Korematsu, Fred T.

views updated

Fred T. Korematsu

Born 1919
Oakland, California

Japanese American working as a welder
at the beginning of World War II

Between 1941 and 1944, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and move into internment camps. At the time, the U.S. government said that it feared these people might spy for Japan or otherwise threaten the safety of Americans. Yet many people believe the real reason was racism. After all, the United States was also at war with Italy and Germany, but Italian Americans and German Americans were left alone.

Of the 120,000 people forced to move, Fred Korematsu is one of a few Japanese Americans who challenged the evacuation order in court, charging that it went against the U.S. Constitution. Although he did not set out to become a hero, he played an important role in an episode that proved how the freedoms Americans often take for granted must always be protected.

Born and raised in the USA

Korematsu was a "nisei," a member of the first generation of Japanese Americans to be born in America. His parents were immigrants who settled in Oakland, California, where they ran a flower nursery. Although the family spoke only Japanese at home and observed some Japanese holidays, Korematsu and his three brothers also enjoyed such American pastimes as playing tennis, basketball, and football. He was first called "Fred" by a teacher who found his real name, Toyosaburo, difficult to pronounce; he liked his new name and kept it for the rest of his life.

By June 1941 it seemed inevitable that the United States would get involved in World War II. Korematsu went with his friends to his local post office to volunteer to serve in the armed forces, but the officer in charge refused to give him an application. He said that he had been ordered not to allow any Japanese Americans to sign up.

"Potential enemies"

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of American servicemen. A wave of anti-Japanese hysteria swept over the country—especially on the West Coast, where curfews restricting the activities of Japanese Americans were implemented, as well as limits on how far they could travel. Some military and political leaders were pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945; see entry) to do something about the "threat" posed by Japanese Americans. One of the most vocal was General John DeWitt, who issued a report stating that the United States could probably expect another attack from Japan, that Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were "potential enemies," and that there was a "military necessity" to evacuate them and place them into camps.

On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued an executive order directing that all Japanese Americans and resident aliens (immigrants who have not yet achieved citizenship) be sent to inland internment camps. The first (and possibly most famous) camp was established at Manzanar in southern California; in all nine more camps were set up in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. On March 31, those affected were ordered to report to control stations to register the names of people in their families, then told where and when to report for relocation to temporary "assembly areas." Finally, from there they would be sent to internment camps.

Uprooted lives and businesses

Japanese Americans were given between four days and two weeks to move. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry with them, so they had to decide what to do with property and possessions. Many were forced to sell their businesses, homes, cars, and other belongings at very low prices, and in some cases these things were illegally confiscated. It is estimated that total losses were between $810 million and $2 billion.

Korematsu defies the order

When the United States entered World War II, the twenty-two-year-old Korematsu had been working in the defense industry as a welder. His family was ordered to go to the Tanforan assembly area (a former racetrack where internees had to camp in empty horses' stalls), but he did not want to go with them. He had been dating an Italian American woman whose parents disapproved of their mixed-race relationship, and now he urged her to go with him to Nevada, where they could get married and avoid the internment order. His girlfriend decided she didn't want to leave her family, so Korematsu stayed in Oakland while planning to go to Nevada later.

Taking the case to court

He moved into a boarding house and changed his name to Clyde Sarah, presenting himself as a person of Spanish and Hawaiian heritage. He even had surgery on his eyelids so that he would look more like a Caucasian person. But on May 30, 1942, someone who knew Korematsu recognized and reported him, and he was arrested in San Leandro, California, and imprisoned in the San Francisco County Jail.

He stands up for his rights

Ernest Besig, a lawyer who worked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), read about Korematsu's situation in the newspaper and went to visit him in jail. He asked Korematsu if he would be willing to test the legality of the internment order in court, and Korematsu agreed. Freed on bail, Korematsu joined his family at Tanforan; they were later sent to the Topaz camp in the Utah desert. Other internees, fearful of more trouble, tried to talk Korematsu out of going to court.

At Korematsu's trial, the judge agreed that the executive order was racially biased (no other ethnic group was affected) but he still found Korematsu guilty of defying it. He was sentenced to five years probation and returned to Topaz with his family. Meanwhile, Korematsu's attorneys had filed a suit in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But their argument that the executive order was unconstitutional was again rejected. Now Korematsu's legal team took the case to the highest legal authority in the United States, the Supreme Court.

Justifying the internment order

By the time the Supreme Court reached its decision (in December 1944), the government had already closed down the internment camps. The Court came to a "split decision": even though three of the nine judges ruled in Korematsu's favor, six ruled against him, and he lost the case.

Justice Hugo L. Black wrote the majority opinion, stating that the government had not acted "because of hostility to [Korematsu] or his race" but "because we are at war with the Japanese Empire, because the … military authorities feared an invasion of the West Coast." Disagreeing with this analysis, Justice J. Frank Murphy stated that the executive order "goes over the very brink of constitutional power and falls into the ugly abyss of racism."

New evidence spurs Korematsu to action

After the war, Korematsu moved to Detroit, Michigan, in search of a new start. Over the next forty years he married, raised two children, and worked as a draftsman. But in 1982, Korematsu was contacted by Peter Irons, a lawyer and historian who had uncovered new evidence. Irons learned that the government attorneys had intentionally disregarded reports from the FBI and Naval Intelligence that concluded that Japanese Americans were not security risks.

Korematsu and others who had fought the internment order during the war agreed to retry the case, aided by a group of two dozen attorneys from California, Washington, and Oregon who worked pro bono (for free). The attorneys filed suit in San Francisco's federal court on January 19, 1983, arguing that Korematsu vs. United States should be overturned because the government had falsified, suppressed, and withheld evidence that showed that there was no "military necessity" to banish Japanese Americans to the camps.

At an October 4 hearing attended by a large number of Japanese Americans, Korematsu stated: "I still remember forty years ago when I was handcuffed and arrested as a criminal here in San Francisco… 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."

The old case is overturned

Judge Marilyn Hall Patel overturned Korematsu's conviction, arguing that it had been "based on unsubstantiated facts, distortions and representations of at least one military commander, whose views were seriously infected by racism."

After the trial, Korematsu moved back to San Francisco and became an active, respected member of the Japanese American community. In 1983, he received the prestigious Earl Warren Human Rights Award from the ACLU. Further acknowledgment of the wrong done by the U.S. government came in 1988, when Congress passed a bill formally apologizing to Japanese Americans for the internment, and providing for a one-time payment of $20,000 to any living person who had spent time in the camps. In 1998 Korematsu was honored with the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Where to Learn More


Chin, Steven A. When Justice Failed: The Fred Korematsu Story. Austin, Texas: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1993.

Fremon, David K. Japanese-American Internment in American History.Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1996.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Levine, Ellen. A Fence Away from Freedom. New York: Putnam's, 1995.

Web sites

Ehrlich, Dorothy. "Honoring Fred Korematsu and the Day of Remembrance." [Online] Available http://www.aclunc.org/opinion/9802223-internment.html (January 25, 1999).

Fred T. Korematsu defied the U.S. government's call for the "evacuation" of all Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps, and challenged the order in court.

The Nisei Prove Their Loyalty

After the December 7, 1941, bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, anti-Japanese hysteriaswept the country, and thousands of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forced to move intointernment camps. At the same time, many young Japanese Americans wereeager to prove their loyalty to the United States by joining the fight against the Axisnations (Germany, Italy, and Japan).

In response to their pleas, Congress authorized the formation of the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of niseis (the firstgeneration of Japanese to be born in the United States to immigrant parents) whohad volunteered to serve. This 3,000-member team, made of mostly of youngmen from Hawaii—as well as some whohad come out of internment camps on themainland—was to become the mostdecorated army unit in U.S. history.

After training at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and Camp Shelby in Mississippi, the Japanese American soldiers were sent in September 1943 to North Africa and then to Italy, where Allied troops were preparing for an invasion. They took part in bloody fighting throughout the following spring, losing one-fourth of the regiment but performing valiantly and living up to their motto, "Go for Broke." Then the 442nd Regiment moved on to France, where they achieved a daring, unexpected rescue of the "Lost Battalion," a unit of 211 Texas soldiers who had been surrounded by Germans in a mountainous region.

By the end of the war, the 442nd Regiment had earned 18,143 individual decorations, including more than 3,600 Purple Hearts, and had been responsible for 9,486 enemy casualties.

One distinguished member of the 442nd Regiment was Daniel Ken Inouye, the son of a Honolulu file clerk, who had dropped out of the premedical program at the University of Hawaii to join the unit. While fighting on Mount Nebbione in Italy, Inouye lost his arm in an assault on a German infantry position, but destroyed three enemy machine-gun nests even after being wounded. For his bravery during this and other combat, Inouye won the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart.

Soon after the war ended, Inouye learned that the war against racial prejudice was not yet over. Needing a haircut, he walked into a San Francisco barbershop wearing his army uniform, heavily decorated with the ribbons and medals he had earned, with its empty right sleeve pinned up. Inouye was told, "We don't serve Japs here."

Inouye returned to Hawaii and became a lawyer, then entered politics. In 1959 he was elected to the new state's first seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Japanese American to serve in Congress. Inouye became a strong supporter of civil rights and a spokesperson for the Asian American community. He spoke out against racism in an important speech at the 1968 Democratic convention, and he played a key role in the 1974 Watergate hearings, which led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.