He stood up to a federal government that incarcerated more than 100,000 residents and citizens because of their Japanese ancestry.
On Wednesday, California honored him by observing the third Fred Korematsu Day.
Korematsu, an Oakland resident, challenged the constitutionality of Japanese internment camps during World War II—a stance few of his peers took. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated certain parts of the country, like the West Coast, as military areas from which people of a certain ethnicity could be excluded. Roosevelt’s order led to the relocation of all Japanese Americans and those of Japanese descent who lived along the West Coast to inland internment camps in 1942. They left behind homes, friends and many of their possessions, only keeping items they could carry.
Ranging in location from inland California to Arkansas, the camps remained open until 1945.
When the order came that all those of Japanese ancestry needed to report to an assembly center and leave their homes indefinitely, Korematsu refused.
He had a white girlfriend, whom he hoped to stay with. Moreover, he believed that as an American citizen, he should not have to go to the camps, said Ling Liu, director of the Korematsu Institute, which helped establish January 30 as Fred Korematsu Day.
The 23-year-old Korematsu changed his name, carried a fake ID and got minor plastic surgery on his eyes, Liu said. But while on a street corner in San Leandro, he was arrested by two military police officers and jailed.
While he was in jail, the American Civil Liberties Union asked him if he would file a suit against the government to challenge the constitutionality of the internment camps. He agreed.
In 1942, Korematsu was found guilty of defying a federal order. His girlfriend was so frightened by what she saw and heard during this process that she broke up with him, said Lane Hirabayashi, a professor of Asian American studies at UCLA whose uncle, Gordon Hirabayashi, also challenged the wartime restrictions on Japanese Americans. Korematsu never saw her again.
He appealed and the case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. The 1944 ruling was not in his favor—the court justified the internment based on “military necessity,” according to the Korematsu Institute’s website.
“I think he really tried to keep appealing the case fully believing he was going to prevail,” Liu said.
While his case was being appealed in federal court, Korematsu was sent to the Topaz relocation camp in Utah, where he remained until the end of the war. Since many Japanese believed that they could prove their loyalty to the United States by readily complying with the orders for internment, his community shunned him for his dissent, Liu said.
After the camps closed, Korematsu followed his brother to Michigan. Like many other Japanese Americans, the Korematsu brothers did not want to return to California and face racial prejudice in their old neighborhoods.
In Michigan, he met his soon-to-be wife Kathryn, who was a student at Wayne State University in Detroit. They married and eventually returned to the Bay Area. The couple had two children. For years, Korematsu thought about reopening his case, Liu said.
In the 1980s, a group of young, mostly Japanese American and Asian American lawyers gave him a call. A UCSD professor found reports from various U.S. intelligence agencies in the 1940s stating that Japanese Americans posed no military threat, the lawyers told Korematsu. These papers had never been included in Korematsu’s original trial and were intentionally left out, Liu said. One of the reports had even been set on fire, according to the Korematsu Institute’s website.
With this new legal team, Korematsu reopened his case and in 1983, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco vacated his conviction, indicating that he had been wrongly convicted. But since his conviction was overturned at a lower court, Korematsu’s 1944 Supreme Court case ruling still stands, Hirabayashi said.
Korematsu fought for redress for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during the war and eventually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton.
After September 11, he filed several amicus curie in opposition to the detention of Muslim inmates at Guantanamo Bay and the solitary confinement of an American Muslim without a trial, reminding the government of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans 40 years earlier.
Korematsu died of respiratory failure in 2005 at the age of 86. He was buried in his hometown of Oakland at Mountain View Cemetery. His gravestone, a large light gray stone, bears a likeness of the Presidential Medal of Freedom he received and a few sentences about his story.
In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill making January 30 Fred Korematsu Day. The day is meant to be educational, and designed so that students will learn about Korematsu’s life and legacy, Liu said.
“It’s fantastic,” Hirabayashi said. “It’s fantastic because Fred believed very strongly that he didn’t want this to happen to other Americans.”
Students at his former elementary school in Oakland, now named for him, gave presentations about his significance. Thirty other events in his honor were held in 12 states. Even his grave showed some signs of visitors. A small American flag was placed at the foot of the gravestone, along with a fabric California poppy. Small rocks, tributes from Jewish visitors, dotted the top of the headstone.
“We study history to inform us how to proceed with future challenges and crises,” Hirabayashi said. “The 1940s contains a whole set of very important and very relevant lessons as we need to face the challenges of a post 9/11 world.”