Jan. 30 is officially Fred Korematsu Civil Liberties and Constitution Day in New Jersey, and Japanese-American lawyers and Korematsu’s daughter say his story is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.
“This is a very important moment,” said Danielle Iwata, a board member of AAPI Montclair, whose family was incarcerated at the Tule Lake and Minnetonka camps. Fred Korematsu Day is about “making sure that we use our history to make sure this doesn’t happen to other groups, or to support other groups that it happens to,” Iwata told NJ Spotlight News.
Gov. Phil Murphy marked the occasion Monday with a signing ceremony for a legislative resolution making New Jersey the sixth state to mark the birthday of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American born in Oakland, Calif., who defied internment camps.
Korematsu was 23 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sealing off Japanese communities on the West Coast and pushing them into what were euphemistically called “relocation centers.”
Korematsu changed his name to Clyde Sara and had plastic surgery to change the shape of his eyes in hopes that he could appear Spanish and Hawaiian. He was arrested for “failure to appear” at a detention center and was eventually sent to a camp in Topaz, Utah, where he was shunned by Japanese Americans for fear that he was out of luck. His case reached the Supreme Court – Korematsu v. United States (1944) – which upheld the decision to “exclude” Japanese Americans from the West Coast to protect against espionage. No Japanese-American has ever been convicted of espionage, and the court’s decision has become synonymous with anti-Asian hatred.
To some, the legislative resolution and ceremony held by Murphy on Monday may seem like small gestures. But the waves of anti-Asian hatred over the past three years — and the federal government’s continued surveillance and imprisonment of Americans during the war — are a stark reminder that the Korematsu case is still relevant.
Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred Korematsu, is a well-known figure in the Japanese American, Asian American, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) advocacy communities, often appearing at talks or events like the one in Trenton to keep memory of his father. For her, her father’s story is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.
“It’s … an automatic response to when something bad happens to our country, instead of treating it like, ‘What can we do to change? What can we do to fix this? … It’s always like, ‘How can we marginalize?’ How can we humiliate, how can we put these people behind bars,” said Karen Korematsu.
Fred Korematsu was among other Japanese Americans who came forward in 2001, during the rise of anti-Muslim hatred after 9/11, his daughter said. Japanese-American advocates have warned against the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which allowed governments to track and detain people believed to be involved in terrorist activities, which social justice advocates say could criminalize and discriminate against any resident of the Muslim-majority country.
No more “concentration” camps
“My father was one of the first to speak out when the government talked about rounding up Arab and Muslim Americans and putting them in American concentration camps. And the father said, “No, you can’t do that.” You’ve done this before and it’s wrong,” Karen told Korematsu.
It is debated whether the Supreme Court’s decision in the Karamatsu case could again be used to justify similar discrimination against other groups. It was not overturned by the Supreme Court until 2018 in the Trump v. Hawaii travel ban case, when Trump’s decision to ban travel to and from certain Muslim-majority countries was upheld. Justice Sonia Sotomayor compared the travel ban and the Korematsu case in her dissent.
“As here, (Roosevelt’s) exclusion order was based on dangerous stereotypes about a certain group’s alleged inability to assimilate and desire to harm the United States,” Sotomayor said.
Chief Justice Roberts dismissed Sotomayor’s claim, writing in his decision that Karamatsu v. United States had been “overturned in the court of history.” It was a rare mention of the Karamatsu case in the Supreme Court, and legal experts and human rights activists are debating is enough cancel the case.
“It was a throwaway (remark) from Chief Justice Roberts … (it) was just retaliation because Justice Sotomayor’s dissent was so scathing,” Karen Korematsu said.
However, she added that her father’s criminal record had been overturned. He revived his cause during the reparations movement, when Japanese Americans fought for reparations from the United States government in the 1970s and 1980s. People told her father not to pursue the case for fear they would lose support for compensation, but he pushed forward anyway, and his conviction was overturned in 1983 by a federal judge.
Karen Korematsu, who founded the institute named after her father, said she works with community organizations to teach her father’s and other Japanese Americans’ stories about the internment camps, not just so students can learn how Asian Americans were treated as with “enemy aliens”. for most of their history in this country, but also so they can see government and society repeating her father’s story today.
She said she is also working with the New Jersey Department of Education after the state passed a law in January 2022 mandating the teaching of Asian American and Pacific Islander history in schools.
The story of Fred Korematsu is often one of the few parts of Japanese American internment during World War II that students learn about in history classes. But his daughter and other Asian American advocates hope Fred Korematsu Day in New Jersey will shed light on the history of anti-Asian sentiment in America, as well as the resilience of Asian Americans.
“Now we do that to young people, where we don’t welcome them or treat them like they don’t matter. And it needs to be stopped by sharing our stories. Knowing your own history. This will give you the opportunity to take up this challenge and try to do something better for our country,” said Karen Korematsu.