On May 30, 1942, a young man was arrested in San Leandro and transferred to a U.S. Marshall in San Francisco. His crime? He appeared to be Japanese, and a few months earlier all people of Japanese descent on the West coast had been ordered to report for internment.
While waiting in the San Francisco county jail, Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu was visited by the director of the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union. Would he be willing to become the test case to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans?
Korematsu was born in Oakland, California, in 1919. He attended public schools, participated in the Castlemont High School tennis and swim teams, and worked in his family flower nursery near San Leandro. He had tried to enlist in the U.S. National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard when America entered World War II, but was turned away.
He was an American. Americans had the right to a fair trial—why should he be locked away without a chance to prove his loyalty? He thought it was wrong, and he chose to defy the order. He had even undergone minor plastic surgery to alter his eyes in an attempt to look less Japanese.
He agreed to challenge the constitutionality of Japanese incarceration.
Conviction in Federal Court
In September, 1942, Korematsu was convicted in federal court for violating the military orders issued under Executive Order 9066 (the order signed by President Roosevelt authorizing the military to remove people of Japanese descent from their homes and force them into prison camps). He was placed on a five-year probation and sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno. For a few months, he lived in the former horse stalls that were used for temporary incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry. Eventually, he and his family were transferred to Topaz, Utah, one of ten incarceration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.
Appeal and Landmark Decision
Korematsu appealed his case all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. Korematsu v. United States in 1944 upheld his conviction and the exclusion of people of Japanese ancestry. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Robert Jackson noted that “the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination…The Principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”
Topaz and After
Shunned by many Japanese at Topaz who feared repercussions from association with someone who had defied American law, Korematsu still felt he was in the right. After the war, his conviction affected his ability to find a job. While working in Salt Lake City, he discovered he was being paid half of what his white coworkers were paid. When he told his boss this was unfair, the boss threatened to call the police and get him arrested for being Japanese.
Korematsu never quit believing in his innocence and in the unconstitutionality of Japanese incarceration during World War II.
Determination Brings a Second Chance
In 1983, a commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that the decision to remove people of Japanese ancestry to U.S. prison camps occurred because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” About the same time, researchers Peter Irons and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga discovered secret Justice Department documents while searching government archives. Official reports in 1943 and 1944 from the FBI, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and other agencies denied that Japanese Americans had committed any wrongdoing.
These reports should have been evidence in Korematsu v. United States, but were intentionally suppressed, and in one case, destroyed. On the basis of this governmental misconduct, Korematsu v. United States was reopened by a legal team of pro bono lawyers.
“According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case,” Korematsu said to the judge, “being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one, otherwise they say you can’t tell a difference between a loyal and a disloyal American. I thought that this decision was wrong and I still feel that way. . .Therefore, 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.”
On November 10, 1983, a U. S. District Court Judge in San Francisco formally overturned Korematsu’s conviction. Forty-one years after his conviction, Korematsu’s belief that the government was wrong was confirmed.
The Legacy of Quiet Determination in a Search for Justice
Korematsu continued to fight for justice. He lobbied for an official apology from the U.S. Government and reparations to Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, which President Reagan signed in 1988. Ten years later, President Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After 9/11, Korematsu filed a “Friend of the Court” brief on behalf of Muslim inmates being held at Guantanamo Bay.
The freshman campus at San Leandro High School is named for this civil rights hero.
Korematsu died in 2005 at the age of eight-six. Hundreds of people packed his memorial service, honoring the man whose decades-long fight for justice demonstrates how one determined person can right a wrong.
This article is mostly based on the biography prepared by the Korematsu Institute and Karen Korematsu, found at www.korematsuinstitute.org.
The San Leandro Historical Society presents San Leandro resident Tak Kato, speaking and showing historical and personal photographs of his family’s internment during World War II at Topaz. Kato was only a child during the war, but remembers good times and bad during his family's internment. Don’t miss this free history talk providing a personal story of a historical event. When: Sunday, March 3, at 1:00. Where: At the Little Brown Church, behind the Casa Peralta, 384 West Estudillo Avenue in San Leandro. For more information click to email http://www.sanleandrohistory.org/contact or call 510-910-3215.