First Ever ‘Fred Korematsu Day’ Recalls World War II Internments

Korematsu defied military orders that changed lives of Japanese Americans, including those living in East L.A.

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

A Japanese American welder who resisted internment during World War II was honored on the first ever Fred Korematsu Day this past Sunday.

Fred Toyosabura Korematsu, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 86, had been known for a long time in the Japanese American community as a civil rights hero. He is the first Asian American in the United States to have a day named in his honor.

Korematsu with fellow civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Photo by Shirley Nakao, courtesy of the Korematsu Institute

The state bill to establish the holiday, set every year on Jan. 30, Korematsu’s birthday, was co-authored by Assemblymembers Warren Furutani (D-South Los Angeles County) and Marty Block (D-San Diego) and signed into state law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last October.

Korematsu was born in Oakland, California on Jan. 30, 1919. He felt the stings of anti-Japanese sentiment even before Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, allowing for 120,000 people of Japanese descent to be rounded up and taken to prison camps around the country.

 Korematsu was turned away due to his Japanese ancestry when he tried to enlist in the U.S. National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard. He then trained to become a welder, eventually rising to the rank of a foreman before he was suddenly fired from his job, also because of his Japanese ancestry.

When Executive Order 9066 was issued, Korematsu defied the internment orders that affected all people of Japanese descent in America. He went as far as having surgery on his eyes, changing his name, and identifying himself as being of Spanish and Hawaiian descent.

“I didn’t think the government would go as far as to include American citizens to be interned, without a hearing. And then later they changed my draft card to 4-C, enemy alien… you’re not an American, and I thought that was wrong,” Korematsu once said.

Korematsu was eventually arrested for his defiance, but he appealed right up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944. Historians say the subsequent trial served as a stand-in for the trial that Japanese Americans who were interned never got.

But Korematsu lost his U.S. Supreme Court case. When President Clinton presented Korematsu in 1998 with a Medal of Freedom, he compared Korematsu to Rosa Parks and ranked him with figures like Plessy and Brown whose roles in legal history stood in for the wider civil rights cause of their time.

The decision that came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu’s case is widely condemned as one of the darkest moments in America’s legal history.

Korematsu lived for four decades with a “disloyalty” conviction that kept him from getting a full-time job. Finally with the help of a legal historian, Korematsu was able to file a suit to reopen his case. This time he succeeded in clearing his name and got his conviction overturned in 1983.

That decision proved to be a turning point, leading to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which brought redress in the form of $20,000 to each Japanese American incarcerated in internments camps around the country.

Even though there were no major Fred Korematsu Day celebrations in Los Angeles this year, Chris Komai, spokesperson for the Japanese American National Museum, JANM, believes “this is just the beginning.”

There were more organized celebrations and observances in Northern California, where Korematsu was born and raised, and one in San Diego this past week. “Even if people know of him in the Japanese American community, he’s not well known,” Komai said.

The internments “changed the demographics of all of Southern California,” he said.

The absence of a more prominent Japanese American community in the East Los Angeles area is a reflection of the “detrimental effect” the “mass incarceration” had, which “was the loss of property by Japanese Americans,” Komai said. 

In East Los Angeles communities, including in now suburban cities like Montebello, Commerce, Monterey Park and Bell Gardens, “Japanese Americans were among those who ran small farms and worked in the floral and produce industry,” he said. “When they were removed, many never returned since they had lost all of their property.”

Many prominent Japanese Americans have roots in East Los Angeles, including actor George Takei who grew up there, and JANM’s founder Bruce Kaji, who was attending Roosevelt High School when his family was ordered to report to an internment camp, Komai said.

Fred Korematsu Day marks the beginning of a “long-term education process,” Komai said, adding that the relevance of Korematsu’s experience goes beyond the Japanese American community.

“Fred Korematsu Day is to make more people aware that the Constitution can fail at times, as it did for Japanese Americans during World War II. The best protection is an educated, vigilant citizenry,” he said.

The new “special day of significance” bears the full name of “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution” reflecting an emphasis by the Korematsu Institute, formed by Korematsu’s daughter Karen, and the authors of the bill, to make this holiday about the wider cause of civil rights.

“It is Korematsu’s story, and the stories of other unnamed American heroes, that demonstrates the importance of continuing to fight for the freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution in the hopes that it will be extended to others, no matter the extenuating circumstances,” said Furutani.

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February 3, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


One Response to “First Ever ‘Fred Korematsu Day’ Recalls World War II Internments”

  1. johnk on April 26th, 2011 11:32 pm

    Hold on there – there are still J-A’s around. It’s not like in the past, and it’s not like Torrance or Gardena, but there are still communities around. There are still some old folks in Boyle Heights. You just don’t see them out and about. It’s not like the 70s, and I guess the 70s weren’t like the 50s, when times were a lot tougher.

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