Korematsu's issei parents migrated to California in 1905. Their third of four sons, Fred Korematsu, was born in Oakland, California, in 1919. Korematsu worked at his family's San Leandro flower nursery, and attended public schools, graduating from Oakland's Castlemont High School in 1938. He went on to attend Los Angeles City College but dropped out after only three months because of financial reasons.
In June 1941, Korematsu tried to join the Navy but was rejected. He trained to become a welder and joined the Boiler Makers Union, which expelled its Japanese
American members after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Similarly, his supervisor at the shipyard where he worked fired him when he discovered Korematsu was a Japanese American. When Lieutenant General John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, issued an order prohibiting Japanese Americans from leaving Military Area 1 in March 1942, Korematsu underwent plastic surgery to alter his eyes and nose, changed his name to “Clyde Sarah,” and claimed to be of Spanish and Hawaiian descent.
In May 1942, DeWitt ordered all Japanese Americans to leave their homes. Korematsu refused to obey that order, and went into hiding in the Oakland area. On May 30, police arrested and held him in the Alameida county jail in Oakland. During police questioning, Korematsu explained he tried to disguise his “race” because he and his Italian girlfriend, Ida Boitano, had planned to flee California for Arizona to get married and “so that I would not be subjected to ostracism …” (Irons, 1983, 95). Meanwhile, his parents and brothers had been forcibly evicted from their home and were being held at the Tanforan assembly center south of San Francisco.
Ernest Besig, director of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in northern California, asked Korematsu, who had been transferred to the San Francisco county jail, if he was willing to use his situation and case to test the legality of the mass, forcible removal and detention of Japanese Americans. When Korematsu agreed, Besig assigned San Francisco attorney Wayne Collins to defend him. The national ACLU voted against sponsoring Korematsu's case, and directed Besig to refrain from pursuing the legal challenge to President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Besig chose to ignore the national board's instruction, and continued with the case.
For Korematsu, before Besig's approach, he had discussed with his older brother, Hiroshi, the pending military exclusion order and their response to it. Hiroshi Korematsu was chair of the
San Francisco YMCA's committee on alien resettlement, and he wrote to government officials his concern over the care of dispossessed aliens in Department of Justice internment camps. But when the military's exclusion orders were given, Hiroshi Korematsu chose to obey the order while his younger brother, Fred, chose to defy it.
Moreover, as FBI investigators found, Fred Korematsu “stated that he believed that the statute under which he is imprisoned was wrong … and that he intended to fight the case even before being approached by the Civil Liberties Union” (Irons, 1983, 98). Korematsu was transferred from prison to the Tanforan assembly center where he rejoined his family members to await his trial. At Tanforan, Hiroshi organized a meeting to discuss Fred's upcoming trial. Some said he should drop the challenge because it would bring more trouble onto Japanese Americans. Others told Fred to proceed as he chose. “So I decided to go ahead and see the thing through,” Korematsu determined. As he explained to Besig, assembly centers were “definitely an imprisonment under armed guard with orders shoot to kill. In order to be imprisoned, these people should have been given a fair trial in order that they may defend their loyalty at court in a democratic way, but they were placed in imprisonment without any fair trial!” (Irons, 1983, 99). In his decision to submit his case to the court, Korematsu intended to fight for the civil rights of Japanese Americans as a whole.
Three weeks after his arrest on June 20, 1942, Korematsu's attorneys, led by Collins, charged the president, Congress, and military with having engaged in unconstitutional actions against Korematsu and, in effect, Japanese Americans, by seeking to deny them a hearing or other due process protections. The judge was Martin Welsh, a veteran of California's state courts and a member of the white supremacist Native Sons of the Golden West. Welsh, however, left for vacation, and Korematsu's case fell to federal judge Adolphus St. Sure for trial.
St. Sure found Korematsu guilty of violating the military order, and sentenced him to a five-year probationary term. But the judge refused to impose the sentence, so military policemen grabbed Korematsu, who had been released by the court after posting bail, and refused to permit Korematsu to walk out of the court and onto the street. The startled judge bowed to the military, and allowed them to forcibly take Korematsu to Army headquarters at the Presidio and then to Tanforan assembly center.
Korematsu's attorney Collins filed an appeal with the Circuit Court of Appeals in October 1942, and his case ended at the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1943. The court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals for a decision on the legality of the military's exclusion order. The Court of Appeals upheld Korematsu's conviction, and the case returned to the Supreme Court for a final judgment. The nine members of the court met in October 1944 to discuss and decide on the Korematsu case. After much debate, the Supreme Court rendered a majority decision on Korematsu on December 18, 1944. The majority held that in wartime, citizenship carries heavier burdens than in peace, and because of “real military dangers,” the government was justified in excluding Korematsu. The Constitution, the majority
declared, does not forbid the military measures taken to secure the nation against a perceived danger. Three justices dissented.
After his released from Topaz concentration camp, Korematsu moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he found work repairing water tanks. Paid only half of what his white coworkers received, Korematsu protested and was told the police would arrest him as a Japanese American troublemaker. Korematsu quit the job. He moved to Detroit, Michigan, worked as a draftsman, married Kathryn Pearson in October 1946, and had a daughter and a son.
In the 1980s, a constitutional scholar, Peter Irons, discovered that government lawyers had lied to the Supreme Court in the Japanese American wartime cases, including Korematsu. That finding allowed for a writ of error coram nobis appeal of those cases because they were decided upon erroneous and misleading evidence. On November 10, 1983, U.S. district court judge Marilyn Hall Patel heard one of Korematsu's coram nobis attorneys, Dale Minami, tell the court: “We are here today to seek a measure of the justice denied to Fred Korematsu and the Japanese American community forty years ago.” Korematsu testified: “I still remember forty years ago when I was handcuffed and arrested as a criminal here in San Francisco.” He went on to explain, “As long as my record stands in federal court, any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing,” and added, “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” (Irons, 1989, 25–26).
Patel reminded her listeners that the legal precedent set by the Supreme Court decisions that affirmed the constitutionality of the government's treatment of Japanese Americans “stands as a constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees.” With that warning, Patel granted the petition for a writ of coram nobis, which had asked that Korematsu's conviction be vacated. The government failed to carry the appeal to the Supreme Court so the matter was not resolved by the only court that could repeal its decisions.
Korematsu was vindicated in 1988 when Congress enacted the Civil Liberties Act, which issued an apology for the exclusion and detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, and provided $20,000 to each survivor of the camps. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation into law. Ten years later, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Korematsu continued his fight against perceived injustices like the racial profiling of Muslims and South and West Asians following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, including the detention of alleged “terrorists” at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Japanese American experience, Korematsu explained, should offer a lesson against denials of civil and human rights.
Fred Korematsu died on March 30, 2005, and was buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in his hometown of Oakland.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Irons, Peter. Justice at War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Irons, Peter. Justice Delayed: The Record of the Japanese American Internment Cases. Middle town, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.