye Endo in her Supreme Court habeas corpus petition, agreed to act as the Masaokas' attorney, with JACL counsel A.L. Wirin , Saburo Kido , and Loren Miller as associate attorneys. African American attorney Loren Miller, a leading authority on restrictive covenants, signed on as amicus curiae .

On March 13, 1950, the Masaoka case was argued before Judge Thurmond Clarke of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Although the Superior Court had once again upheld the Alien Land Act in the Fujii case shortly before, Clarke had previously issued the landmark ruling in the 1945 "Sugar Hill" case that racially restrictive covenants violated the Fourteenth Amendment. He thus was considered likely to rule for the Masaoka family. During the hearing on the case, Purcell argued that the alien land act violated the 14th Amendment and federal civil rights statutes. He pointed to the Supreme Court's Oyama and Takahashi rulings and the Oregon Supreme Court's previous ruling in Kenji Namba v. McCourt as authority. Deputy California Attorney General John F. Hassler countered that Terrace v. Thompson was still controlling. On March 16, 1950, Judge Clarke issued a two-paragraph ruling in which he found for the Masaokas, proclaiming that the alien land act was "directed against persons of Japanese ancestry solely because of race," (i.e. not simply national origin) and thereby directly violated the 14th Amendment. He likewise lauded the war record of the Masaoka family's sons.

Attorney General Howser appealed the ruling to California's Supreme Court. However, by the time the appeal was argued, it was no longer the leading case. In April 1952, by a narrow 4-3 majority, the California high court struck down the Alien Land Act in Fujii v. California . While technically the Masaoka case involved other grounds (a gift to an alien parent rather than an outright purchase by an alien), it would have been impossible to distinguish on logical grounds. Furthermore, on June 27, 1952, Congress enacted the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act , overriding President Harry Truman's veto. By making Japanese and other Asian aliens eligible for naturalization, the new law eliminated the legal category of "immigrant ineligible to citizenship" upon which all alien land laws had been based. As a result, by the time the Masaoka case came to a decision, it was all but moot. On July 10, 1952, the California Supreme Court issued a 4-3 ruling (as it had in the Fujii case) affirming Clarke's ruling and declaring that Fujii was controlling precedent.

Following the decision, Mike Masaoka paid tribute in a letter to William Carr. He also stated that the property that Carr had "so generously permitted us to use" be restored to him. Haruye Masaoka lived to the age of 93, dying in 1978. The Alien Land Act, by then unenforceable, would ultimately repealed by California voter Proposition 13 in 1956.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Brilliant, Mark. The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978 . New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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

Masaoka, Mike, and Bill Hosokawa. They Call Me Moses Masaoka . New York: William Morrow, 1987.

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

William Carr correspondence. Box 5, Mike Masaoka Papers, Marriott Library, University of Utah.


  1. See, for example, "California's Alien Land Statute Challenged in New Suit Filed by members of the Masaoka Family," Pacific Citizen , Dec. 10, 1949; Frank F. Chuman, The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans (Del Mar, CA, Publisher's Inc., 1976), 220–22.

Last updated April 25, 2024, 2:57 a.m..