Fred Korematsu

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Korematsu, Fred Toyosaburo

(b. 30 January 1919 in Oakland, California; d. 30 March 2005 in Larkspur, California), welder who challenged the forced relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II. His conviction for failing to report for relocation was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 and historically overturned in 1983.

Born Toyosaburo Korematsu, he earned the name “Fred” from a teacher who was unable to pronounce his Japanese name. Korematsu was the third of the four sons of Japanese parents who ran a plant nursery business in Oakland. Following his graduation from Oakland’s Castlemont High School in 1938, Korematsu briefly attended Los Angeles City College before dropping out of school for financial reasons. He then enrolled at the Master School of Welding in Oakland and was employed as welder. His attempt to volunteer for service in the U.S. Navy was denied in June 1941, and a month later his draft board classified him as 4-F due to gastric ulcers. Korematsu’s employment as a welder in the Oakland area was terminated when the United States entered World War II in December 1941, and the Boiler Makers Union expelled all of its members who were of Japanese descent.

Amid hysteria regarding the loyalty of Japanese Americans, in February 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the secretary of war to require that all Japanese Americans in Military Area Number 1 (the so-called West Coast “exclusion zone”) report for resettlement to internment camps. On 9 May 1942 Korematsu’s parents and three brothers reported to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a racetrack south of San Francisco, but Korematsu refused to join them. In an effort to elude authorities and disguise his racial identity, Korematsu had plastic surgery performed on his nose and eyes. He intended to move to Arizona (some sources say Nevada) and marry his Italian-American fiancée, Ida Boitano. Before he could implement this plan, Korematsu was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on 30 May 1942 in San Leandro, California, for violating the War Department’s exclusion order.

As his primary motive for resistance appeared to be romantic involvement, Korematsu was initially viewed as an unlikely candidate to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s relocation order. But when he was approached by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Ernest Besig, Korematsu asserted, “I figured I’d lived here all my life and I was going to stay here.” Besig posted bail for Korematsu, but the prisoner was immediately detained and taken to the Tanforan racetrack. He was eventually interned at Topaz, Utah, where he was shunned by other detainees for attempting to elude internment.

Meanwhile, Korematsu’s legal challenge was being considered by the court system. On 8 September 1942 Korematsu’s case went to trial with the ACLU attorney Wayne Collins charging the government with sixty-nine violations of his client’s rights. Korematsu was found guilty and sentenced to five years’ probation. The original verdict was upheld in late 1943 by the U.S. Court of Appeals, but Korematsu’s attorneys mounted an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. At issue was Korematsu’s violation of Exclusion Order Number 34, which prohibited those of Japanese descent from being inside Military Zone Number 1 proclaimed by General John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Area. Unlike other legal challenges by Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Mitsuye Endo, Korematsu’s case was to be the landmark decision regarding exclusion and relocation.

Unaware that the Justice Department had objected to the validity of General DeWitt’s final report of “military necessity” in justifying removal, the Supreme Court in an 18 December 1944 decision upheld Korematsu’s conviction by a six to three margin. Writing the majority opinion for the Court, Justice Hugo Black concluded, “We could not reject the finding of the military authorities that it was impossible to bring about an immediate segregation of the disloyal from the loyal.” In his dissenting opinion, Justice Frank Murphy asserted that the exclusion order, “goes over the very brink of constitutional power and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.”

The government ended internment in late 1944, and Korematsu was allowed to work as a welder in Salt Lake City, Utah, as long as he promised not to return to the West Coast. He also lived in Detroit from 1944 to 1949, working as a draftsman, before moving back to the Bay Area. He married his wife, Kathryn, on 12 October 1946. They had one son and one daughter. Korematsu lived a quiet life working as a draftsman, but his felony conviction limited his employment opportunities.

Korematsu returned to public attention in 1981 when the historian Peter Irons, who was working on a book regarding the internment camps, discovered the Justice Department’s failure to alert the Supreme Court to the fact that reports from the FBI and Federal Communications Commission failed to support the allegations of General DeWitt that exclusion and relocation were based upon considerations of military necessity. The Justice Department offered Korematsu a pardon, but the former internee insisted upon his day in court. On 10 November 1983 U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel overturned the conviction and Korematsu told the court, “As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or hearing.” The rediscovery of the Korematsu case was also commemorated in 2001 by an Emmy Award–winning public television documentary directed by Eric Paul Fournier.

Momentum was building for a reappraisal of the government’s relocation policy. In 1983 a federal commission concluded that the internment decision was shaped by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” President Ronald Reagan declared internment “a grave injustice” and signed legislation authorizing reparation payments of $20,000 each to surviving internees, including Korematsu. In 1998 President Bill Clinton honored Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Clinton proclaimed, “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls. Plessey, Brown, Parks—to that distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.” Ultimately, Korematsu’s voice for civil liberties was only silenced upon his death. He died of respiratory illness in 2005 at his daughter’s home.

Taking his citizenship responsibilities seriously until the last years of his life, Korematsu filed a 2004 friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court. Regarding the detention of prisoners without due process at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Korematsu’s brief asserts “the extreme nature of the government’s position is all too familiar.” Concerned that no other citizens would be forced to endure what he and other Japanese Americans experienced in the internment camps of World War II, Korematsu was an outspoken activist who challenged the government’s use of racial profiling.

Excellent historical accounts of Japanese-American internment and the Korematsu decision include Peter Irons, Justice at War (1983), and Peter Irons, ed., Justice Delayed: The Record of the Japanese American Internment Cases (1989). The Fred T. Korematsu v. United States Coram Nobis Litigation Collection is housed in the University of California, Los Angeles, Asian American Studies Center and the Young Research Library’s Department of Special Collections. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (31 Mar. 2005) and New York Times (1 Apr. 2005).

Ron Briley

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