Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission

The 1948 U.S Supreme Court case Takahashi v. California Fish and Game Commission (334 U.S. 410 (1948)), which upheld the constitutional right of a Japanese immigrant in California to receive a state-issued fishing license, delivered a crushing blow to legal discrimination against Asians as "aliens ineligible to citizenship."

Test Case

The Takahashi case had its origins in the wartime confinement of West Coast Japanese Americans. In 1943, following mass removal of the state's ethnic Japanese population, the California legislature amended its Fish and Game Law to bar all "Japanese aliens" from being granted state fishing licenses. (Nativist legislators had repeatedly introduced similar legislation during the 1930s, but such attempts had all been defeated). The new law, which was part of a wave of anti-Japanese legislation introduced in the legislature, was signed by incoming governor Earl Warren. Its evident purpose was to express hostility towards the Japanese Americans and to discourage them from returning to California once released from camp by making it impossible for them to practice their trade. In 1945, amid concerns that a law barring solely "Japanese aliens" from fishing licenses might be unconstitutional, the legislature enacted a new measure that denied fishing licenses to all "aliens ineligible to citizenship," the legal category that California had devised in its Alien Land Act thirty years before in order to discriminate against Asian immigrants. Since by that time Japanese aliens were virtually the only national group barred from naturalization, the change in wording had no substantive impact on the law.

In 1945, as Japanese Americans returned to the Pacific Coast, The Southern California Japanese Fishermen's Association, a group of Issei workers, decided to challenge the law in court, and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) agreed to help bring a test case. (Ironically, the JACL's charter, because it admitted only U.S. citizens, thereby excluded Japanese aliens!) Torao Takahashi, who had been one of approximately 700 licensed Issei commercial fishermen working in California in the years before World War II, agreed to serve as a test case. His defense was taken up by JACL counsel A.L. Wirin , assisted by his partners John Maeno and Saburo Kido . [1]

Wirin first brought the case in the California courts. In June 1946, the Los Angeles County Superior Court delivered a mixed verdict. The court agreed that California could restrict fishing licenses within the three-mile limit representing its territorial waters for purposes of conservation, but had no authority to limit Takahashi from fishing outside them. The Superior Court also found that the law constituted anti-Japanese discrimination, despite the belated change of wording, which the decision referred to as "the thin veil used to conceal a purpose being too transparent." [2] The state appealed to the California Supreme Court, which in October 1947 overturned the Superior Court's decision. By a narrow 4-3 vote, the high court ruled that the state had a proprietary interest in the fish in its ocean waters and could constitutionally restrict fishing licenses to citizens and to aliens eligible for citizenship in order to preserve its natural resources. [3] This decision attracted widespread negative comment in the national press. In its landmark report To Secure These Rights , the President's Committee on Civil Rights called for the statute's repeal. [3]

Supreme Court Appeal

JACL counsel A.L. Wirin waited to decide whether to appeal Takahashi until the Supreme Court decided the case of Oyama v. California , in which the JACL challenged California's Alien Land Act . [4] In January 1948, the Supreme Court decided in the JACL's favor. Although the majority opinion in Oyama decided the question on the basis of the rights of citizens, and did not reach the question of whether race-based discrimination against aliens violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, four of the justices in Oyama joined concurring opinions affirming that such discrimination was unconstitutional. Since it was clear both that the question of discrimination against Asian aliens was still undecided, and that he already had four votes in his favor, Wirin decided to petition the court to hear the case.

Nevertheless, Wirin was taking no chances. Already, in October 1947, he had asked NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall whether the NAACP could prepare an amicus brief in support of granting certiorari. The JACL gained an even greater ally in February 1948, when Solicitor General Philip Perlman wrote to inform the JACL lawyers that the government had decided to file an amicus brief in support of a hearing in their case. The Takahashi case, Pearlman said, "raises civil liberties issues of such national importance and affecting such a large number of persons as to warrant intervention by the Government." [5] Thus, barely three years after the Korematsu case, when the Justice Department had defended the mass wartime removal of Japanese Americans, the federal government was now committed to defend their rights.

In March 1948, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Takahashi . The NAACP then agreed to submit an amicus brief in support of the JACL, as did the Justice Department. Both the appellant's brief and the amicus briefs argued that the California fishing law denied legal residents of the United States the opportunity to earn a living in a common occupation because of their Japanese ancestry. Both briefs asserted that the law was discriminatory in purpose and effect, and thus violated the appellant's rights to equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment (as well as the United Nations Charter). In addition, the briefs charged that the California law improperly interfered with the supreme right of the federal government to make immigration and foreign policy, since its primary effect was to exclude aliens legally admitted to the United States from residing in the state. [6]

Verdict and Impact

On April 22nd and 23rd, 1948, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Takahashi . As in Oyama v. California , Dean Acheson served as chief counsel for the JACL. The presence of Acheson, a longtime government official who would be named U.S. secretary of state soon after, helped bolster the JACL's case. Six weeks later, on June 7, 1948, the Court announced its decision. By a 7-2 vote, the justices struck down the California fishing law. Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, held that the protection of the 14th Amendment extended to aliens as well as citizens. [7] Black based his opinion on the rights of aliens under the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, he agreed with the petitioner's claims that a state law infringed on the federal government's exclusive authority over immigration when it prevented an alien lawfully admitted to the United States from earning a living in the same manner as other residents of the state. Finally, Black stated, he was unable to find any "special public interest" in support of California's discriminatory fishing law that would serve as a legitimate basis for upholding it. [8] Although he declined to address the question of whether it was prompted by racial hostility against the Japanese, he "vigorously denied" that it was simply a conservation measure. [9] Justice Frank Murphy issued a concurring opinion that examined at length the discriminatory intent of the California lawmakers—a rare occasion in which a Supreme Court opinion directly identified a law as racist.

The Takahashi victory halted California's historic legal discrimination against Japanese aliens, although the Issei did not attain full equality until 1952, when Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act , which opened naturalization to Issei and thus eliminated the category of "aliens ineligible to citizenship" on which the law in Takahashi had been based. The case also formed part of the series of postwar Supreme Court cases overturning race-based discrimination that climaxed six years later in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school segregation case.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

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

Hoffecker, Lilian Takahashi. "A Village Disappeared. American Heritage 52.8 (Dec. 2001): 64–71.

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


  1. Frank F. Chuman, The Bamboo People (Del Mar, CA, Publisher's Inc., 1976), 230–31. See also Lillian Takahashi Hoffecker, "A Village Disappeared," American Heritage 52.8 (Dec. 2001), 64-71.
  2. Los Angeles County Superior Court, Torao Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission et al. , cited in Brief of the Japanese American Citizens League amicus curiae , Torao Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission et al. , p.42. See also "Judge Orders Issuance of Fishing License to Issei: Rules Ban is unconstitutional," Rafu Shimpo , June 14, 1946, 1.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Torao Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission et al. , 30 Cal 2d 719, 185 P.2d 805 (1947). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ftnt_ref3" defined multiple times with different content
  4. "Ask Supreme Court Hearing on Takahashi Case Testing California Fish, Game Code," Pacific Citizen , January 17, 1948, 1.
  5. Letter cited in The Open Forum 25.4 (April 1948), 1.
  6. Motion and Brief for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as amicus curiae , Toro Takahashi v. California Fish and Game Commission ; Brief for Petitioner, Toro Takahashi v. California Fish and Game Commission .
  7. Takahashi v. California Fish and Game Commission , 334 U.S. 410.
  8. Takahashi v. California Fish and Game Commission , 334 U.S. 410.
  9. Takahashi v. California Fish and Game Commission , 334 U.S. 410.

Last updated May 9, 2014, 6:13 a.m..