Supreme Court rules in the Japanese Immigrant Case, Yamataya v. Fisher, on April 6, 1903.

  • By Eleanor Boba
  • Posted 7/03/2018
  • Essay 20597
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On April 6, 1903, the United States Supreme Court rules against a Japanese teenager who had petitioned to overturn an order of deportation obtained by immigration officials in Seattle. Also known as the "Japanese Immigrant Case," Yamataya v. Fisher becomes a part of caselaw, and more than a century later the court's statement that noncitizens facing deportation are entitled to "due process of law" will be cited in court decisions involving legal challenges to attempts by President Donald Trump (b. 1946) to ban immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries.

Lost in Translation

The girl at the center of the case, Kaoru Yamataya (ca. 1886-?), experienced pregnancy, separation from her family, the death of her child, a manhunt, incarceration, and, possibly, sexual exploitation. Her five years on American soil ended with a forced deportation back to Japan. Through it all, she was subjected to public scrutiny and hounded by immigration officials.

What we know about Kaoru is pieced together from newspaper fragments, public records, and legal proceedings.

On July 11, 1901, Kaoru Yamataya disembarked from the Japanese ship SS Kaga Maru at Smith's Cove in Seattle. She was accompanied by a Japanese man, or perhaps by two. The immigration inspector listed her age as 15, her race and nationality as "Jap." In the space on the landing card designated for "Destination and Name and Address of Relative or Friend to Join There," was written "None" and "Settler" (Landing Card). Few other fields on the form were filled out.

Four days later Kaoru was arrested along with her fellow traveler, Masataro Yamataya (ca. 1867-?). The immigration authorities held a brief hearing (Board of Special Inquiry) and then asked for an order of deportation from the office of the Secretary of the Treasury for Kaoru Yamataya. By July 23 the order was in hand.

Immigration officials had decided that the girl met the criteria for deportation outlined in the Immigration Act of 1891: She was a pauper and likely to become a public charge.

Kaoru and Masataro Yamataya had been tracked down to a boarding house on Jackson Street in Seattle's Nihonmachi (Japantown) by an immigration officer named Thomas M. Fisher, whose official title was Immigrant and Chinese Inspector. Masataro was thrown in jail on suspicion of promoting prostitution; Kaoru was sent to a charity due to her "very delicate condition" ("Case for Hanging"). Apparently, Kaoru was in an advanced state of pregnancy. She was initially sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, at that time on Seattle's First Hill, but by the time she gave birth she was at the Crittenton Home for unwed mothers in the Dunlap neighborhood of the Rainier Valley southeast of downtown Seattle.

Two and a half months after arriving in Seattle, on September 24, 1901, Kaoru Yamataya gave birth to a son at the Crittenton Home; the infant died two months later of pneumonia. Coincidentally, or not, the child was named Thomas. Wild speculation might lead one to suppose that Kaoru chose the only English name she knew, that of Immigration Inspector Thomas M. Fisher.

Fighting Deportation; Incriminating Statements

For reasons that are not clear, the Yamatayas decided to fight Kaoru's deportation. With help from the Japanese community, a firm of American attorneys was retained and a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed with the U.S. District Court in Seattle. The petition protested the girl's confinement, echoing the words of relevant immigration statutes:

"Your petitioner further alleges that the said imprisonment of the said Kaoru Yamataya by the said Fisher is unlawful; that the said Kaoru Yamataya is not an idiot or an insane person; that she is not a pauper, and is not likely to become a public charge; that she is not suffering from any loathsome disease or any disease, or any dangerous or contageous [sic] disease ; that she has not been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; that she did not come to the United States in violation of the contract labor laws passed by Congress, or in violation of any law of the United States relative to the exclusion of aliens, and that the said Kaoru Yamataya is lawfully within the United States and is entitled to remain therein" ("Petition ...").

Upon their initial arrest by Inspector Fisher, both Kaoru and Masataro Yamataya had provided statements. The signed accounts were highly personal and incriminating and, of course, were used against them in courts of law.

Masataro confessed to having a wife in Spokane who "did immoral business," to having no home of his own in the United States, and that neither he nor Kaoru had much in the way of money ("Statement of Masataro Yamataya ..."). Perhaps most damning, he admitted that he and Kaoru had shared a bunk on the ship coming over and had continued to share a bed in the boarding house where they were found:

"We had one room, one bed in the room. I and the girl occupied the same bed four nights, in the same room where Inspector Fisher found me this morning. When found I was in my Japanese dressing clothes, the girl was in the same, undressed and in her night clothes. I know that she is in the family way...I put my hands under her clothes this morning and assisted her to dress" ("Statement of Masataro Yamataya ...").

Masataro went on to state that he had planned to place Kaoru with the Japanese YMCA in Seattle.

Kaoru's statement echoes that of the man she calls her uncle, adding that she shared the ship's bunk with both him and another "relation" ("Statement of Kaoru Yamataya ..."). She goes on to admit:

"I have no money. I had none when I came here. A Japanese man got me in the family way in Nagasaki, Japan" ("Statement of Kaoru Yamataya ...").

The statements agree that Masataro paid Kaoru's passage to the United States, a key element for a charge of human trafficking.

Kaoru Yamataya's statement is signed with Japanese characters. What appears to be the signature of another Japanese individual may be that of the translator. Masataro appears to have signed his own statement in English transliteration. Both statements are clearly written in the hand of Inspector Fisher, as deduced by his own signatures on the documents.

The Case Against Masataro Yamataya

Efforts to deport Kaoru Yamataya unfolded parallel to the criminal case against her male companion. While the case against Kaoru was based on the argument that she was a pauper, the authorities were quite clear that in charging Masataro Yamataya criminally they were looking for prostitution. In this they may have had some justification: According to historian David A. Takami, at the turn of the twentieth century Japanese women were frequently smuggled into the country to work in houses of prostitution in the Asian district of Seattle. Not all of them came willingly.

Newspapers and legal documents attribute a number of varying statements to Masataro Yamataya:

  • Kaoru Yamataya was his adopted daughter and was coming to live with him.
  • Kaoru was being sent to the States for education and he was her uncle.
  • Kaoru was brought to the States to work in a brothel run by his wife on "Japanese Alley" in Spokane.
  • Kaoru was sent to the States by her aristocratic parents in Japan due to her indiscretion and to spare them the dishonor of a pregnant single daughter.
  • Kaoru was sent to the States to separate her from her secret lover.

On June 13, 1902, Masataro Yamataya was put on trial in Federal District Court in Seattle for bringing a woman into the country for immoral purposes. His attorneys presented depositions from Kaoru's family in Nagasaki. This testimony had been given in the presence of United States Consul for Japan Charles B. Harris, in response to "interrogatories ... propounded to such witnesses by me" (Harris Affidavit). The sworn, and somewhat rehearsed, statements testified that Kaoru had traveled to America with her uncle at the request of her family, that her father had given her money for the trip, and that he had sent additional funds to her in the U.S. The stated purpose of the trip: to learn English and sewing.

The statements of Hikotaro Tonaka, Kaoru's brother, are typical:

"He was asked to take her to America by my parents and to arrange for her to learn English and sewing. My family talked the matter over. I also asked Masataro Yamataya to take her to America for these purposes. I know that she was secretly meeting a lover before she left Nagasaki, and I believe she was with child when she left Nagasaki" (Tonaka Deposition).

The statements of the family members agreed that Masataro had adopted Kaoru, with their permission, to make it easier for them to travel together. For this reason, she bore his name, although her father's name was Hirye Hamada.

A family friend who had accompanied the pair and later returned to Japan testified in his deposition that he had occupied the bunk next to Masataro, while Kaoru slept alone. Further contradicting the original statements obtained by Inspector Fisher, this witness, T. Hayashi, stated that Kaoru had occupied her own room at the Tokiwa Boarding House upon arriving in Seattle.

"I was with them the whole time on the steamer, and I absolutely know they did not occupy the same bunk ... After we arrived at Seattle we all three stopped at the Hotel Tokiwa, Masataro Yamataya occupying one room and Kaoru occupying another" (Hayashi Deposition).

Four days after trial began, Masataro Yamataya was pronounced not guilty. The depositions may have done the trick in turning the jury in his favor. Kaoru Yamataya was initially included among a list of witnesses, but her name is struck off in the court files. It appears that she may have been in attendance at court; The Seattle Times felt the need to comment on the "beauty of the girl in question" in announcing the verdict in Masataro's case ("Federal Court," June 17, 1902).

The Case Against Kaoru Yamataya

Beginning with the writ of habeas corpus requested by the Yamatayas, the Japanese Immigrant Case challenging the deportation order took off in a slew of legal actions that flew back and forth between the opposing sides.

In 1903 the case of Yamataya v. Fisher went before the Supreme Court of the United States. The decision by the justices was bad news for Kaoru Yamataya -- she was to be deported. However, it held a grain of hope for future would-be immigrants.

The challenge to the deportation order rested on three arguments:

  1. The Immigration Act of 1891 applied only to aliens who had not yet "effected entry" into the country.
  2. The Immigration Act of 1891 was unconstitutional since it did not provide for due process of law.
  3. Kaoru was deprived of her liberty without due process of law, in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

The attorneys who prepared the brief minced no words in accusing Inspector Fisher of abuse of power in his questioning of the Yamatayas, proclaiming him "prosecutor, judge and jury" and stating that such arbitrary power harkened back to times before the "Magna Charta" [sic] -- i.e. to the medieval era ("Brief of Appellant"). They also referenced the 1894 treaty with the Empire of Japan, one that bestowed "most favored nation" status on that country. This may have been done to differentiate the case from the many challenges to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

As in the petition for the writ of habeas corpus, Kaoru's attorneys pointed to the fact that she did not speak or understand English and had been isolated from those who could advise her:

"Appellant does not understand the English language. She had no notice whatever of the investigation made by appellee, and was not represented and had no opportunity to be heard thereat. After her arrest and imprisonment by appellee appellant was not permitted to see her attorneys or her relatives and she was ignorant of the fact that any investigation had been made or would be made, or that any decision of the inspection officers had been made until a few hours prior to the sailing of the vessel upon which appellee intended to deport her. The evidence upon which appellee and the other inspection officers made their findings, and upon which the warrant of deportation was issued, was garbled, incomplete, misleading and in many respects untrue, in that appellant was made to answer Yes and No to questions which she did not comprehend, and answers conveying a meaning not intended were in consequence given, and only such evidence as when unexplained tended to support the finding of appellee was considered by him" ("Brief of Appellant").

In response, the government argued that Inspector Fisher had done nothing wrong; that he had the right to order expulsion of an alien deemed to be a pauper up to one year following arrival; and that the "roving, experimental, and general allegations" ("Brief for the United States") against him were an assault on the authority of executive officers of the government. Many examples of case law were presented to back these claims, most of them involving Chinese nationals. Further, the government argued that neither Kaoru nor Masataro Yamataya had used the only protest method open to them -- that of appealing directly to the Secretary of the Treasury at the time of their arrest.

On April 6, 1903, the decision of the Supreme Court was handed down, upholding the arguments of Inspector Fisher and the government's legal team. The justices stated that deportation decisions were the province of executive officers (e.g., immigration officials) and that the law against paupers, as Kaoru was deemed to be, was "designed to protect the general public against contact with dangerous or improper persons" (Yamataya v. Fisher, 97). As for the language barrier: "If the appellant's want of knowledge of the English language put her at some disadvantage ... that was her misfortune" (Yamataya v. Fisher, 102).

The vote of the court was seven to two in favor of the government's case, with famed jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1845-1935) siding with the majority.

Precedent for Due Process

While the Supreme Court ruled against Kaoru, the Yamataya v. Fisher decision also recognized that deportation of immigrants ought not to proceed summarily but must allow for due process -- in other words, a hearing of some kind must take place. The ruling stated:

"This court has never held, nor must we now be understood as holding, that administrative officers, when executing the provisions of a statute involving the liberty of persons, may disregard the fundamental principles that inhere in 'due process of law' as understood at the time of the adoption of the Constitution" (Yamataya v. Fisher, 100).

The recognition that would-be immigrants facing deportation are entitled to legal due process became a part of Supreme Court precedent. By mid-2018, the decision, frequently referred to in subsequent court opinions as the Japanese Immigrant Case, had been cited in nearly 300 opinions. A number of those citations came in proceedings involving challenges to attempts by President Donald Trump to ban immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries.

The sentence quoted above was cited in State of Washington v. Donald J. Trump, a February 2017 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Seattle, affirming a lower court ruling that temporarily blocked the federal government from deporting immigrants from the targeted countries who had already arrived at U.S. ports.

For Kaoru Yamataya it was too late; the 1903 Supreme Court decision bearing her name concluded that she had been granted due process in her initial hearing before the immigration tribunal in Seattle.

Disappearance and Deportation

Shortly after the announcement of the court's decision, and before she could be picked up by authorities, Kaoru disappeared from the Crittenton Home. One newspapers spoke of her having been "spirited away" ("Koaru Yamataya Is ..."). This may not have been the first time she disappeared. According to another account, upon being released from the Home of the Good Shepherd in August 1901, she had left town and was tracked down in Salt Lake City.

Yamataya's second attempt to leave town was more successful; she was gone more than three years before being located at a boarding house in Portland, Oregon. Her whereabouts and activities during that time are a mystery. One local paper offered a highly colorized version of the story, which included a lover from the lower classes who had followed her over from Japan, a planned elopement, cruel parents, and a hard-hearted uncle. The newspaper gushed over Yamataya in condescending, stereotyped language that is painful to read:

"She is an aristocrat from the top of her little black head to the tips of her tiny toes, and is more than passing fair. She is possessed of the kind of a complexion that one reads about in Japanese romances" ("Pretty Japanese Girl ...").

On October 16, 1906, The Seattle Times reported that Kaoru Yamataya was back in county jail in Seattle. Two weeks later she was deported back to Japan on the SS Shimano Maru.

We do not know what became of Masataro Yamataya during those years. He had been allowed to reclaim his passport shortly after his acquittal at trial in 1902. He might, therefore, have returned to Japan. However, the 1920 U.S. Census shows him, at age 50, residing on 9th Avenue in Seattle, the manager of a boarding house.

A truly comprehensive account of this sad, strange case requires a review of the local Japanese language newspapers of the day. Unfortunately, that is not something this researcher is equipped to carry out.


David A. Takami, Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle (Seattle: Wing Luke Asian Museum, 1998), 18-19; Colin P. A. Jones, "Japanese People v. the U.S. et al.," The Japan Times, April 12, 2017, (; "Statement of Masataro Yamataya to Custom House, Port of Seattle," July 15, 1901, "Statement of Kaoru Yamataya to Custom House, Port of Seattle," July 15, 1901, and Affidavit of Charles B. Harris, Consul of the United States, Nagasaki, Japan, February 7, 1902, transmitting Depositions of Hirye Hamada, Teru Hamada, Kamehiko Hamada, Hikotaro Tonaka, T. Hayashi, and Kikutaro Hirayama, Case 2091, Box 124, RG 21, U.S. District Courts, Western Division, Northern Division, Seattle District Court, Civil and Criminal Case Files, National Archives and Records Administration, Seattle, Washington; "Petition in the Matter of the Application of Kaoru Yamatoga [sic] for a Writ of Habeas Corpus," August 9, 1901, Case 2086, Box 124, RG 21, National Archives and Records Administration, Seattle; State of Washington, Death Records, 1883-1960, and State of Washington, Birth Records, 1891-1935, accessed via; Immigration and Naturalization Service landing card for Kaworu [sic] Yamataya, July 10, 1901, Roll 16, Series A3691, RG 85, Index to Aliens, Not Including Filipinos, East Indians, and Chinese, Arriving by Vessel or at the Land Border at Seattle, Washington, NAI Number 2945984, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004, National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, D.C. (accessed via; Fourteenth Census of the United States: 1920, Census Place: Seattle, King, Washington, Enumeration District 280, p. 13A, Roll T625_1929 (accessed via; Yamataya v. Fisher, 189 U.S. 86 (1903); State of Washington v. Donald J. Trump, 847 F. 3d 1151, 15 (9th Cir. 2017); "Brief of Appellant," Yamataya v. Fisher, Transcript of Record, Supreme Court of the United States, October Term 1901, filed August 16, 1902, in Records and Briefs of the Supreme Court (Washington, D.C.: Judd & Detweiler Printers, 1902); "Brief for the United States," Yamataya v. Fisher, Transcript of Record, Supreme Court of the United States, October Term 1902, filed February 24, 1903, in Records and Briefs of the Supreme Court (Washington, D.C.: Judd & Detweiler Printers, 1903); "Case for Hanging: No Punishment Too Severe for Such Crime," The Seattle Star, July 16, 1901, p. 1; "Pretty Japanese Girl with Romantic Past Is Not to Be Found," The Seattle Star, April 11, 1903, p. 3; "May Follow His Comrades: Another Japanese Held for Bringing Women Here," The Seattle Times, July 16, 1901, p. 12; "Federal Court," Ibid., June 13, 1902, p. 2; "Federal Court, Ibid., June 17, 1902, p. 14; "Federal Court," Ibid., July 23, 1901, p. 4; "Held to Grand Jury," Ibid., July 26, 1901, p. 10; "Koaru [sic] Yamataya Is at Last Arrested," The Seattle Times, October 16, 1906, p. 1; "Yamataya Kaoru Deported," Ibid., October 31, 1906, p. 3.

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