Imagine not being able to walk outside at night or having to sell your possessions and abandon your home to spend years behind barbed wire—even though you’d done nothing wrong. For Japanese Americans during World War II, this scenario was reality. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 1941, the U.S. government stripped Japanese Americans of their civil rights despite no evidence linking them to wrongdoing. The Issei and Nisei simply looked like the enemy and that was enough for the federal government to treat them as such. Ultimately the government forced more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, but some— Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi—defied orders imposed exclusively on their ethnic group. For refusing to do what they’d been told, these courageous men were arrested and jailed. They eventually took their cases to the Supreme Court—and lost.
Although the Supreme Court would rule in 1954 that the policy of “separate but equal” violated the Constitution, striking down Jim Crow in the South, it proved incredibly shortsighted in cases related to Japanese-American internment. As a result, Japanese Americans who argued before the high court that curfews and internment infringed upon their civil rights had to wait until the 1980s for vindication.
Minoru Yasui v. United States
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Minoru Yasui was no ordinary twenty-something. In fact, he had the distinction of being the first Japanese American lawyer admitted to the Oregon Bar. In 1940, he began working for the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago but promptly resigned after Pearl Harbor to return to his native Oregon. Shortly after Yasui’s arrived in Oregon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. The order authorized the military to bar Japanese Americans from entering certain regions, to impose curfews on them and to relocate them into internment camps. Yasui deliberately defied the curfew. “It was my feeling and belief, then and now, that no military authority has the right to subject any United States citizen to any requirement that does not equally apply to all other U.S. citizens,” he explained in the book And Justice For All.
For walking the streets past curfew, Yasui was arrested. During his trial at the U.S. District Court in Portland, the presiding judge acknowledged that the curfew order violated the law but decided that Yasui had forsaken his U.S. citizenship by working for the Japanese Consulate and learning the Japanese language. The judge sentenced him to a year in Oregon’s Multnomah County Jail. In 1943, Yasui’s case appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Yasui was still a U.S. citizen and that the curfew he’d violated was valid. Yasui eventually ended up at an internment cap in Minidoka, Idaho, where he was released in 1944. Four decades would pass before Yasui was exonerated. In the meantime, he would fight for civil rights and engage in activism on behalf of the Japanese-American community.
Hirabayashi v. United States
Gordon Hirabayashi was a University of Washington student when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. He initially obeyed the order but one night after having to cut a study session short to avoid violating the curfew, he questioned why he was being singled out in a way that his white classmates were not. Because he considered the curfew to be a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights, Hirabayashi decided to intentionally flout it. “I was not one of those angry young rebels, looking for a cause,” he said in a 2000 Associated Press interview. “I was one of those trying to make some sense of this, trying to come up with an explanation.”
For defying Executive Order 9066 by missing curfew and failing to report to an internment camp, Hirabayashi was arrested and convicted in 1942. He ended up jailed for two years and did not win his case when it appeared before the Supreme Court. The high court argued that the executive order was not discriminatory because it was a military necessity. Like Yasui, Hirabayashi would have to wait until the 1980s before he saw justice. Despite this blow, Hirabayashi spent the years after World War II getting a master’s degree and doctorate in sociology from the University of Washington. He went on to a career in academia.
Korematsu v. United States
Love motivated Fred Korematsu, a 23-year-old shipyard welder, to defy orders to report to an internment camp. He simply did not want to leave his Italian-American girlfriend and internment would have separated him from her. After his arrest in May 1942 and subsequent conviction for violating military orders, Korematsu fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The court, however, sided against him, arguing that race did not factor into the internment of Japanese Americans and that interment was a military necessity.Four decades later, the luck of Korematsu, Yasui and Hirabayashi changed when legal historian Peter Irons stumbled upon evidence that government officials had withheld several documents from the Supreme Court stating that Japanese Americans posed no military threat to the United States. With this information in hand, Korematsu’s attorneys appeared in 1983 before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco, which vacated his conviction. Yasui’s conviction was overturned in 1984 and Hirabayashi’s two years later.
In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which led to a formal government apology for internment and payment to of $20,000 to internment survivors.
Yasui died in 1986, Korematsu in 2005 and Hirabayashi in 2012.