Kawakita v. United States

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Kawakita v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 2 – April 3, 1952
Decided June 2, 1952
Full case name Kawakita v. United States
Citations 343 U.S. 717 (more)
Prior history In a Federal District Court, petitioner was convicted of treason and sentenced to death,96 F. Supp. 824. The Court of Appeals affirmed, 190 F.2d 506. Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 343 U.S. 717.
Subsequent history 190 F.2d 506, affirmed.
A US citizen owes allegiance to the United States and can be punished for treasonable acts voluntarily committed regardless of dual nationality or citizenship.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Douglas, joined by Reed, Jackson, Minton
Dissent Vinson, joined by Black, Burton
Frankfurter and Clark took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Kawakita v. United States, 343 U.S. 717 (1952)[1], was a case in which the United States Supreme Court reviewed a treason accusation against the defendant Tomoya Kawakita (川北 友弥 Kawakita Tomoya?), a dual U.S./Japanese citizen.


Tomoya Kawakita (born in Calexico, California, on September 26, 1921, of Japanese-born parents) was arrested and charged with treason for torturing American POWs at the Oeyama POW camp in Kyoto, Japan, during World War II. Former POWs testified that he often taunted them, forced them to beat each other, and made them work even when they were sick.[1][2]


In his defense, Kawakita claimed that he had renounced his U.S. citizenship during his time in Japan, and thus could not be tried for treason. He also stated that he lost his U.S. citizenship when he was registered in Japan's family census, the Koseki, in 1943. His lawyer, Morris Lavine argued that at the very most, his client was guilty of "a series of isolated assaults and batteries--nothing more." He stated that kicking a POW or forcing one to carry an extra bucket of paint "could not possibly rise to the dignity of . . . a treason case" and that Kawakita's actions lacked the "element of secrecy and cunning" that was usual in a treason case. He argued, "We have to be careful that our victory over Japan does not enable us for that reason to wreak vengeance on the defendant. We are all on trial here." This case shouldn't be "another chance to get a Jap," Lavine said.[3]

On the stand, Kawakita claimed that he also assisted POWs: he carried one on his back to the mine's hospital; he escorted them to get dental or medical aid; he asked his superiors for a workload reduction when he saw the workers could not meet their daily quota. He admitted to slapping one POW whom he overheard calling him a son-of-a-bitch in Spanish. After the surrender, he even took a group of them for a sight-seeing tour and saw them off with friendly good-byes at the train station when they were finally repatriated. And, as his lawyer pointed out, Kawakita's behavior was probably not egregious because he did nothing to hide his identity, and in fact, enrolled in USC, which was then "loaded with GIs."[3]

However, his arguments were undermined by his 1945 U.S. passport application, in which he swore he had never renounced his U.S. citizenship. The prosecution also rejected Lavine's arguments, claiming that Kawakita's actions helped Japan's war efforts by trying to squeeze labor out of the POWs. The government also contrasted Kawakita's behavior with that of another Nisei guard, Meiji Fujizawa, who was a friend of his. Fujizawa, who was also hired as an interpreter, made an effort to boost the POWs' morale. He gave them friendly slaps on the back; gave them information in Spanish about Japan's impending defeat, and confided in early summer 1945, "We'll have Thanksgiving dinner in San Francisco." Fujizawa later recalled that his friend was "rough in speech," but he never saw him beat anyone. He also said that he himself was ordered to beat a POW once, and that the Japanese would even have prisoners mete out punishment to other prisoners who were caught stealing food and other infractions.[3]

Kawakita argued that a person with dual nationality can only be guilty of treason to the country in which he resides, not another which claims him as a national. The prosecution pointed out that the U.S. Constitution places no territorial limitations on treason. And it pointed out that U.S. citizenship cannot be cast off or on so easily like one might do with a "raincoat," nor turned off and on "like a faucet."


On September 2, 1948, a jury of 9 men and 3 women found that Kawakita owed allegiance to the United States during his residence in Japan. Charged with 15 overt acts, he was found guilty of eight. His U.S. citizenship was revoked, and he was sentenced to death.

Kawakita appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, which heard it in April 1952. On June 2, 1952, the Supreme Court ruled to support the lower court's judgment and confirmed Kawakita's death sentence.

However, President Dwight D. Eisenhower viewed the punishment as excessive and on October 29, 1953 commuted Kawakita's sentence to life imprisonment. Ten years later, during the closing of Alcatraz prison where Kawakita was serving his time, President John F. Kennedy pardoned him on October 24, 1963 on the condition that he be deported to Japan and banned from American soil for life.[2]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Not Worth Living". Time Magazine. October 18, 1948. Retrieved 2010-03-09. 
  2. ^ a b "Kawakita v. United States". Retrieved 2010-03-09. 
  3. ^ a b c Naoko Shibusawa (2010) [2006]. America's Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674057470. 

External links[edit]

  • ^ Text of Kawakita v. United States, 343 U.S. 717 (1952) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia