Infamously, on December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, drawing the Americans into World War II. Public opinion, fueled partly by racist journalism and government propaganda, turned against Japanese residents living in the United States, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. Fred Korematsu finds his white barber will not cut his hair, and the parents of his white girlfriend forbid her from dating Korematsu. His family, hardworking flower nursery owners, are incarcerated first in a horse stable converted into a prison at Tanforan, California, and then shipped to a concentration camp in Topaz, Utah.
This cautionary tale examines the extremes a government, its officials, and people will go when fear and racism combine to subvert rights guaranteed by our Constitution to its citizens and residents. As with Japanese Americans in 1942, after September 11, 2001, Muslim Americans were identified with (“looked like”) the terrorists who struck the World Trade Center and subjected to similar race-based discrimination and unfair treatment.
In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, making the West Coast a military area and allowing the Secretary of War and the military commander to protect this area from espionage and sabotage. This order provided a basis for General John L. DeWitt to round up Japanese Americans living in the West Coast. About 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in numerous concentration camps for up to three years.
My own mother was a student at UCLA beginning in 1939. Her family moved inland to avoid being rounded up. It didn’t work, and she confided to me that it was the saddest day when she had to leave her bed behind. She spent three years in the concentration camp at Poston, Arizona, where my sister and I were born. She told me that any longer and she would have made a dash to escape. It is very hard indeed to think of my mother as an enemy of the state. She was trained to behave properly and she was formidable at it.
What was Fred Korematsu’s response to these difficult times? He was an ordinary high school student. He decided to defy the government’s order and was arrested on May 30, 1942. Who were his allies? What remedies did the legal system offer? An ACLU lawyer named Ernest Besig represented Korematsu to challenge the government’s right to arrest and incarcerate him without proper evidence. The case took many years to advance through the courts until December 18, 1944, when the US Supreme Court found it was lawful and constitutional to imprison Korematsu. Three justices voted against the decision.
Only after many years and fact-finding efforts in the National Archives by Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and Professor Peter Irons did a federal court in San Francisco find that the government lawyers had lied and presented false evidence. Utilizing a writ of coram nobis (a legal procedure allowing a court to reopen and correct a judgment), lawyers for Korematsu proved the government’s “evidence” that Japanese Americans had committed acts of espionage and were a threat to national security was fabricated.
In fact, the evidence in the archives proved the opposite: Japanese Americans were not a threat and did not commit acts of espionage. The Supreme Court decision, which relied on the government’s fabricated evidence, is now widely regarded as “discredited,” but technically has never been overruled and still stands as precedent. Will the new administration seek to rely on it for the measures the president has promised to implement against Muslims?
Beginning with the reopening of his case, Fred Korematsu began to speak out. He said to the court, “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.” Korematsu spoke up for himself and for all Japanese Americans. It was not easy, but Korematsu fought to make the United States, his country, a fairer place. Five years after Korematsu won his case, Japanese-American activists convinced the federal government to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. My mother said she never thought she would ever see the day when she received a letter from George H. W. Bush apologizing for her incarceration and a check for $20,000. Korematsu went on to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The young reader of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is challenged to consider the difficult decisions faced by Japanese Americans during World War II. Many members of the Japanese-American community thought Korematsu was wrong in challenging the government and subsequently shunned him. After the war ended, Korematsu never spoke about his humiliation, not even to his own children. It was only after his case and others were successful in the courts that the public began to become aware of Fred Korematsu’s case.
Fred Korematsu’s story compels us to think about the complicated balance between the desire for security and civil liberty. The US Constitution lists the rights and freedoms that all American citizens have, but throughout this nation’s history these rights have been denied to people based on their race, ancestry, and beliefs. The authors of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up offer many important examples from American history and ask what actions individuals and groups should take in the face of such unfairness.
This book also brings into focus the lives of those who have confronted the government when it imposed racist laws and unfair policies, including the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. It describes and defines for the young reader the processes, both legal and extralegal, that individuals and groups can utilize to challenge those who seek to deny the rights and freedoms guaranteed by American citizenship. The book ends with several resources and websites for young activists on how to make a difference when faced with unfairness and how to take action.
The relevance of the themes in Fred Korematsu Speaks Up in today’s world is unmistakable. Officials in elected high office — indeed, the highest elected office — are considering registering Muslims and already limiting their rights of movement. This book gives young readers, their parents, and their teachers a suitable way to create a meaningful discussion of these important public policies that affect us all. Best of all, young readers might even be inspired by this book to take action to change public policy. Korematsu’s is an important story and should be part of our national educational curriculum.
Eileen Kurahashi is a graduate of the USC Gould School of Law and practiced law in Los Angeles for 20 years. She was formerly a Trustee at the Japanese American National Museum.