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Fred Korematsu's WAR for America: When an American 20-something with Japanese ancestry refused to leave his hometown, he started a 76-year battle to save his country's soul.

KOREMATSU TOYOSABURO WAS AN AMERICAN. Born in Oakland, California, on January 30, 1919, he was Fred Korematsu to practically everyone who knew him. He grew up like any American teenager of his time, hanging around with friends, wolfing down hamburgers, and listening to popular music on the radio. He attended a Presbyterian church with his family and worked at his family's business, a flower nursery. In high school, he was on the swimming and tennis teams. He barely spoke Japanese.

In some people's judgment, however, Korematsu was less than fully American; the fact that he was a native-born US citizen mattered little. He ran into this hostile attitude from time to time throughout his younger years, but never more than after December 7, 1941, the day Japanese planes and submarines attacked Pearl Harbor and other US facilities on Hawaii's island of Oahu. Things would get so bad that he would end up battling for his rights all the way to the US Supreme Court, in the midst of World War II.

After graduating from high school in 1938, Korematsu started college but ran out of money and had to leave after just one month. So he went to school for welding and found a job at a shipyard. In June 1941 he attempted to join the navy, but a problem with gastric ulcers kept him out. Then, several months later, came the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Things got difficult fast for Korematsu. One day, he reported for his shift at the shipyard and discovered he'd been fired for being Japanese. He found another job, but soon lost it for the same reason. Then, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, empowering the US military to designate parts of the United States as "military areas" and to admit, exclude, or remove people from them.

Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, commander of the US Army's Western Defense Command (the organization responsible for defending the West Coast in case of attack), was swift to use the executive order. On March 2, 1942, he established Military Area 1, comprising coastal regions of California, Oregon, and Washington, and issued orders to remove all people of Japanese descent. Ultimately, 110,000-120,000 were expelled, a number equivalent to the present-day population of Allentown, Pennsylvania. About 80,000 of these were Nisei (native-born Americans--American citizens--of Japanese descent) and 40,000 were Issei (immigrants born in Japan).

DeWitt enjoyed broad support for his actions, from the public and from California's Republican governor, Earl Warren. Later, as chief justice of the US Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969, Warren would gain a reputation as an upholder of civil liberties and individual rights, and in his memoirs he would lament his involvement with the exclusion and internment of people of Japanese descent. As California's attorney general and then governor, however, he was a strong and early advocate for DeWitt's order.

An Invisible Man Gets Caught

The first step in DeWitt's removal campaign was to impose curfews on Japanese Americans in Military Area 1. Next, they were forbidden to leave the area. Korematsu didn't want to be locked down, and he didn't want to leave his hometown. Perhaps more importantly, he didn't want to be separated from his girlfriend, Ida Boitano, the daughter of his Italian American piano teacher. So Korematsu underwent minor plastic surgery on his eyes, hoping to look Caucasian (a failed effort). He began calling himself Clyde Sarah and fudged his identification card to bear that name. He started claiming he was Spanish and Hawaiian.

Early in May 1942, DeWitt ordered all people of Japanese descent to move to assembly centers to await evacuation and internment. Korematsu's family reported to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a former racetrack on the San Francisco peninsula. But Fred, aka Clyde Sarah, didn't go. Instead, he hid out in the Oakland area, trying hard to be invisible.

His plan worked for a few weeks, but on May 30 his luck ran out. He was waiting for Boitano on a street in San Leandro so they could spend the day shopping together. She was late, so he went into a store to buy something. In the 2012 book Korematsu v. the United States: World War II Japanese-American Internment Camps, author Karen Latchana Kenny describes what happened next: "When he came out, the police approached him and began questioning him. They asked for his identification and saw that it had been altered. They listened to Korematsu's story about being Spanish and Hawaiian, but Korematsu could not speak Spanish." He was arrested. He never saw Ida Boitano again.

At first Korematsu was imprisoned in San Leandro, then he was transferred to a jail in Oakland. But US Public Law 503, passed by Congress and signed by Roosevelt in March 1942, had made any violation of mandates issued under Executive Order 9066 a federal crime. So Korematsu soon found himself in a federal prison in San Francisco.

One day, a guard came to Korematsu's cell and announced, "Fred, you have a visitor." It was attorney Ernest Besig, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC). Besig had read about Korematsu's arrest in a newspaper. The ACLU-NC was looking for a test case to challenge the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066 and the internment camps, and Besig believed Korematsu's case would qualify. Korematsu quickly agreed to let the ACLU represent him, and a long journey through the legal system began.

On JUNE 12, 1942, KOREMATSU RECEIVED his trial date, and his bail was set at $5,000. Besig wrote a check for that amount (to Korematsu's amazement), and the two men turned to leave. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Attorney and legal scholar Peter Irons tells the story in his 1999 book A People's History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution: "When he [Korematsu] stepped outside the court house, he was grabbed by a waiting policeman who pulled a pistol and took his prisoner to the army jail at General DeWitt's headquarters" at the Presidio in San Francisco.

A federal court heard Korematsu's case on September 8. Presiding Judge Adolphus St. Sure was impressed when Korematsu told him, "As a citizen of the United States, I am ready, willing, and able to bear arms for this country." Nevertheless, St. Sure found him guilty of violating DeWitt's exclusion order and sentenced him to five years' probation.

The Quest for Vindication

KOREMATSU JOINED HIS PARENTS at Tanforan Assembly Center, living in a converted horse stall at the old racetrack while construction of an internment camp in the Utah desert was completed. "The stalls were built for horses not human beings," Korematsu later complained. "Jail was better than this." Soon, he and his family moved to the just-opened Central Utah War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah.

By November 1942, Korematsu, like many young adult internees, was on leave from the Topaz camp, working and living outside the facility. His appeal effort continued, and a number of ACLU attorneys represented him. One of them, Wayne Collins, clashed with the ACLU about the best way to get the appeal to the Supreme Court. In the end Collins left the ACLU and became Korematsu's primary attorney. He and his colleagues argued that Executive Order 9066 violated Korematsu's constitutional rights because it denied him equal protection in the US legal system due solely to his race.

It was no surprise when the US Court of Appeals upheld the original guilty verdict on January 7, 1944. Undeterred, Korematsu told his attorneys to appeal again. This time they appealed to the US Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case on March 27, 1944.

A week before Christmas, on December 18, the Supreme Court handed down its decision. Six of the nine justices found Korematsu's forced exclusion from Military Area 1 constitutional, justifiable because of the national emergency caused by the war with Japan. The case didn't address whether the internment of Japanese Americans was constitutional. The court considered only the constitutionality of the forced exclusion of Japanese Americans from Military Area 1, which had been the basis for Korematsu's arrest. Korematsu's conviction would stand.

Writing for the majority was Justice Hugo Black. Black would later be known as a pro-civil rights justice, but in the Korematsu case, he wrote that he accepted "the finding of the military authorities that it was impossible to bring about an immediate segregation of the disloyal from the loyal" and, therefore, the exclusion of all Japanese Americans from the area was a military necessity.

Korematsu v. United States was the first and only case in Supreme Court history in which the court applied the "strict scrutiny" test to a racial restriction and upheld the law. Briefly, strict scrutiny is a stringent legal standard used to determine whether an important government interest (such as national defense in time of war) outweighs a constitutional principle (such as equal treatment under the law).

Although only three justices disagreed with the majority, all three wrote eloquent dissents. One was Robert H. Jackson (later named chief prosecutor of the 1945-1946 trials of alleged Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany). He wrote that Korematsu "was convicted of an act not commonly a crime. It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived."

Another dissenter, Justice Frank Murphy, wrote, "This exclusion ... falls into the ugly abyss of racism.... The reasons [for the exclusion] appear to be largely an accumulation of much of the misinformation, half-truths and insinuations that for years have been directed against Japanese Americans by people with racial and economic prejudices.. I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism." Murphy's repeated use of the word "racism" was unusual, representing some of the first instances of the word in a Supreme Court opinion.

Halfway to Justice

Ironically, the same day that the Supreme Court upheld Korematsu's exclusion from his hometown under Executive Order 9066, the justices also handed down a decision on another Japanese American appeal. The plaintiff, Mitsuye Endo, a US-born Californian Nisei like Korematsu, was in an internment camp (first in California, then Utah). Her appeal targeted the constitutionality not of her exclusion from Military Area 1, but of her internment and confinement despite the fact that she was a demonstrably loyal and law-abiding US citizen. Unlike Korematsu v. United States, Endo v. United States ended with a unanimous finding in favor of the plaintiff.

The Korematsu and Endo cases brought about abrupt change. Learning in advance that the Supreme Court would condemn the Japanese internment in Ex parte Endo, the White House was swift to halt what was becoming decidedly negative publicity. On December 17, the day before the court handed down the Korematsu and Endo decisions, Roosevelt rescinded Executive Order 9066. Starting January 1, 1945, Japanese Americans were free to return to Military Area 1.

Soon, Japanese Americans began leaving the internment camps to rebuild their lives. Korematsu's parents went home to Oakland in May. Korematsu himself made his home in Detroit, where his brother lived. He became a draftsman there and married Kathryn Pearson, and in 1949 the couple moved to California and raised a family.

Korematsu v. United States was forgotten for almost 40 years. Korematsu, deeply frustrated and hurt by the outcome, said little about the case. Then, in the early 1980s, Peter Irons, a law professor at the University of California-San Diego, was conducting research for a book about Japanese American internment cases, and he found something surprising. He turned up evidence that US Solicitor General Charles H. Fahy, who had argued the government's case before the Supreme Court, had deliberately hidden military intelligence and FBI reports that stated Japanese Americans posed no risk to national security.

Armed with this legal dynamite, Irons and a team of attorneys petitioned the federal courts for writs of error coram nobis ("before us"). These writs would allow the courts to acknowledge the information Fahy had withheld and to correct the decisions they had made on the matter of Korematsu, Executive Order 9066, and the exclusion of Japanese Americans from Military Area 1.

On November 10, 1983, Korematsu stood once again in US District Court in San Francisco. He told Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, "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." Patel overturned Korematsu's conviction. She didn't have the power, however, to reverse the Supreme Court's 1944 justification of the Japanese exclusion policy.

Some satisfaction came in August 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, formally acknowledging that the exclusion, evacuation, and internment of Japanese Americans had been unreasonable. Each of the internees still living at that time received a formal letter of apology and a check for $20,000. The payments began in October 1990, and a little more than 82,200 survivors received checks.

Champion of Human Rights

Korematsu continued to advocate publicly for civil liberties and rights. On January 15, 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom (it and the Congressional Gold Medal are the nation's highest civilian awards) at the White House. Korematsu was about two weeks away from his 79th birthday. Before presenting the medal, Clinton told the audience, "In the long course of our country's search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls--Plessy, Brown, Parks. To that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."

America hadn't heard the last word from Korematsu, despite his advancing age. Late in 2003, when the Supreme Court considered the case of Rasul v. Bush, Korematsu filed an amicus brief on behalf of plaintiff Shafiq Rasul, a British citizen captured in the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan and imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Rasul and fellow plaintiffs Asif Iqbal, Mamdouh Habib, and David Hicks were being held on suspicion of being terrorists, but had not been charged with a crime. By a 6-3 vote, the court ruled on June 30, 2004, that US courts did have jurisdiction regarding the legality of the detention of prisoners at the base. That meant Rasul and his fellow plaintiffs could challenge their detention. They did so, and ultimately were released.

Korematsu filed one more amicus brief, on behalf of Jose Padilla, the plaintiff in the 2004 Supreme Court case Rumsfield v. Padilla. Padilla was being held in a military prison in connection with an investigation into the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, but no charges had been filed against him. The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed Padilla's case over procedural issues with his initial habeas corpus petition.

The Korematsu v. United States decision still stood when Korematsu died at the age of 86 on March 30, 2005. But public sentiment, government gestures, and the seemingly universal opinion of jurists had thoroughly repudiated it. In Korematsu's lifetime and after, US Supreme Court justices on a spectrum ranging from Antonin Scalia and former Chief Justice William Rehnquist to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor went on record saying that the 1944 ruling was wrong. Rehnquist wrote in his 2001 book The Supreme Court: A New Edition of the Chief Justice's Classic History, "A government order classifying people solely on the basis of race without any inquiry into disloyalty in a particular case strains the bounds of the Constitution even in time of war." In February 2014, Scalia, addressing law students at the University of Hawaii, commented, "Well, of course, Korematsu was wrong-and I think we have repudiated it in a later case--but you are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again."

IN 2018, AN OPPORTUNITY for the Supreme Court to cast aside Korematsu v. United States finally arose when the case Trump v. Hawaii came before the court. In a narrow 5-4 decision on June 26, the justices upheld a travel ban on people trying to enter the US from seven different countries, five of which are predominantly Muslim. But because the case touched on the issue of exclusion of classes of people, it allowed the court to revisit and overturn Korematsu v. United States. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, "The forcible relocation of US citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of presidential authority.. Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and--to be clear--has no place in law under the Constitution."

Fred Korematsu would have agreed.

RELATED ARTICLE: No Place Like Home.

LIFE WENT ON in Japanese American internment camps, but it wasn't normal life. It was an uncomfortable, austere, unsanitary, unhealthy, and highly restricted life with very little privacy.

Take dining, for instance. Each block of barracks (10-14 buildings, depending on the camp) had its own mess hall, often with army cooks but sometimes with professional chefs who had been interned. The government provided food in bulk. Not surprisingly, the fare was cheap, unremarkable, and very different from what Japanese Americans ate at home. Steaks were non-existent and chicken was chopped into chicken a la king. Beef and mutton made occasional appearances, sliced very thin. Spam and hot dogs were common. The menu leaned heavily on carbohydrates--plenty of bread, macaroni, potatoes, and rice (though rice, a Japanese American staple, was sometimes hard to come by). Aside from whatever the internees grew in their own small gardens, commonly served vegetables included beets and spinach. Tea and water were the usual beverages; milk was scarce, even for children. Some internees used their dishes and cutlery from home; others ate from tin pie plates.

The barracks were hastily built plank-on-stud wooden structures covered with tarpaper outside and with no interior walls. Dust was a constant in the desert camps, blowing in and coating everything. The flimsy structures offered little relief from heat or cold. They were communal, often lacking walls to break up the open space into rooms. Even showers and toilets were open, though the detainees erected privacy barriers. Each family had a bunk or cot for each member, but needed to supply its own blankets and sheets.

There were tens of thousands of children in the camps. They went to school on-site, but resources were Spartan at best. There was a perpetual shortage of desks, paper, pencils, and textbooks. There were no libraries or microscopes or other science equipment. But the main problem was the lack of qualified teachers. The war had created a teacher shortage in the States, and the situation was all the worse in the camps. Language instruction was a priority, it seemed. Older children were taught English (if they didn't know it already) and were told to teach their parents.

The internees provided their own entertainment and culture. There were active Christian and Buddhist religious communities. Detainees played baseball (frequently against the guards), football, and other sports. They created vegetable and decorative gardens. Some volunteered to staff newspapers produced by internees for internees. Others played in bands. Internees offered classes in Japanese calligraphy, haiku, and ikebana (traditional floral arranging). Participants and onlookers alike delighted in tournaments featuring Go, a popular strategic board game invented in China circa 500 b.c. and still popular today.

Mark Weisenmiller

RELATED ARITLCE: Reason to Fear.

BEFORE PRESIDENT Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and the army began evacuating Japanese Americans from the West Coast, US intelligence had already concluded that the Nisei and Issei posed no threat. But one incident bolstered the arguments of those who insisted the Japanese Americans were a danger.

During the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed his A6M2 Zero fighter plane on Niihau, the privately owned westernmost isle of the Hawaiian Islands. Hawila Kaleohano, one of the island's native Hawaiian residents, took away Nishikaichi's pistol and papers and safeguarded them. The Niihauans treated their unexpected guest with warm hospitality, unaware of the Pearl Harbor raid.

The locals asked Japanese-born resident Ishimatsu Shintani to help them communicate with Nishikaichi. He spoke briefly with the downed aviator, but then left abruptly. Next, the island's only other residents of Japanese descent arrived, Hawaiian-born Yoshio Harada and his Japanese-born wife, Irene. Nishikaichi told the Haradas about the Pearl Harbor attack and said he needed to recover the papers that the Niihauans had taken from him. The Haradas agreed to help.

That night, the Niihauans heard about Pearl Harbor on radio broadcasts, so they confined Nishikaichi under guard and waited for the weekly visit of the island's owner. When the owner didn't arrive as expected, the Niihauans allowed the Haradas to take in Nishikaichi. Guards were posted at the house.

The growing tension exploded on the evening of December 12. Nishikaichi and Yoshio Harada overpowered the guard then on duty, took up weapons, and forced their way to the Zero, taking hostages and shooting at Kaleohano. The downed pilot tried to reach Japanese ships or planes on the fighter's radio, but could not. So he and Harada removed the plane's machine guns and ammunition and set the Zero on fire. Then they burned down Kaleohano's house, hoping to destroy the captured papers. Meanwhile, Kaleohano and other islanders had left by rowboat for the island of Kauai to get help.

On the morning of December 13, Nishikaichi and Harada captured locals Ben and Ella Kanahele, a married couple, and forced Ben to go searching for Kaleohano. Kanahele knew Kaleohano was gone, but stalled to buy him time. When he could stall no longer, he returned empty-handed to an outraged Nishikaichi, who threatened to kill all the locals.

The Kanaheles resolved to prevent the enemy pilot from carrying out his bloodbath. They bided their time, then sprang at Nishikaichi and Harada. The pilot shot Ben three times, but Kanahele picked him up and threw him hard against a wall. Ella hit Nishikaichi in the head with a stone, and Ben killed him by slitting his throat. Seeing this, Harada killed himself with a shotgun.

Both of the Kanaheles survived, and Kaleohano and his companions arrived on December 14 with military personnel. Irene Harada served a little more than two and a half years in prison, and Shintani was sent to an internment camp.

All of this served as the basis for many newspaper stories on the US mainland. About three months later, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

Mark Weisenmiller

MARK WEISENMILLER is an author and reporter who writes from Florida. His website is

Caption: Opposite: The barracks at Tanforan Assembly Center, aka Tanforan Racetrack, near San Francisco looked a lot like stables. Some were. In May 1942, as the military forced Japanese Americans out of California coastal cities, many ended up here. Fred Korematsu wouldn't go.

Caption: Above: Anti-Japanese attitudes had a long history in California. This photo from the early 1920s shows a Hollywood homeowner and her placarded house during a campaign to drive out Japanese Americans who had purchased land in town and were building dwellings and a church. One sign indicates she's a member of the Hollywood Protective Association, an ally of the Los Angeles County Anti-Asian Association.

Caption: Fred Korematsu ended up at Tanforan despite his best efforts. Here, a lunch line sprawls on one of the center's first days.

Caption: The Japanese Zero fighter that crash-landed on Hawaii's Niihau island, after the pilot and an accomplice set it on fire.

Caption: The Korematsus ran a flower nursery in Oakland, California. Here, they pose in their greenhouse before 1942's disruptive events. Fred is second from right. After internment, his parents found their business in shambles.
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Author:Weisenmiller, Mark
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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