From Isolation to Inspiration

Monday, August 31, 2020

Morgan Lewis partner Joan Haratani accepted the 2020 Amel Zenoune-Zouani Rights & Leadership Award by the International Action Network for Gender Equity & Law, which honors individuals who have achieved professional excellence and have worked to promote women's rights, social justice, and gender equality. Joan is a longtime leader in the Asian American legal community and served as the first woman of color elected president of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Joan is the first to recognize that her career started in a Japanese American incarceration camp. Her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all were held for seven months in a horse stall at the Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California before being sent to a ramshackle camp in Wyoming. Joan studied at the feet of civil rights giants Don Tamaki and Dale Minami, who helped overturn the conviction of Fred Korematsu, the Japanese American whose case challenging World War II internment was heard by the US Supreme Court.

As we remember the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender during WWII (announced on August 15 and formally signed on September 2, 1945), Joan reflects on her family’s history and how that spurred a career of fighting for equality and diversity in the legal profession.

Joan, you have an incredibly interesting personal and family history. How does that inform your views of the world currently confronted by women and people of color?

One interesting feature of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is that it has caused many people to experience, probably for the first time in their lives, what marginalized people have known as reality for centuries. Time drags, overshadowed by the fear, anger, frustration, loneliness, and isolation of living surrounded by an oppressor.

That echoes what happened to my own family. Seventy-eight years ago, the US government gave my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles 24 hours to abandon their homes, taking only what they could carry, and herded them off to a destination and a fate unknown. It was the beginning of the mass evacuation of Japanese Americans in World War II.

Joan’s mother’s family is photographed in front of their pagoda-modeled home in Mountain View.
Joan’s mother’s family is photographed in front of their pagoda-modeled home in Mountain View.

My mom, who had just turned 14, vividly remembers her dog, Patty, running after her as authorities forced the family out of their home south of San Francisco. Her older brother remembers a different scene, as the coaches and players on his Stanford basketball team refused to show up to say goodbye to him, branding him a traitor to the country. After nine months jammed together in a horse stall at the Santa Anita racetrack in Southern California, the government sent them to a ramshackle camp in Wyoming. It was surrounded by barren mountains, attacked by blistering winds, and patrolled by armed guards.

Joan’s mother Claire Funabiki is pictured as a teenager after the war.
Joan’s mother Claire Funabiki is pictured as a teenager after the war.

In spite of this treatment, my dad and my uncles later joined the US Army. My Uncle Joe, in fact, served in the legendary 442nd Infantry Regiment fighting in Europe. It became the most highly decorated unit of its size in US military history.

My grandfather was a Methodist minister who dedicated much of his ministry to the Bay Area's Japanese American community. My father and mother, who were native-born American citizens, overcame the emotional damage of incarceration during World War II to become a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a medical transcriptionist for the Veterans Administration, respectively. My dad also was one of the founders of the Concerned Minority Citizens League of Livermore, which started in the 1970s to address growing racial tension in the small California ranching community.

I grew up hearing these stories. And while they included an underlying sense of betrayal, guilt, and anger, the overarching message from my family was the hope that the world could change. The history of my relatives provides a powerful reservoir of courage for me that I draw from to speak truth to power and to try to do one thing—just one thing—every day to build equality and justice.  

Joan pictured as a child with her sister Lea and their parents.
Joan pictured as a child with her sister Lea and their parents.

How does that translate into advice you can offer other leaders?

Leaders need to reach back to help pull up those who are following them in climbing that ladder of success. I firmly believe my family was the first to do that for me, but I’ve also had the benefit of being sponsored and mentored by so many greats. Kamala Harris was the driving force behind my becoming the first female minority president of the Bar Association of San Francisco. It only took us 130 years to get to that point, but with Kamala’s help, we did it.

Jami McKeon, who blazed trails of her own as a female chair of a global Big Law firm, convinced me to join Morgan Lewis by telling me she and the firm support strong women like me. Dale Minami and Don Tamaki, two men who are civil rights giants, have mentored me every step of the way.

While each of these mentors taught me in their own way, there are a few enduring lessons I try to share in my own work. Give practical advice. Put in a good word. Listen and open your heart. The point is to have conversations with those who you would like to have follow in your footsteps because eventually they will no longer be following—they will be leading.

This is especially poignant as this year marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony. While we’ve made great strides, there is still much to do to ensure gender, in addition to racial, equality. So for younger women, you deserve every bit of success that this world can offer you. You deserve a seat at the table. You add value and your insights are necessary. That means you will have to take some informed risks, which also means you have to believe in yourself and have the courage to take those risks. At the same time, don’t be afraid to reach out to your mentors for advice. Watch, learn, and then take action.