“Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up.”

January 30th was Fred Korematsu Day, a day recognized in ten states honoring the memory of Fred Korematsu, a leader that the Japanese American community esteems just as much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr is esteemed in the mainstream.

Who was he and what did he do? The short story is that he opposed President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, the one establishing internment camps for enemies of America, which the executors interpreted as applying to all Japanese Americans.

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An exhibit on the Executive order at the Small Documents Gallery at the National Museum of American History.

Let’s back up a little bit. On February 19, 1942, which was ten weeks after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, President FDR signed Executive Order 9066. EO 9066 authorized the removal of people from military areas “as deemed necessary or desirable.” The military defined the West Coast as a military area and deemed it necessary to remove all people of Japanese ancestry or nationality from that area. The result of the EO was that Japanese Americans were forced to inland to secure facilities – the Internment/Incarceration camps. Please note: Nowhere did the Executive Order single out the Japanese, and several thousand Germans, Jews (the religious practice, not the ethnicity), and Italians were also interned, but they were about 13,000 in number, compared to the 120,000 Japanese.

Enter Fred Korematsu, who refused to voluntarily report to an assembly center (from which the Japanese Americans were tagged and put on trains to the camps inland). He tried hiding, but was later arrested. The ACLU asked him if he would be interested in using his case to question the legality of the Japanese removal. His trial went up to the Supreme Court, which maintained his conviction. “On December 18, 1944, in a 6–3 decision, authored by Justice Hugo Black, the Court held that compulsory exclusion, though constitutionally suspect, is justified during circumstances of “emergency and peril”.[c]   (Because remember, in 1944, America was still very much at War both in the Pacific and the Atlantic.)

The dissenting opinion:

… three justices saw a clear violation of Korematsu’s constitutional rights. Justice Owen Roberts, who had previously upheld Hirabayashi’s curfew restrictions, made it clear that Korematsu’s was “not a case of keeping people off the streets at night.” The Supreme Court was about to “convict a citizen…for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on ancestry, and solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the United States.” The contradictory nature of the exclusion orders, making him a criminal if he stayed in the military area where he lived and later, if he left, were “nothing but a cleverly devised trap to accomplish the real purpose of the military authority, which was to lock him up in a concentration camp.”[5]

Korematsu, having lost his case, ended up at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah. His family was there as well, but it was still a lonely experience, as the other internees were reluctant to associate with him. Many of them thought the way to show their patriotism was through compliance with the authorities, and they did not want to be seen as troublemakers by association.


On display at the National Museum of American History – addressing the court cases

After the war, he tried to continue to fight anti-Japanese racism, but eventually gave up. Fast forward to 1976, when President Gerald Ford formally terminated and apologized for Executive Order 9066. “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.” A few years after that, a law professor discovered that the military had lied to the Supreme Court, facilitating Korematsu’s conviction. In 1983, the conviction was overturned, and in 1998, Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his civil rights work.


There were a lot of similar legal cases during World War 2 and afterwards, including Gordon Hirabayashi and Mitsuye Endo. Their cases are also fairly nuanced and, when combined with Korematsu’s, provide an interesting perspective of these events. To summarize them would take twice as much space as this post itself so go read the links. It’s why they’re there.

Fred Korematsu’s civil rights legacy lives on in the Fred Korematsu Institute, an organization founded by his daughter Karen to “advance racial equality, social justice, and human rights for all.” Initially local, their work is now national and Fred Korematsu Day, January 30, seeks to recognize his work and celebrate his birthday every year, much like how January 15 (or the nearest Monday) honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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I was surprised on January 30 that the Google doodle recognized Korematsu, which to me seemed like a niche topic. It was even more intriguing – on a “the universe is doing a thing” level – that it happened to be the same time as some things were coming out of the White House about who can and can’t travel to America for 90 days. I never really know how to react when those “history repeats itself” moments happen, especially when they happen with such forcefulness.

I don’t really know what the Fred Korematsu Institute does to achieve its mission, which is similar to not knowing what the King estate does to continue his mission. I guess they go around the country speaking? Do the impacts each man had on the country have equivalency? Do their experiences with racism have equivalency? Does it matter?

He urged others to protest – peacefully – and “don’t be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years.”








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