“If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.” — Fred T. Korematsu (1919-2005)
Today is the 100th Birthday of Fred Korematsu, a Californian who challenged the constitutionality of the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.
Although Koresatsu lost his case in 1944, his fight against racism and for justice has been vindicated by history.
Let us celebrate the 100th anniversary of Fred Korematsu’s birth by learning his story, affirming our rejection of racism, and committing ourselves to stand up for what is right.
Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu was born in Oakland, California, on January 30, 1919, the third of four sons to Japanese-American parents Kakusaburo Korematsu and Kotsui Aoki, who immigrated to the United States in 1905. He attended public schools, participated in the Castlemont High School (Oakland, California) tennis and swim teams, and worked in his family’s flower nursery in nearby San Leandro, California.
When called for military duty under the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, Korematsu was rejected by the U.S. Navy due to stomach ulcers. Instead, he trained to become a welder in order to contribute his services to the defense effort. First, he worked as a welder at a shipyard. He went in one day to find his timecard missing; his coworkers hastily explained to him that he was Japanese so therefore he was not allowed to work there. He then found a new job, but was fired after a week when his supervisor returned from an extended vacation to find him working there. Because of his Japanese descent, Korematsu lost all employment completely following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
On March 27, 1942, General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Area, prohibited Japanese Americans from leaving the limits of Military Area No. 1, in preparation for their eventual evacuation to internment camps. Korematsu underwent plastic surgery on his eyelids in an unsuccessful attempt to pass as a Caucasian, changed his name to Clyde Sarah and claimed to be of Spanish and Hawaiian heritage.
On May 3, 1942, when General DeWitt ordered Japanese Americans to report on May 9 to Assembly Centers as a prelude to being removed to the internment camps, Korematsu refused and went into hiding in the Oakland area. He was arrested on a street corner in San Leandro on May 30, 1942. Shortly after Korematsu’s arrest, Ernest Besig, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in northern California, asked him whether he would be willing to use his case to test the legality of the Japanese American internment. Korematsu agreed.
Korematsu felt that “people should have a fair trial and a chance to defend their loyalty at court in a democratic way, because in this situation, people were placed in imprisonment without any fair trial.” On June 12, 1942, Korematsu had his trial date and was given $5,000 bail (equivalent to $76,670.06 in 2018). After Korematsu’s arraignment on June 18, 1942, Besig posted bail and he and Korematsu attempted to leave. When met by military police, Besig told Korematsu to go with them. The military police took Korematsu to the Presidio. Korematsu was tried and convicted in federal court on September 8, 1942, for a violation of Public Law No. 503, which criminalized the violations of military orders issued under the authority of Executive Order 9066, and was placed on five years’ probation.
He was taken from the courtroom and returned to the Tanforan Assembly Center, and thereafter he and his family were placed in the Central Utah War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah. As an unskilled laborer, he was eligible to receive only $12 per month (equivalent to $184.01 in 2018) for working eight-hour days at the camp. He was placed in a horse stall with a single light bulb, and later said “jail was better than this.”
When Korematsu’s family was moved to the Topaz internment camp, he later recalled feeling isolated because his imprisoned compatriots recognized him and many, if not most, of them felt that if they talked to him they would also be seen as troublemakers.
Korematsu then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which granted review on March 27, 1943, but upheld the original verdict on January 7, 1944. He appealed again and brought his case to the United States Supreme Court, which granted review on March 27, 1944. On December 18, 1944, the Court issued Korematsu v. United States, a 6–3 decision authored by Justice Hugo Black, in which the Court held that compulsory exclusion, though constitutionally suspect, was justified during circumstances of “emergency and peril.”
Dissenting Justice Frank Murphy criticized what he called a “legalization of racism. Justice Murphy added: “Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Dissenting Justice Robert H. Jackson, who later served as Chief US Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, wrote that “Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan. The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to this country. There is no suggestion that apart from the matter involved here he is not law abiding and well disposed. Korematsu, however, has been convicted of an act not commonly a crime. It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived. […] [H]is crime would result, not from anything he did, said, or thought, different than they, but only in that he was born of different racial stock. Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one’s antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him. But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign.”
After being released from the camp in Utah, Korematsu had to move east since the law would not allow former internees to move back westward. He moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he continued to fight racism. He still knew there were inequalities among the Japanese, since he experienced them in his everyday life. He found work repairing water tanks in Salt Lake City, but after three months on the job, he discovered he was being paid half of what his white coworkers were being paid. He told his boss that this was unfair and asked to be paid the same amount, but his boss only threatened to call the police and try to get him arrested just for being Japanese, so he left his job.
1942 editorial cartoon by Theodor Seuss Geisel (later author Dr. Seuss) depicting Japanese-Americans on the West Coast as prepared to conduct sabotage against the US.
After this incident, Korematsu lost hope, remaining quiet for over thirty years. His own daughter did not find out about what her father did until she was in high school. He moved to Detroit, Michigan, where his younger brother lived, and where he worked as a draftsman until 1949. He married Kathryn Pearson in Detroit on October 12, 1946. They returned to Oakland to visit his family in 1949 because his mother was ill. They did not intend to stay, but decided to after Kathryn became pregnant with their first child, Karen. His daughter was born in 1950, and a son, Ken, in 1954.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed a proclamation formally terminating Executive Order 9066 and apologizing for the internment, stated: “We now know what we should have known then—not only was that evacuation wrong but Japanese-Americans were and are loyal Americans. On the battlefield and at home the names of Japanese-Americans have been and continue to be written in history for the sacrifices and the contributions they have made to the well-being and to the security of this, our common Nation.”
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to investigate the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which concluded that the decisions to remove those of Japanese ancestry to prison camps occurred because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which had been sponsored by Representative Norman Mineta and Senator Alan K. Simpson. It provided financial redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee, totaling $1.2 billion.
In the early 1980s, while researching a book on internment cases, lawyer and University of California, San Diego professor Peter Irons came across evidence that Charles Fahy, the Solicitor General of the United States who argued Korematsu v. United States before the Supreme Court, had deliberately suppressed reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and military intelligence which concluded that Japanese-American citizens posed no security risk. These documents revealed that the military had lied to the Supreme Court, and that government lawyers had willingly made false arguments. Irons concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision was invalid since it was based on unsubstantiated assertions, distortions and misrepresentations. Along with a team of lawyers headed by Dale Minami, Irons petitioned for writs of error coram nobis with the federal courts, seeking to overturn Korematsu’s conviction.
On November 10, 1983, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of U.S. District Court in San Francisco formally vacated the conviction. Korematsu testified before Judge Patel, “I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color.” He also said, “If anyone should do any pardoning, I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese-American people.” Judge Patel’s ruling cleared Korematsu’s name, but was incapable of overturning the Supreme Court’s decision.
President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, to Korematsu in 1998, saying, “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls: Plessy, Brown, Parks … to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.” That year, Korematsu served as the Grand Marshal of San Francisco’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival parade.
A member and Elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, Korematsu was twice President of the San Leandro Lions Club, and for 15 years a volunteer with Boy Scouts of America, San Francisco Bay Council.
Korematsu spoke out after September 11, 2001, on how the United States government should not let the same thing happen to people of Middle-Eastern descent as what happened to Japanese Americans. When prisoners were detained at Guantanamo Bay for too long a period, in Korematsu’s opinion, he filed two amicus curiae briefs with the Supreme Court and warned them not to repeat the mistakes of the Japanese internment.
From 2001 until his death in 2005, Korematsu served on the Constitution Project’s bipartisan Liberty and Security Committee. Discussing racial profiling in 2004, he warned, “No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”
Fred Korematsu died of respiratory failure at his daughter’s home in Marin County, California, on March 30, 2005. One of the last things Korematsu said was, “I’ll never forget my government treating me like this. And I really hope that this will never happen to anybody else because of the way they look, if they look like the enemy of our country.” He also urged others to “protest, but not with violence, and don’t be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years.”
In 2018, in Trump v. Hawaii, the Supreme Court expressly declared that Korematsu’s case was wrongly decided. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—’has no place in law under the Constitution,” quoting Justice Jackson’s dissent in Korematsu v. United States.