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In Celebration of Fred Korematsu Day: Remembering Japanese American Incarceration

January 27, 2021

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, setting into motion the forced removal of 120,000 persons of Japanese descent living in the United States—often referred to as the Japanese Internment—in the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. These 120,000 people—a majority of them American citizens—were scattered across 10 incarceration camps in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado.

Among the incarcerated were members of my family.

Like many others, my family was first sent to an assembly center and then forced to an incarceration camp, many of which were simple dirt-floored horse stalls still offering the stench of fresh manure. These paper-thin, desolate barracks were surrounded by barbed-wire fences, with military police perched in watchtowers, weapons trained on the perceived enemies within instead of pointing outward to protect the majority-American internees whose only crime was their Japanese descent.

Camp life offered no privacy, with cramped living spaces, shared bathrooms, and communal mess halls. These poorly constructed mini-cities were created for the exclusive purpose of imprisoning anyone—including US citizens—who was at least 1/16 Japanese and therefore deemed a threat to national security. The order gave little criteria other than Japanese descent, and thus the souls pressed into these squalid conditions included the elderly and sick, families and children, and even orphan babies.

Both of my grandparents were born in Southern California and lived there for their entire lives, except for the years surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My grandmother, one of seven children, and her parents were removed from their home in San Diego and taken to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, more commonly known as the Santa Anita racetrack, just outside of Los Angeles. From there, the government forced them to the Poston War Relocation Center, where my grandmother attended Poston III high school, one of three high schools that served Poston’s more than 17,000 incarcerated. She graduated as salutatorian—a fact I only recently learned, years after she had passed.

My grandfather’s family, from Los Angeles, was also first relocated to the Santa Anita racetrack. From there, they were forced to Rohwer, Arkansas, where well-known actor George Takei was also incarcerated and lived in the same block as my great grandparents. But my grandfather was not incarcerated with his parents and siblings. Instead, like thousands of young Japanese American men, he was drafted into the US Army before the evacuation, and served from 1941 to 1945. After the war, my grandfather continued his writing career and served as a journalist, historian, and archivist for the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization that helped to secure the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations as well as a formal apology for those the government had unjustly incarcerated.

Most of the incarceration camps were closed in 1945, with each of the surviving persons receiving only $25 and a train ticket home. Despite regaining their freedom, many had lost their jobs, belongings, and property. With little to return home to and anti-Japanese racism festering in the country, it was a near insurmountable task for the affected Japanese Americans to rebuild the lives that the US government had ripped away.

While tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were being removed from their homes and incarcerated in barracks around the country, many took to the courts questioning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. Hirabayashi v. United States and Yasui v. United States both challenged the constitutionality of curfews imposed on Japanese Americans and others of Japanese ancestry. At the time, the US Supreme Court upheld both of these men’s convictions for violating the discriminatory curfews.

Perhaps the most notable of these actions was Korematsu v. United States filed by Fred Korematsu, the civil rights activist we now celebrate on January 30. Korematsu took dramatic steps to avoid the horrific incarceration camps—including surgery to alter his eyes to appear less Japanese, and even changing his name. Despite his efforts, in May 1942, Korematsu was arrested and convicted of defying the government’s order. Firmly believing that his conviction was unconstitutional, Korematsu ultimately appealed his case to the US Supreme Court, which ruled against him, holding that the incarceration of the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans was justified due to military necessity.

Over 40 years later, each of the cases described above was revisited when historical documents surfaced proving that the government had hidden or falsified evidence. Each man filed a petition for a writ of coram nobis, an extraordinary remedy that allows the court to vacate a prior judgment for fundamental errors of fact that render the underlying proceedings invalid. In a stunning stroke of delayed justice, all of their convictions were vacated.

Today, most Americans probably cannot fathom the government forcing them to leave their homes, businesses, and schools solely based on their nationality. But for my family and the families of thousands of other Japanese Americans, it was a brutal reality—in the not-so-distant past.

Korematsu remained a committed activist fighting injustice throughout his life. His story is celebrated each year so that his legacy and the stories of those 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry are not forgotten. For many, Fred Korematsu Day serves as a reminder that only a few generations ago, a president abused executive power to rip American citizens from their homes and incarcerate them with no justification other than that they were Japanese. But the day also reminds us that we must always be resilient in the face of injustice and racial prejudice, and must continue to actively work toward a world of true equality, freedom, and justice for all.

In 2019, in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Morgan Lewis hosted Karen Korematsu, founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute and daughter of the late Fred Korematsu; and Dale Minami, lead lawyer in the Korematsu coram nobis case, to share their perspectives on the groundbreaking action and legacy of Fred Korematsu. Find out more about Fred Korematsu and the Fred T. Korematsu Institute.