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Saturday, August 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kenji Ito, civic leader acquitted in 1942 of U.S. spy charges, dies

Seattle Times staff reporter

Within a day of Japanese bombs falling on Pearl Harbor, federal agents were at the door of a Seattle attorney named Kenji Ito.

Federal prosecutors charged him with failing to register as a spy, the first such local prosecution of World War II, relying on Mr. Ito's frequent pro-Japanese speeches as evidence of espionage. But Mr. Ito told jurors he was merely a U.S. citizen trying to educate the public.

"I'd rather live in this country behind bars than in another country where the dictator holds the olive branch in one hand and the dagger in the other," Mr. Ito told the jury, as his wife watched from the gallery. "If you convict me, I will know that it's the verdict of Americans."

The all-white jury acquitted him in 1942. Mr. Ito, who became a successful attorney and civic leader in Los Angeles' Japanese-American community, died Sunday (Aug. 10) at the age of 94.

His case is a largely forgotten footnote in legal history, say Japanese-American historians, but it recalls the war-era hysteria that prompted nighttime curfews, then internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese residents.

Mr. Ito was born in Seattle in 1909 to Japanese immigrants and became the first Japanese American to earn a varsity debating letter at the University of Washington. After graduating from the UW Law School, he won a yearlong debating tour around the world.

He returned to Seattle in 1937 and often debated on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria on the radio and before civic groups. His rhetorical prowess put him on the FBI's watch-list, leading to his arrest on Dec. 8, 1941.

He was initially charged with plotting to overthrow the U.S. government, but the charge was downgraded to 25 counts of failing to register as a foreign agent, one for each of his public speeches.

"People at the time wanted to know the local, state and nation administrations were zealously protecting our security," said Tetsuden Kashima, a UW American ethnic-studies professor. "It was not a level playing field at the time" for Japanese Americans.

Mr. Ito and his wife, Fumiye Betty Ito, were soon sent to internment camps in California and Idaho, where he gave other detainees legal aid. He moved to Los Angeles after his release and became the first Japanese American admitted to the California State Bar after World War II.

"There was nothing for him to come back to in Seattle," said his daughter, Ayleen Ito Lee of Palo Alto, Calif., who is also an attorney. "It obviously held painful memories for him."

Mr. Ito focused his practice on Japanese firms — from filmmakers to auto manufacturers — seeking a foothold in the United States. He helped create a scholarship fund for students of Japanese ancestry and a Japanese community center and was honored by the Japanese government in 1985.

The thwarted prosecution of Mr. Ito surfaced that same year, during a trial seeking reversal of the wartime conviction of another Japanese American. Federal prosecutors said decoded diplomatic cables from Japan proved that he had been recruited as a spy, an allegation Mr. Ito denied.

In an interview that year in Pacific Citizen, a magazine for Japanese Americans, Mr. Ito said it never occurred to him that his speeches could be perceived as disloyal to the United States.

"I was not apologetic," he said. "I was expressing myself as an American — of Japanese ancestry, of course — who knew something about Japan and Japanese history."

Mr. Ito never expressed bitterness to his daughter, but he did give her advice based on his legal troubles. "He told me not to express my opinion," Ito Lee said. "He said, 'You'll just get in trouble.' "

In addition to his wife of 63 years and his daughter, Mr. Ito is survived by brother Henry Ito of Gardena, Calif.; sons Ron C. Ito of Alhambra, Calif., and Bradford K. Ito of Redwood City, Calif.; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jonathanmartin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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