Months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Fred Korematsu defied President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order in 1942 to leave his California home and enter a Japanese-American internment camp. The 23-year-old welder simply couldn’t bear to be parted from his Italian-American girlfriend. While Korematsu’s family and more than 110,000 Japanese Americans left an assortment of acquaintances, residences and businesses behind for a life behind barbed wire during World War II, he remained in San Leandro, Calif., a suburb of San Francisco. He tried to disguise himself, changing his name and having plastic surgery on his eyes to mask his racial identity, but on May 30, 1942, police arrested him for violating military orders. A courageous Korematsu fought his arrest and subsequent conviction all the way to the Supreme Court. Because of his efforts to raise awareness about racial discrimination and prejudice, the state of California began celebrating Korematsu Day in his honor in 2011. It is the first holiday held in recognition of an Asian American.
Hero in the Making
When Fred Korematsu bucked Executive Order 9066—which called for the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast for fear that they would plot with Japan more attacks against the United States—he had no idea that his act of rebellion would one day lead him to be called a hero. On the contrary, white and Japanese Americans alike considered Korematsu’s noncompliance disgraceful. It didn’t help that a newspaper headline proclaimed him a “Jap spy” after his arrest. Three months later, a federal court convicted Korematsu of defying military orders, and the young man who’d soon before enjoyed romantic picnics with his girlfriend found himself detained at a horse racetrack—the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif.—with scores of other Japanese Americans who’d been deprived of their liberty. Korematsu recalled living in a horse stall in a documentary. “There’s no floor, it’s just dirt, so the wind was blowing through that and it was cracks all around the walls, and there was a light bulb up there, one light bulb on the ceiling and that was it,” he said. Eventually, Korematsu and his family ended up at a detention camp in Topaz, Utah.
Supreme Court Setback
Although his situation appeared dire, Korematsu continued to fight. The American Civil Liberties Union helped him take his case to the Supreme Court. In a stunning move, the high court voted 6-3 in December 1944 that Korematsu’s civil rights had not been infringed upon because the incarceration of Japanese Americans constituted a military necessity. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, Korematsu lived for decades with a conviction on his record, which limited his employment prospects as he tried to support a wife and children.
A Twist of Fate
By 1981, Koremastu’s Supreme Court challenge was long behind him. He may have disagreed with the court’s decision but felt he had no choice but to accept it. Enter legal historian Peter Irons. After uncovering World War II documents indicating that there was no evidence of Japanese Americans committing acts of treason, Irons contacted Koremastu about re-launching his case, as the documents in question had been purposely kept from the Supreme Court four decades earlier. Irons’ instincts were right on. Because Korematsu could now argue that government misconduct had interfered with his Supreme Court case, a federal court reversed his conviction on Nov. 10, 1983. Not only was Korematsu’s record wiped clean, he was also viewed as a hero by former Japanese-American internees who had not dared stand up to the U.S. government when he did. Moreover, the undoing of Korematsu’s conviction led the convictions of other Japanese Americans who defied Executive Order 9066—Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi—to be dropped as well.
Fred Korematsu’s Legacy
Following respiratory problems, Fred Korematsu died March 30, 2005, at age 86 in Larkspur, Calif. “He had a very strong will,” Korematsu’s lawyer Dale Minami told the Los Angeles Times after his death. “He was like our Rosa Parks. He took an unpopular stand at a critical point in our history.” In 1998, President Bill Clinton honored Korematsu with the presidential Medal of Freedom. In his last years, Korematsu not only worked to raise awareness about discrimination against Japanese Americans but also worked to highlight the challenges Muslim Americans faced following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Nearly six years after his death, the state of California observed the first Fred Koremastu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution on Jan. 30, 2011, which would’ve been his 92nd birthday. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was among those who took part in the first holiday celebration. In addition to having a state holiday in his honor, Korematsu has multiple schools named after him as well as the Korematsu Institute, which carries on his work.