Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu, the civil rights activist and American Hero who challenged Executive Order 9066, a mandate issued by President Roosevelt that imprisoned Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II all the way to the Supreme Court, lost, but was vindicated forty years later, died Wednesday, March 30, 2005. He was 86.
Korematsu, who President Bill Clinton described as “helping to widen the circle of democracy by fighting for human rights, by righting social wrongs, and by empowering others to achieve,” died of respiratory failure at his daughter’s home in Larkspur, CA, said his attorney Dale Minami.
His path to legal vindication was the basis for the Emmy-winning 2002 PBS documentary Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story, co-produced by Eric Paul Fournier and Korematsu’s son, Ken Korematsu. Taking a look back at Korematsu’s challenge of the wartime incarceration of Japanese American citizens, the film follows his long ordeal to achieve personal justice and portrays his courage during and after the war while exploring the constitutional significance of his controversial landmark Supreme Court case.
An American citizen by birth, the 23-year old welder was among 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In the ensuing months, the Army issued orders rounding up these Americans into 10 Internment camps, each surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun towers and located in desolate regions from California to Arkansas.
Korematsu’s family was taken to Tanforan, a former racetrack south of San Francisco for processing, but he refused to go. Waiting until after the exclusion order deadline passed, he had plastic surgery to disguise his Asian features and lived his life with his Italian financee as a free man under the name Clyde Sarah until May 30, 1942, when he was arrested on a street corner in San Leandro, just south of Oakland.
Tried and convicted for failing to report for evacuation, he was relocated with his family to an internment camp in Topaz, UT, where he was ostracized by the Japanese American community for dodging the relocation order. Appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court, the court ruled against him, citing the simple reason that “we’re at war with Japan,” on December 18, 1944. For nearly forty years, Korematsu lived in silence with his criminal record, his own daughter Karen only became aware of the case when the Korematsu vs. United States case was taught in one of her high school classes.
Fred Korematsu’s fate seemed lost to the history books until 1981, when Peter Irons, a law professor writing a book about the internment, and Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig, a Japanese American researching government archives, happened upon wartime memos written in 1943 and 1944 by Edward Ennis, the Justice Department attorney responsible for supervising the drafting of the government’s brief. As Ennis began searching for evidence to support the Army’s claim that the Internment was necessary and justified, he found precisely the opposite — that J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, the FCC, the Office of Naval Intelligence and other authoritative intelligence agencies categorically denied that Japanese Americans had committed any wrong. Other memoranda characterized the government’s claims that Japanese Americans were spying as “intentional falsehoods.” These official reports were never presented to the Supreme Court, having been intentionally suppressed and, in one case, destroyed by setting the report afire.
Peter Irons knew he found a “smoking gun,” and tracked down Korematsu and the other two resisters- Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui– to ask about reopening their cases. Irons contacted noted civil rights attorney Dale Minami, who assembled a team of lawyers–mostly Asian American led by Karen Kai, Don Tamaki and Minami, who worked countless hours pro bono.
Recalls Minami, “Peter Irons called me in May of 1982 and told me about the evidence he had found. I had read these cases in law school, but for me they were taught as intellectual exercises about the balance of rights and due process. At that time Korematsu vs United States was not linked to human tragedy, loss of homes, broken dreams, or financial losses of income that people suffered. I called my colleague Don Tamaki at the Asian Law Caucus, a community interest law firm that I helped start, and disclosed the nature of the evidence. A number of attorneys I was working with had already been lobbying for redress for Japanese Americans. We worked in secrecy because we didn’t want any documents to ‘accidentally’ disappear from the archives.”
During the litigation, Justice Department lawyers offered a pardon to Korematsu if he would agree to drop his lawsuit. In rejecting the offer, Kathryn Korematsu, his wife of 58 years remarked “Fred was not interested in a pardon from the government; instead, he always felt that it was the government who should seek a pardon from him and from Japanese Americans for the wrong that was committed.”
On Jan. 19, 1983, the attorneys filed a writ of Coram Nobis–the legal term for a fundamental injustice committed before the court and discovered only after a sentence has been serviced. Korematsu’s legal team argued that government prosecutors suppressed, altered, and destroyed evidence presented to justify the convictions of the internment resisters. They also argued that the government committed fraud in prosecuting Korematsu because there was no reason to imprison Japanese Americans in internment camps. Personal justice came for Korematsu on November 10, 1983, when his war time criminal conviction was voided.
Minami recalled, “The decision was beautifully crafted. Immediately after our argument, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the US District Court of the Northern District of California made her ruling. She overturned Fred’s conviction and held that there was no military necessity for the military orders, that the military commander who issued the orders maintained views tainted by racism and that the United States Government had illegally suppressed, altered and destroyed evidence critical to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in 1944. The decision resounded in the ceremonial courtroom filled with about 800 people, mostly Japanese Americans. This was the trial they never had and after the decision the crowd erupted with applause, tears, and sniffling. I walked over to Fred after she announced her decision. Fred looked shell-shocked. And he asked, ‘What happened?’ I told him, ‘We won. You won your case.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘ That’s good.’ It took a while for it to sink in.”
In 1998, in the East Room of the White House, Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. President Clinton praised his act of defiance as an “extraordinary stand” and his introduction of Korematsu reflects the significance of his achievements: “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.”
According to attorney Dale Minami, “The Korematsu case is considered one of the most important legal cases in civil and minority rights. In 1942 when Japanese Americans were taken away, nobody stood for them. Some of the most liberal groups in the country-the ACLU in New York failed to take a stand for them; the National Lawyer’s Guild refused. In 1987 when redress was passed, and 1988 when the bill was signed by President Reagan, Japanese Americans had a lot of allies, they did not stand alone. In addition to revealing the injustice of the internment, the decision was also significant in its relation to the redress movement which led to the passage of a bill awarding $20,000 in reparations and a formal apology from the government to each of the surviving internees.”
Korematsu was the recipient of honorary doctorates from the University of San Francisco, California State University Hayward, McGeorge School of Law, and the City University of New York Law School, in addition to official recognition from the California State Senate.
Fred T. Korematsu, a longtime resident of San Leandro, CA is survived by his wife, Kathryn, his daughter, Karen Korematsu-Haigh, and his son, Ken Korematsu. Supporting her father’s interest in civil rights, his daughter helped to found the Korematsu Civil Rights Fund sponsored by the Asian Law Caucus, the oldest Asian American public interest law firm in the nation. Karen remarked, “I know he was the country’s hero, but he was my personal hero.”
The memorial service is on Sat., Apr. 16th at 1:30pm at First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway in Oakland, followed by a reception at the church in Fellowship Hall. The attorneys for Fred have established the Fred Korematsu Memorial Fund in a trust account for additional small donations or Koden (Japanese custom of offering small donations to the deceased’s family) to help with costs of the memorial service. Any amount remaining in this account after expenses will be donated to the organizations listed below. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the organizations listed.
Donations for the Fred Korematsu Memorial Fund can be sent to Minami, Lew & Tamaki Law Offices, 360 Post St., 8th Fl., SF, CA 94108
Fred Korematsu Civil Rights Fund
Asian Law Caucus, 939 Market Street #201, SF, CA 94103
American Civil Liberties Union, Northern California Chapter
1663 Mission Street, SF, CA 94103
Fred Korematsu Memorial Fund
First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612
Lia Chang is an actor, performance and fine art botanical photographer and an award-winning multimedia journalist. Lia’s portraits and performance photos have appeared in Vanity Fair, Gourmet, German Elle, Women’s Wear Daily, The Paris Review, VIBE, TV Guide, Daily Variety, Interior Design, American Theatre, Life & Style, OUT, New York Magazine, InStyle, Timeout.com, Villagevoice.com, Playbill.com, Theatermania.com, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe, New York Times and Washington Post. A former syndicated arts and entertainment columnist for KYODO News, Lia is the New York Bureau Chief for AsianConnections.com. She writes about culture, style and Asian American issues for a variety of publications and this Backstage Pass with Lia Chang blog. As a photographer and videographer, Lia is frequently tapped to collaborate with artists, organizations and companies in establishing their documentary photo archive. She has been documenting her colleagues and contemporaries in the arts, fashion and journalism since making her stage debut as Liat in the National Tour of South Pacific, with Robert Goulet and Barbara Eden.