Oyama v. California

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Oyama v. California

California's Alien Land Law

Legal decision

By: Frederick Vinson

Date: January 19, 1948

Source: Oyama v. California. 332 U.S. 633 (1948).

About the Author: The Supreme Court of the United States, the nation's highest court, is comprised of eight justices and one chief justice. In 1948, the associate justices were Wiley B. Rutledge, Frank Murphy, Robert H. Jackson, Harold Burton, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo L. Black, Stanley Reed, and William O. Douglas. Chief Justice Frederick Moore Vinson (1890–1953) authored the majority ruling in the Supreme Court decision of Oyama v. California. His opinion was endorsed by the five other justices that constituted the majority of the Supreme Court in the Oyama case.


The California Alien Land Law that was the subject of the constitutional challenge advanced in Oyama v. California had its philosophical roots in the more general prohibitions first enacted against Asians in the United States in the late 1800s. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was extended to include Japanese and Indian persons by the federal government in 1892. The state of California had emphatically supported the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its successors out of prejudice against the large Asian population that had developed along the West Coast, particularly in the San Francisco area.

The white population's distrust of the Asian immigrants living in California had its basis in racism and economics. Many in the white population believed that the Chinese workforce had both driven down wages for general laborers as well as caused unemployment among the white workforce. With the arrival of Japanese farmers in California in significant numbers by 1900, many white landowners grew concerned that the Japanese agricultural expertise on small farm plots would render white farmers less competitive.

The Alien Land Law was first passed in 1913 by the California legislature and subsequently broadened in 1920. The law prohibited anyone who was ineligible for American citizenship from owning land in California. The federal Exclusion Acts had defined such ineligibility in a broad fashion—those of Caucasian or African descent were eligible for citizenship, but members of virtually every other racial background were not.

The facts that gave rise to the Oyama case represent the most common device employed by Japanese farmers to avoid the effect of the Alien Land Law. Since a Japanese-born adult farmer was prohibited by law from holding legal title to land in California, title would typically be taken in the name of a child of the farmer who had been born in the United States. Birth created an absolute right to citizenship on the part of the child, making them eligible within the meaning of the Alien Land Law to hold title to the subject property. A corresponding trust agreement would be held by the ineligible parent, creating a well understood property law distinction between the child's paper title and the parent's beneficial or substantive title.

The initial application that led to the Supreme Court case was advanced by Fred Oyama, who was then sixteen years old. In Oyama, the state of California relied upon a failure on the part of the land holders to file requisite reports under the Alien Land Law as a basis to seize the property. A contributing factor in the failure of Oyama to file the necessary documentation was his internment in 1942 as a consequence of the war with Japan. The trial court ruled that the actions of the Oyamas to obtain and to maintain title to the farm property were a subterfuge, rendering the purchase transactions void and vesting the title to the property in the state.

The trial decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of California, where the trial decision was upheld. Oyama brought an application for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court; certiorari is a request for legal relief where a higher court is requested to review a lower court proceeding on the basis that the lower court ruling was the subject of an irregularity.


Mr. Chief Justice VINSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners challenge the constitutionality of California's Alien Land Law as it has been applied in this case to effect an escheat of two small parcels of agricultural land. One of the petitioners is Fred Oyama, a minor American citizen in whose name title was taken. The other is his father and guardian, Kajiro Oyama, a Japanese citizen not eligible for naturalization, who paid the purchase price.

Petitioners press three attacks on the Alien Land Law as it has been applied in this case: first, that it deprives Fred Oyama of the equal protection of the laws and of his privileges as an American citizen; secondly, that it denies Kajiro Oyama equal protection of the laws; and, thirdly, that it contravenes the due process clause by sanctioning a taking of property after expiration of the applicable limitations period. Proper foundation for these claims has been laid in the proceedings below.

In approaching cases, such as this one, in which federal constitutional rights are asserted, it is incumbent on us to inquire not merely whether those rights have been denied in express terms, but also whether they have been denied in substance and effect. We must review independently both the legal issues and those factual matters with which they are commingled.

In broad outline, the Alien Land Law forbids aliens ineligible for American citizenship to acquire, own, occupy, lease, or transfer agricultural land. It also provides that any property acquired in violation of the statute shall escheat as of the date of acquisition and that the same result shall follow any transfer made with 'intent to prevent, evade or avoid' escheat.

In addition, that intent is presumed, prima facie, whenever an ineligible alien pays the consideration for a transfer to a citizen or eligible alien.

The first of the two parcels in question, consisting of six acres of agricultural land in southern California, was purchased in 1934, when Fred Oyama was six years old. Kajiro Oyama paid the $4,000 consideration, and the seller executed a deed to Fred. The deed was duly recorded.

Some six months later, the father petitioned the Superior Court for San Diego County to be appointed Fred's guardian, stating that Fred owned the six acres. After a hearing, the court found the allegations of the petition true and Kajiro Oyama 'a competent and proper person' to be appointed Fred's guardian. The appointment was then ordered, and the father posted the necessary bond.

In 1936 and again in 1937, the father as guardian sought permission to borrow $4,000, payable in six months, for the purpose of financing the next season's crops and to mortgage the six-acre parcel as security. In each case notice of the petition and date for hearing was published in a newspaper, the court then approved the borrowing as advantageous to Fred Oyama's estate, and the father posted a bond for $8,000. So far as appears from the record, both loans were obtained, used for the benefit of the estate, and repaid on maturity.

The second parcel, an adjoining two acres, was acquired in 1937, when Fred was nine years old. It was sold by the guardian of another minor, and the court supervising that guardianship confirmed the sale 'to Fred Oyama' as highest bidder at a publicly advertised sale. A copy of the court's order was recorded. Fred's father again paid the purchase price, $1,500.

From the time of the two transfers until the date of trial, however, Kajiro Oyama did not file the annual reports which the Alien Land Law requires of all guardians of agricultural land belonging to minor children of ineligible aliens.

In 1942, Fred and his family were evacuated from the Pacific Coast along with all other persons of Japanese descent. And in 1944, when Fred was sixteen and still forbidden to return home, the State filed a petition to declare an escheat of the two parcels on the ground that the conveyances in 1934 and 1937 had been with intent to violate and evade the Alien Land Law. At the trial the only witness, other than a court official testifying to records showing the facts set forth above, was one John Kurfurst, who had been left in charge of the land at the time of the evacuation. He testified that the Oyama family once lived on the land but had not occupied it for several years before the evacuation. After the evacuation, Kurfurst and those to whom he rented the property drew checks to Fred Oyama for the rentals (less expenses), and Kurfurst transmitted them to Fred Oyama through the War Relocation Authority. The canceled checks were returned endorsed 'Fred Oyama,' and no evidence was offered to prove that the signatures were not by the son. Moreover, the receipts issued by the War Relocation Authority for the funds transmitted by Kurfurst were for the account of Fred Oyama, and Kurfurst identified a letter signed 'Fred Oyama' directing him to turn the property over to a local bank for management.

On direct examination by the State's Attorney, however, Kurfurst also testified that he knew the father as 'Fred,' but he added that he had never heard the father refer to himself by that name. In addition, he testified on cross-examination that he had once heard the father say, 'some day the boy will have a good piece of property because that is going to be valuable.' He also admitted that he knew 'the father was running the boy's business' and that 'the property belonged to the boy and to June Kushino' (Fred's cousin, an American citizen). Kurfurst further acknowledged that in a letter he had written about the property and had headed 're: Fred Yoshihiro Oyama and June Kushino' he meant by 'Fred Yoshihiro Oyama' the boy, not the father. He also understood a letter written to him by the War Relocation Authority 're: Fred Oyama' to refer to the boy.

From this evidence the trial court found as facts that the father had had the beneficial use of the land and that the transfers were subterfuges effected with intent to prevent, evade or avoid escheat. Accordingly, the court entered its conclusion of law that the parcels had vested in the State as of the date of the attempted transfers in 1934 and 1937.

The trial court filed no written opinion but indicated orally that its findings were based primarily on four inferences: (1) the statutory presumption that any conveyance is with 'intent to prevent, evade or avoid' escheat if an ineligible alien pays the consideration; (2) an inference of similar intent from the mere fact that the conveyances ran to a minor child; (3) an inference of lack of bona fides at the time of the original transactions from the fact that the father thereafter failed to file annual guardianship reports; and (4) an inference from the father's failure to testify that his testimony would have been adverse to his son's cause. No countervailing inference was warranted by the exhibits in Fred's name, the judge said, 'because there are many instances where there is little in a name.'

In holding the trial court's findings of intent fully justified by the evidence, the Supreme Court of California pointed to the same four inferences. It also ruled that California could constitutionally exclude ineligible aliens from any interest in agricultural land, and that Fred Oyama was deprived of no constitutional guarantees since the land had passed to the State without ever vesting in him.

We agree with petitioners' first contention, that the Alien Land Law, as applied in this case, deprives Fred Oyama of the equal protection of California's laws and of his privileges as an American citizen. In our view of the case, the State has discriminated against Fred Oyama; the discrimination is based solely on his parents' country of origin; and there is absent the compelling justification which would be needed to sustain discrimination of that nature.

By federal statute, enacted before the Fourteenth Amendment but vindicated by it, the states must accord to all citizens the right to take and hold real property. California, of course, recognizes both this right and the fact that infancy does not incapacitate a minor from holding realty. It is also established under California law that ineligible aliens may arrange gifts of agricultural land to their citizen children. Likewise, when a minor citizen does become the owner of agricultural land, by gift or otherwise, his father may be appointed guardian of the estate, whether the father be a citizen, an eligible alien, or an ineligible alien. And, once appointed, a guardian is entitled to have custody of the estate and to manage and husband it for the ward's benefit. To that extent Fred Oyama is ostensibly on a par with minors of different lineage.

At this point, however, the road forks. The California law points in one direction for minor citizens like Fred Oyama, whose parents cannot be naturalized, and in another for all other children—for minor citizens whose parents are either citizens or eligible aliens, and even for minors who are themselves aliens though eligible for naturalization. In the first place, for most minors California has the customary rule that where a parent pays for a conveyance to his child there is a presumption that a gift is intended; there is no presumption of a resulting trust, no presumption that the minor takes the land for the benefit of his parent. When a gift is thus presumed and the deed is recorded in the child's name, the recording suffices for delivery, and, absent evidence that the gift is disadvantageous, acceptance is also presumed. Thus the burden of proving that there was in fact no completed bona fide gift falls to him who would attack its validity. Fred Oyama, on the other hand, faced at the outset the necessity of overcoming a statutory presumption that conveyances financed by his father and recorded in Fred's name were not gifts at all. Something very akin to a resulting trust was presumed and, at least prima facie, Fred was presumed to hold title for the benefit of his parent.

In the second place, when it came to rebutting this statutory presumption, Fred Oyama ran into other obstacles which, so far as we can ascertain, do not beset the path of most minor donees in California.

Thus the California courts said that the very fact that the transfer put the land beyond the father's power to deal with it directly—to deed it away, to borrow money on it, and to make free disposition of it in any other way—showed that the transfer was not complete, that it was merely colorable. The fact that the father attached no strings to the transfer was taken to indicate that he meant, in effect, to acquire the beneficial ownership himself. The California law purports to permit citizen sons to take gifts of agricultural land from their fathers, regardless of the fathers' nationality. Yet, as indicated by this case, if the father is ineligible for citizenship, facts which would usually be considered indicia of the son's ownership are used to make that ownership suspect; if the father is not an ineligible alien, however, the same facts would be evidence that a completed gift was intended.

Furthermore, Fred Oyama had to counter evidence that his father was remiss in his duties as guardian. Acts subsequent to a transfer may, of course, be relevant to indicate a transferor's intent at the time of the transfer. In this case the trial court itself had reservations as to the evidentiary value of the father's omissions; with these we agree, especially because there was some reason to believe reports were not required of him until 1943, and he had been excluded from the state from 1942 on. More important to the issue of equal protection, however, our attention has been called to no other case in which the penalty for a guardian's derelictions has fallen on any one but the guardian. At any time the court supervising the guardianship could have demanded the annual accounts and, if appropriate, could have removed Kajiro Oyama as guardian; severe punishment could also have been meted out. The whole theory of guardianships is to protect the ward during his period of incapacity to protect himself. In Fred Oyama's case, however, the father's deeds were visited on the son; the ward became the guarantor of his guardian's conduct.

The cumulative effect, we believe, was clearly to discriminate againt Fred Oyama. He was saddled with an onerous burden of proof which need not be borne by California children generally. The statutory presumption and the two ancillary inferences, which would not be used against most children, were given such probative value as to prevail in the face of a deed entered in the public records, four court orders recognizing Fred Oyama as the owner of the land, several newspaper notices to the same effect, and testimony that business transactions regarding the land were generally understood to be on his behalf. In short, Fred Oyama lost his gift, irretrievably and without compensation, solely because of the extraordinary obstacles which the State set before him. The only basis for this discrimination against an American citizen, moreover, was the fact that his father was Japanese and not American, Russian, Chinese, or English. But for that fact alone, Fred Oyama, now a little over a year from majority, would be the undisputed owner of the eight acres in question.

The State argues that racial descent is not the basis for whatever discrimination has taken place. The argument is that the same statutory presumption of fraud would apply alike to any person taking agricultural land paid for by Kajiro Oyama, whether the recipient was Fred Oyama or a stranger of entirely different ancestry. We do not know how realistic it is to suppose that Kajiro Oyama would attempt gifts of land to others than his close relatives. But in any event, the State's argument ignores the fact that the generally applicable California law treats conveyances to the transferor's children differently from conveyances to strangers. Whenever a Chinese or English parent, to take an example, pays a third party to deed land to a stranger, a resulting trust is presumed to arise, and the stranger is presumed to hold the land for the benefit of the person paying the consideration; when the Alien Land Law applies a similar presumption to a like transfer by Kajiro Oyama to a stranger, it appears merely to reiterate the generally applicable law of resulting trusts. When, on the other hand, the same Chinese or English father uses his own funds to buy land in his citizen son's name, an indefeasible title is presumed to vest in the boy; but when Kajiro Oyama arranges a similar transfer to Fred Oyama, the Alien Land Law interposes a presumption just to the contrary. Thus, as between the citizen children of a Chinese or English father and the citizen children of a Japanese father, there is discrimination; as between strangers taking from the same transferors, there appears to be none.

It is for this reason that Cockrill v. California, 1925, 268 U.S. 258, does not support the State's position. In that case an ineligible alien paid for land and had title put in a stranger's name, and this Court affirmed a decision upholding the statutory presumption of the Alien Land Law as there applied.

There remains the question of whether discrimination between citizens on the basis of their racial descent, as revealed in this case, is justifiable. Here we start with the proposition that only the most exceptional circumstances can excuse discrimination on that basis in the face of the equal protection clause and a federal statute giving all citizens the right to own land. In Hirabayashi v. United States this Court sustained a war measure which involved restrictions against citizens of Japanese descent. But the Court recognized that, as a general rule, 'distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.' 1943, 320 U.S. 81, 100, 1385. The only justification urged upon us by the State is that the discrimination is necessary to prevent evasion of the Alien Land Law's prohibition against the ownership of agricultural land by ineligible aliens. This reasoning presupposes the validity of that prohibition, a premise which we deem it unnecessary and therefore inappropriate to reexamine in this case. But assuming, for purposes of argument only, that the basic prohibition is constitutional, it does not follow that there is no constitutional limit to the means which may be used to enforce it. In the light most favorable to the State, this case presents a conflict between the State's right to formulate a policy of landholding within its bounds and the right of American citizens to own land anywhere in the United States. When these two rights clash, the rights of a citizen may not be subordinated merely because of his father's country of origin.

Since the view we take of petitioners' first contention requires reversal of the decision below, we do not reach their other contentions: that the Alien Land Law denies ineligible aliens the equal protection of the laws, and that failure to apply any limitations period to escheat actions under that law takes property without due process of law.



The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oyama v. California was rendered less than three years after the American victory over Japan in World War II, a conflict in which anti-Japanese feeling ran very high throughout the United States. The circumstances that led the state of California to initiate a seizure of the Oyama holdings related, in part, to the internment of the male Japanese population in California that had commenced in 1942. The Supreme Court ruling as reflected in both the majority and minority reasons for judgment is noteworthy in its absence of any reference to the recent and horrible conflict between the United States and Japan. Only the applicable legal principles are discussed, and this judicial focus gives the Oyama decision a particular clarity.

The majority position is one that would be advanced in numerous other post-war decisions of the Supreme Court, namely that the right of an individual to equality before the law pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment is a constitutional guarantee that usually triumphs over the ability of a state or other legally constituted local body to control its own processes. The court did not question the power of the state of California to determine how land would be owned within its jurisdiction, but the Supreme Court majority determined that the racial definitions tied to ownership by the state were a violation of the equality guaranteed to Fred Oyama, an American-born person. As the majority emphasized, the transaction that was the subject of the legal action would have been legal in California if Fred Oyama were of almost any other racial origin except Japanese.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represented Oyama at the Supreme Court. Founded in 1920, the ACLU was established as a national legal advocacy organization to advance the protection of individual civil liberties in a wide range of circumstances. The ACLU was counsel in a number of cases dealing with Japanese rights of property and citizenship that arose in the aftermath of World War II, of which the Oyama case was the most noteworthy.

One of the lawyers who appeared on behalf of Oyama before the Supreme Court is also a significant figure beyond the scope of the appeal proceeding. The ACLU approached prominent Washington lawyer Dean Acheson (1893–1971) to act as one of the counsels to argue the case. Acheson's participation in this appeal is significant on a number of levels, since Acheson was one of the most influential Democratic political figures of the post-war era. Acheson worked as Under Secretary of State from 1945 to 1947, and he was subsequently appointed Secretary of State in the Truman administration in 1949, serving in that post until 1953. Acheson was also a valued advisor in the Kennedy administration from 1961 to 1963. The securing of Acheson's services by the ACLU was a clear message to any observer that the issues at stake in the Oyama case should be considered as significant and deserving of attention.

The approach adopted by the majority of the Supreme Court in Oyama v. California towards the California Alien Land Law in 1948 was echoed in later judicial decisions dealing with race and the ability to own land. The most prominent examples are found in those cases where a challenge was made to the legality of a deed that contained a restrictive covenant. Restrictive covenants are a legal condition forming a part of the title to property where the title holder agrees that they will not take certain actions with respect to their property. Restrictive covenants were often created to prevent the conveyance of property to a designated class or classes of persons, with a goal of keeping such persons from owning property in a particular neighborhood.

Between 1900 and 1945 in various regions of the United States, restrictive covenants were commonly used to exclude persons of black, Jewish or other ethnicities from owning both residential and commercial properties. In May 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelley v. Kramer that such restrictive covenants were subject to the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Oyama decision was specifically cited by the Supreme Court as a basis for the principle that the use of a restrictive covenant to exclude certain racial or ethnic groups from owning land in a particular location was a violation of the prospective purchaser's property rights.



Daniels, Roger. Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1999.

Hirobe, Izumi. Japanese Pride, American Prejudice. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Web sites

Brown, Jay M. "When Military Necessity Overrides Constitutional Guarantees: The Treatment of Japanese Americans During World War II." Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. 〈http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1982/3/82.03.01.x.html〉 (accessed June 7, 2006).