Fred Korematsu, Unjustly Imprisoned American

Fred Korematsu was born in Oakland, California in 1919. His parents Kotsui and Kakusaburo had emigrated from Japan fourteen years ago to start a new life for themselves in America, setting up a plant nursery in Oakland and having four sons. Fred was the third son – his parents named him Toyosaburo, but he was given the name Fred by a teacher who found his birth name too difficult. Fred didn’t mind – he liked his new name, and it was by choice that he kept it for the rest of his life. Perhaps it made him feel less like an outsider – America in the 20s and 30s was not a kind place to non-whites, even children. One incident that stuck in Fred’s head was when in 1934, when the army recruitment officers came to his high school. They were giving out leaflets, but wouldn’t give him one. They had been ordered, they told him, to only recruit white boys.

That those men were just following orders became clear to Fred five years later. The outbreak of war between Germany and the British-French alliance made it clear to many that America would sooner or later be pulled into the conflict. Fred wanted to do his bit, so he volunteered at a Navy recruitment station. Unfortunately the fact that Germany and Japan were allies was a solid black mark against even a “Nisei” (second generation immigrant) like Fred. Ostensibly they rejected him for stomach ulcers, but he was always sure it was because of his racial heritage.

Fred Korematsu - headstuff.org
Fred Korematsu as a young man. Source

The rejection bit deeply because Fred always considered himself an American, and was proud to be one. But he was already in conflict with other social norms of the time. His girlfriend Ida Boitano was, like him, the daughter of immigrants. But her parents were Italian, and she was white. The laws in California at the time made it illegal for the pair to marry. There were states where it was legal, and the pair talked about moving and marrying. In the meantime, Fred trained as a welder and got a job working on ships. Until one day he came in and found out that it had been decided he was a security risk, so he didn’t have a job any more. He got a new job, which he’d only had a week when the foreman came back from holiday, saw him, and fired him immediately. Fred continued trying to find work with little success up until December 7th, 1941. That was the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, and there was no work for someone named Korematsu after that.

Racism stoked by fear led the American government to decide in early 1942 to imprison every person of Japanese ancestry living in America. While it was normal to imprison the citizens of countries that the USA was at war with, what made this different was that even American citizens of Japanese descent were considered “enemy aliens”. (The vast number of Americans of German ancestry were in general subject to no such stigma, though they had been during World War I.) General John DeWitt drew up plans to relocate all ethnically Japanese people away from the West Coast and into specially prepared camps. Over a hundred thousand people were affected by these plans, some for merely possessing a Japanese great-great-grandparent.

Kakusaburo and Kotsui Korematsu along with three of their sons went along with these new rules. But Fred alone decided that he had had enough. Fred received the letter telling him to report to the “welcome centre”, but he wasn’t going to go. He went underground instead. He and Ida found a sympathetic doctor who operated on Fred’s eyelids to reduce his Japanese appearance, and forged papers with a new identity as a Hawaiian named “Clyde Sarah”. The pair planned to move east, to a less suspicious area and get married. But it wasn’t to be. On May 30th they were walking down a street in San Leandro when a policeman stopped Fred on suspicion of being Japanese. His papers didn’t stand inspection, and he was arrested and charged with violating a military order.

Ernest Besig - headstuff.org
Ernest Besig. Source

Ernest Besig had been working with the ACLU since he moved to California. In 1935 he had become the executive director of their Northern California branch, and had worked to support immigrants, labor organisers and Jehovah’s Witnesses. [1] When the executive order authorising the imprisonment of Japanese Americans was issued, Ernest rightly saw it as a huge human rights violation and was eager to take it on. In this he did not have the backing of the ACLU as a whole – in fact the national organisation ordered him not to challenge the order as they didn’t want to be thought of as disloyal. Ernest ignored them, though. He visited Fred in jail and asked him if he would be willing to challenge his arrest in order to act as a test case for the order. Fred agreed.

The federal response was predictably vicious. Fred’s relationship with Ida was one of its victims – though she had initially stood by him when he went on the run, questioning by the FBI (and veiled threats that as an Italian-American she too could be imprisoned) led her to break off the engagement. Fred never saw her again. This wasn’t the only act of petty viciousness from the authorities. At his first hearing, Fred was given a bail of $5000. Ernest posted the bail and Fred should have been allowed to leave custody – but instead Fred was taken under guard to a military prison instead. Unsurprisingly, when Fred’s case went to trial in September (with an ACLU lawyer – the organisation had relented and backed Ernest’s play) he was found guilty of violating a military order. The judge was sympathetic and stated that he disagreed with the order, but it was clear that Fred had defied it. His sentence was only five years probation, but it didn’t matter. He was going to the camps regardless.

The Topaz War Relocation Centre - headstuff.org
The Topaz War Relocation Centre.

Fred and the rest of the Korematsu family were imprisoned in the Topaz War Relocation Centre, a concentration camp [2] in Utah. There Fred worked a full forty hour week for $12 a month. He wasn’t popular in the camp, as most inmates avoided him for fear of being tarred with the troublemaker brush. A lot of them hoped to be able to get their freedom, and some did. Four hundred and fifty men from the camps would go to fight in Europe, for example. Fred was determined to keep fighting, though. In March of 1943 he was granted a right to appeal, just before Camp Topaz went into crisis. James Wakasa, a prisoner at the camp, was walking his dog when a guard in a tower fired a warning shot to let him know he was coming too close to the fence. The “warning” shot struck Wakasa in the chest and killed him. The reports in the newspapers claimed he had been trying to escape, though the court martial showed this to be false. The soldier was cleared anyway. The camp residents raised a memorial to the dead James Wakasa after his funeral, but the army forced them to take it down.

Fred’s appeal wasn’t heard until January of 1944. Fred’s appeal was based on the ground that the original order was unconstitutional, but the court disagreed. He was allowed to appeal to the Supreme Court, but that wasn’t heard until December of 1944. By that time people were already being released from the camps, but the Supreme Court still ruled (in a 6-3 split) that based on the Army’s claims of Japanese-American disloyalty the imprisonment was a “military necessity”. To this day that decision casts a shadow across US law. As one of the judges wrote in their dissent:

The Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination … The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.

Fred Korematsu and his family - headstuff.org
Fred with his family in Oakland.

Fred carried a great deal of guilt for this decision, as he had clearly hoped that a win would validate his struggle. When the war ended he and his fellow detainees were all released, though Fred was still under probation from his conviction and had a felony on his record. He stayed in Utah, as he wasn’t allowed to return to California at that time. There he got a job repairing water tanks – until he was fired for complaining about getting half the pay of the white workers. He moved to Detroit where his younger brother lived, and found new love. Kathryn Pearson was a student at Wayne State University when she met Fred. The laws in Michigan (unlike those in California) allowed the two to get married, and they did in 1949. A return visit to Oakland to see Fred’s parents became extended when Karen found out she was pregnant, and the two settled there permanently.

Fred and Kathryn had two children together, a daughter named Karen in 1950 and a son named Ken in 1954. They were raised without any knowledge of their father’s past, as he never spoke of the camps. Karen found out about them, and her father’s role in their history, in 1963 when a friend of hers gave a book report about the camps that mentioned the “Korematsu v. the United States” case. As the surname was relatively uncommon one, she asked her mother when she got home if it meant one of her uncles. She was shocked to find out that it was actually her father. His federal conviction affected their lives in other ways, too. He studied to become a realtor but after completing his exams he found out that a federal offense disqualified him from having a real estate license in California.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when kids like Karen and her friend had grown up, that the US began to face up to its own wartime sins. The case of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments, for example, shocked public opinion out of their conviction of American righteousness during the years of the “greatest generation”. President Gerald Ford had fought in the Pacific against the Japanese, but in later years he was well known for trying to rebuild ties with them. His official statement in 1976 that Japanese-American internment had been “a national mistake” was the first official acknowledgement of this fact. The Japanese-American Citizen’s League had been pushing for this since 1970, and with Ford’s acknowledgement in mind, they began to push for formal redress and reparations. This led to a formal government investigation being launched in 1980, though it wasn’t until 1988 that this led to a formal apology from Congress and the payment of monetary compensation to survivors of the camps.

Fred Korematsu - headstuff.org
Fred Korematsu in the 1970s. Source

It was while that investigation was ongoing that Peter Irons, a university professor in San Diego, made a shocking discovery. While researching a book on internment cases he found evidence that the government’s lawyers had deliberately suppressed evidence in “Korematsu v. the United States”. They had requested reports from the FBI and military intelligence to back up their assertion that Japanese-Americans were a security risk. But the reports had not shown this and in fact had undermined the entire basis for the executive order. Rather than present these to the court the government’s legal team had suppressed them (and even destroyed some of the documents), and then military intelligence officials had given testimony that Japanese-Americans were a security risk despite knowing about the reports. In other words, Fred should have won his appeals case.

In 1983, on the basis of governmental misconduct, Fred’s case was reopened. The State Department, hoping to avoid embarrassment, offered Fred a pardon if he would drop the case. He refused, of course. That wasn’t what this was about. This was about purging the guilt and shame he’d been carrying for forty years. So he and his legal team (all top civil rights lawyers working pro bono) took their case to court. Fred took the stand during the case, and made a statement.

According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case, being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one, otherwise they say you can’t tell a difference between a loyal and a disloyal American. I thought that this decision was wrong and I still feel that way…Therefore, 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.

Fred Korematsu won his case. On November 10th 1983, his conviction was officially vacated. His name was cleared, and his federal record was expunged. It wasn’t a total victory – the Supreme Court ruling still stood, as no lesser court could overturn that. In principle, it was still considered constitutional to imprison people without trial based on ethnic origin during wartime. In practice, Fred’s victory left a considerably-sized question mark next to the ruling. How much of an impact it had though won’t be known until and unless a new similar case goes to the Supreme Court for judgment.

Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu - headstuff.org
Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu

Two other Japanese-Americans had openly resisted the wartime order and had been convicted for it. Minoru Yasui had been the first of them to be convicted when he openly defied the curfews that preceded internment. A lawyer who had worked with the Japanese Consulate before the law, he wanted to test the constitutionality of the order. Gordon Hirabayashi’s case was similar, though his decision to defy the order was based on his religious conviction – he was a Quaker, with their long tradition of non-violent protest. Both of their cases were also impacted by the misconduct Peter Irons had exposed, and so both were also able to have their convictions overturned soon after Fred’s.

Gordon and Minoru had simply defied curfews, though. Fred was the one who had actually tried to evade the unjust imprisonment, and so he became for many the face of the effort to win reparations for those in the camps. With his pride restored, it was a job he took on with gusto. After President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that compensated the Japanese-Americans (and the Aleut) who had been imprisoned during World War 2. In addition the bill acknowledged that the camps had been a mistake, and promised to educate the American people to prevent a similar movement to put people in camps based on their ethnicity or beliefs happening again. [3]

Fred continued to remain active in the civil rights movement after this victory. In 1998 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton to mark his contributions to making America a more civilised country. He continued to do so into the 21st century, filing amicus briefs on behalf of the prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay. Like many, he was afraid that the same persecution that had been perpetrated on those of Japanese descent would be leveled at those of Middle Eastern descent. 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 - headstuff.org
Fred Korematsu with his Presidential Medal of Freedom. Source

Fred Korematsu died in March of 2005 two months after his 86th birthday. He was buried in Oakland, where he’d lived for most of his life, with a replica of his Medal of Freedom on his tombstone. After his death several schools and streets were renamed in his memory, and in 2009 (twenty five years after his conviction was overturned) his daughter Karen and the Asian Law Cactus launched the Fred Korematsu Institute to carry on his work. Among other things, they lobbied for the state to make Fred’s birthday a state holiday and succeeded. On January 30th 2011, on what would have been Fred’s 92nd birthday, the first “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” was celebrated. Nowadays nine other states have joined California in this holiday. Scholarships, museum exhibits and even a Google Doodle in 2017 all also honour his legacy. Fred Korematsu spent forty years carrying the shame of feeling that he could have stopped the great crime of internment and failed. Now his legacy stands as a condemnation of those who might repeat those heinous crimes today.

Images via wikimedia except where stated.

[1] Due to their belief that they owe their allegiance to God and not to a country, the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in saluting the American flag. This led to conflicts with schools where saluting the flag was compulsory. The ACLU defended their right to refrain from doing so on First Amendment grounds.

[2] The use of “concentration camp” to describe Topaz and similar camps was initially somewhat controversial. However it was agreed by the Japanese American National Museum and the American Jewish Committee that it was an accurate term, as “a concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are”.

[3] How successful that effort has been you can judge for yourself.