Karen Korematsu Visits TC: A Story of Perseverance, Possibility, and Praxis ☆

Karen Korematsu, daughter of Japanese-American civil rights activist Fred Korematsu, gave an intimate portrayal of an unassuming man who took a stand for justice. Korematsu told her father’s story on March 26 in a talk called “A Legacy of Civil Wrongs and Rights: Korematsu v. United States and Japanese Internment.”

Professor Ernest Morrell, director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College introduced Karen Korematsu, calling her father’s history “a story about perseverance and possibility.”

Korematsu greeted the Teachers College audience warmly. “I love to talk to teachers and students,” she said.  “My father believed in education and he wanted the next generation to know about the lessons of history.”

She stressed that the lessons from her father’s story are still relevant today. Addressing a group of high school students in the audience, she said, “In the future, when you’re confronted with issues like national security, immigration, and racial profiling, you can make the right choices.”

The story of Fred Korematsu’s journey as an American begins in the early 20th century. In 1905, Kakusaburo Korematsu arrived in the United States from Japan. After working in the sugar cane fields of Kauai, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and bought a flower nursery near Oakland. He married a “picture bride” from Japan, and the couple had four sons, of whom Fred was the third. As a high school student, Fred was on the track team and the swim team. After high school, he got a job as a shipyard welder at the docks in Oakland.

On December 7, 1941, his life changed forever. With the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor, prejudice against people of Japanese ancestry soared. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the deportation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. About 110,000-120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were affected by the order, and two thirds of those interned were American citizens.

Many families were only given 48 hours to evacuate, leaving behind their homes, businesses, and most of their possessions. Fred’s father hastily arranged for a neighbor to watch the family business, hid some keepsakes in the rafters, and led his family away from their home.

Everyone except for Fred. He decided to defy the order to evacuate.

“He didn’t think it was right that American citizens were being imprisoned without charges,” Karen Korematsu said.

Fred Korematsu underwent plastic surgery on his eyes in an attempt to look less Asian. He told people his name was Clyde and his ethnic background was Spanish and Hawaiian.

The ruse didn’t work. In May 1942, Fred was waiting to meet his girlfriend on a street corner in San Leandro, California, when he was stopped by police and arrested. He was held in a San Francisco county jail, where he was approached by a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The lawyer asked Fred if he was willing to become the test case for the constitutionality of the Japanese internment camps. Fred said yes.

“He just believed in right and wrong,” Karen Korematsu said. “He had learned about the Constitution in high school, and he thought he had civil rights because of that document.”

Fred Korematsu 1940's

In June of 1942, Fred Korematsu was arraigned on charges of violating the military orders for internment. Fred’s lawyer posted his $5000 bail, but when Fred stepped outside the courthouse, military police were waiting for him.

Fred was forced to report to an assembly center at Tanforan equestrian racetrack in San Bruno, California. At Tanforan, Japanese and Japanese-American detainees lived in horse stalls and hastily constructed barracks for 2-3 months before being relocated to more permanent internment camps across the United States. The internment of so many people left the U.S. government scrambling to house them. The usual procedure, according to Karen Korematsu, was to “find fairgrounds with horse stalls, whitewash them, and add straw mattresses.”

At the permanent internment camps, conditions weren’t much better. The barracks were made of wood and flimsy tarpaper, and sand from outside blew into the mess hall and ruined the food. The buildings were freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. There were open latrines and no privacy.

“It was so difficult for my poor grandmother,” Karen Korematsu said.

In September of 1942, Fred Korematsu was convicted of violating the internment order. His appeal made it to the United States Supreme Court in December of 1944. To the despair of Fred and the Japanese-American community, the Supreme Court sided with the government, and held that the internment camps were justified during circumstances of “emergency and peril.”

Although the Supreme Court’s 1944 decision on the constitutionality of the camps was devastating, the ruling came after the United States had already approved the end of the internment of Japanese-Americans. Fred moved to Detroit, where his youngest brother lived. In 1946, he married Kathryn Pearson. Fred and his bride moved back to Oakland, and the couple had a daughter, Karen, and a son, Ken.

As a child in school, Karen Korematsu recalls feeling alienated from her peers.

“I never felt like I belonged,” she said. She especially dreaded the month of December, when the anniversary of the Japanese military’s attack on the United States prompted taunting from her classmates. Other schoolchildren called her “Jap” and told her that her family caused the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Karen tried to avoid the school bus until after Christmas, crafting excuses for her mother to drive her to school in the family car.

Karen was a junior in high school when she heard a presentation in her U.S. history class about Japanese internment and the Supreme Court case of Korematsu v. the United States. When she heard that name “Korematsu,” she suspected that the case might have involved someone in her family.

“Korematsu is an unusual last name, even in Japan,” she explained. She asked the classmate more about plaintiff in the case.

“It’s about your dad,” her classmate said.

Karen was in disbelief. “Somebody would have told me!” she insisted.

When she got home from school, Karen finally got the full story of what her father had been through. Even after the end of internment, Fred Korematsu’s stand caused difficulties in his life. His criminal record meant that he was limited in employment opportunities. He was denied a California realtor’s license due to his past conviction, despite passing the certification exam.

“He was so disappointed and disgusted,” Karen Korematsu said.

She explained that her family’s silence was not unusual among Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps.

“Families did not talk about it,” she said. “They wanted to get on with their lives. They wanted to prove that they were good citizens, to raise their children, and give back to their communities.”

Fred Korematsu finally received some measure of justice in 1983, when his conviction was formally vacated. He continued his life’s work as an activist, traveling to Washington DC and lobbying for the passage of the bill that would grant an official apology and $20,000 in reparations to victims of the forced internment. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed this bill into law as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

Ten years later, in January 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.

Karen Korematsu showed a clip of the documentary, “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story,” which includes footage of President Bill Clinton presenting the medal.

“In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stand for millions of souls,” Clinton said. “Plessy, Brown, Parks… to that distinguished list, today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”

Fred Korematsu died in 2005 at age 86. In 2010, the state of California declared his birthday, January 30, “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.”

To learn more about Fred Korematsu, or to order a free teaching kit, go to korematsuinstitute.org.

Contributed by Shelby Martin