Korematsu v. United States 1944

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Korematsu v. United States 1944

Petitioner: Toyosaburo Korematsu

Respondent: United States

Petitioner's Claim: That convicting him for refusing to leave the West coast during World War II violated the U.S. Constitution.

Chief Lawyers for Petitioner: Wayne M. Collins and Charles A. Horsky

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Charles Fahy, U.S. Solicitor General

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Stanley Forman Reed, Wiley Blount Rutledge, Harlan Fiske Stone

Justices Dissenting: Robert H. Jackson, Frank Murphy, Owen Josephus Roberts

Date of Decision: December 18, 1944

Decision: The Supreme Court said Korematsu's conviction was constitutional.

Significance: In Korematsu, the Supreme Court tacitly approved laws and military orders that sent Japanese Americans into confinement during World War II.

On December 7, 1941, Japan brought the United States into World War II by attacking the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan killed 2,043 Americans during the surprise attack and destroyed American warships and aircraft. The next day, Congress declared war on Japan.

After being surprised at Pearl Harbor, the United States feared Japan would attack or invade along the Pacific coast. In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. President Roosevelt said wartime success depended on protecting the United States from espionage and sabotage. In his executive order, the president gave the military authority to define and take control over vulnerable areas of the country.

Lieutenant General DeWitt was in charge of the U.S. military in the westernmost part of the nation. On 27 March 1942, General Dewitt issued an order preventing persons of Japanese descent from leaving the West coast region. On May 3, 1942, General DeWitt issued another order forcing Japanese Americans to leave the West coast region through a Civil Control Station. The combined effect of both orders was to allow the United States to round up Japanese Americans for confinement in internment camps during the war. The purpose of confinement was to prevent Japanese Americans from helping the Japanese Empire in its war against the United States. The United States made no effort to distinguish between loyal and disloyal Japanese Americans.

Civil Disobedience

Toyosaburo Korematsu, who went by the name of Fred, was an American citizen of Japanese descent. Korematsu lived in San Leandro, California, near San Francisco. Korematsu was rejected for military service for health reasons but had a good job in the defense industry. Korematsu was a loyal, law-abiding American citizen in every way.

Korematsu did not think it was right for the United States to force Japanese Americans into internment camps. Instead of obeying the military orders, he fled from the San Francisco Bay area. Determined to escape confinement, Korematsu had some minor facial surgery, changed his name, and pretended to be a Mexican American. Eventually, however, he was arrested and charged with disobeying the military order to leave the West coast.

Korematsu pleaded not guilty and fought the government's case. He said the United States had no power to send an entire race of Americans into confinement when they had done nothing wrong. The court, however, convicted Korematsu and put him on probation for five years. The military then seized Korematsu, sent him to an Assembly Center, and eventually confined him in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. Meanwhile, Korematsu took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Military Orders Reign Supreme

With a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the United States. Justice Hugo Lafayette Black wrote the Court's opinion. Justice Black said the government needs an extremely good reason for any law that limits the civil rights of an entire racial group. Sadly, the Court found a good reason in the federal government's military powers.

The U.S. Constitution gives the president and Congress certain war powers. Congress has the power to declare war and to provide for the defense of the United States. The president is the commander-in-chief of the military forces. Under their constitutional powers, the president and the military may do anything that is reasonable to conduct a war.

Justice Black said it was reasonable for the military to order all Japanese Americans to leave the West coast. Although not all Japanese Americans were disloyal, some were. During investigations after the relocation, five thousand Japanese Americans refused to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States or to renounce allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. Several thousand even asked to be sent back to Japan.

Justice Black said that under the war emergency that existed after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the government did not have time to separate the loyal from the disloyal. It was reasonable, then, to order all Japanese Americans to leave the vulnerable area of the West coast. By refusing to obey that order, Korematsu had violated federal law and his conviction was constitutional.

To the dismay of many, the Court refused to decide whether it was legal to confine Japanese Americans in internment camps. Korematsu had only been convicted for refusing to leave San Leandro to report to a Civil Control Station. He was not convicted for refusing to report to an internment camp. Nonetheless, the Court's decision was a tacit approval of the internment of Japanese Americans during the war.


D uring World War II, the United States of America, the land of the free, forced 112,000 people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes in the West coast region. Around 70,000 of those people were American citizens. Many of them spent time in ten internment camps located in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. Some who were certified as "loyal" were allowed to go free to settle in the Midwest or the East.

As they left the West coast, Japanese Americans were allowed to take only what they could carry. This forced them to sell their homes and belongings, often at unfairly low prices. A 1983 study estimated that Japanese Americans lost as much as $2 billion in property during this time to arson, theft, and vandalism. Once in the internment camps, Japanese Americans lived like prisoners. They received the barest essentials needed for survival and could not leave the camps on their own.

On December 18, 1944, the United States announced that it would close the internment camps by the end of 1945. It was not until 1988, however, that Congress apologized to Japanese Americans for their confinement. That year it passed a law giving $20,000 to each confinee who was still alive.

Concentration Camps

Justices Robert H. Jackson, Frank Murphy, and Owen Josephus Roberts dissented, which means they disagreed with the Court's decision. These justices thought it was unfair for the Court to avoid the question of whether internment was legal. After all, the only reason for requiring Korematsu to report to a Civil Control Station was to send him to an Assembly Center for delivery to an internment camp.

The internment of Japanese Americans deeply disturbed the dissenting justices. Justice Roberts called it a "case of convicting a citizen as a punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on his ancestry, and solely because of his ancestry." Justice Murphy called the relocation racial discrimination that deprived Americans of their right to live, work, and move about freely. Justice Jackson warned that the Court's decision would be a "loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority" that decided to imprison an entire race of Americans in the future.

Suggestions for further reading

Alonso, Karen. Korematsu v. United States: Japanese-American Internment Camps. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Bondi, Victor, ed. American Decades: 1940–1949. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1995.

Chin, Steven A. When Justice Failed: The Fred Korematsu Story. Raintree/Steck-Vaughn, 1995.

Davis, Daniel S. Behind Barbed Wire: The Imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. New York: Dutton, 1982.

Dictionary of American History. Vol. III. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976.

Fremon, David K. Japanese-American Internment in American History. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1996.

Sinnott, Susan. Our Burden of Shame: The Japanese-American Internment during World War II. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1995.

Stanley, Jerry. I Am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment. New York: Crown Publishers, 1994.

Tunnell, Michael O., and George W. Chilcoat. The Children of Topaz: The Story of a Japanese-American Internment Camp Based on a Classroom Diary. Holiday House, 1996.