JAPANESE-AMERICAN INTERNEES IN WORLD WAR II
Just two months after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt made what many consider his worst decision. On February 19, 1942, he signed Executive order 9066, authorizing the forcible removal all Japanese-Americans from the Pacific coast for internment for the duration of the war. The decision was judged a “military necessity” based on the assumption that the Japanese-American community was filled with “spies and saboteurs.” After the presidential order was issued thousands of American citizens were torn from their homes and businesses. They had about a week's notice to report to the human collection centers, never mind what they would need to do to dispose of their property and settle business affairs.
When Japanese Americans were detained during World War II there were few public or congressional complaints at the time about their human rights. Executive Order 9066 called for the creation of military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or appropriate Military Commander may impose on his discretion.” Other laws banned people of Japanese descent from becoming citizens and owning agricultural land.
Nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans, the majority born in America, were told to leave their homes. They were rounded up, sometimes at bayonet point, and packed on trains and taken between 1942 to 1945 to 10 camps in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. In some cases Japanese had one day to sell their possessions before they were boarded onto buses and taken to camps. In many cases they were forced to sell farms, houses, cars and other valuable property for next to nothing. While the camps were prepared for them some of then lived in a fairground parking lot and a livestock pavilion.
The camps were hastily built on government land in the middle of nowhere. Resembled prisons, they had barbed-wire fences, guard towers, searchlights, armed military guards. Baseball bats, cameras and even popguns were confiscated. The Japanese language was banned. Mess halls served mutton and potatoes which many, used to rice and vegetables, found indigestible. One internee told the U.S. News and World Report, “There were MPs all over with guns. What could you do but obey them?”
Once the decision was made Roosevelt seemed to have few regrets. At a press conference in 1944, after he had won re-election he told reporters, “A good deal of progress has been made in scattering [Japanese-Americans] throughout the country.”
People of Japanese descent were also interned in Latin American countries. Some 1,800 Japanese-American businessmen and community leaders and were abducted from 13 Latin American countries and placed in a detention center in Texas. At the end of the war only 100 were allowed to return to their homes. The remainder were given the choice of becoming American citizens or going to Japan. Americans of German and Italian descent were not interned nor were Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii. Japanese living in Canada during the Second World War were disinvested and relocated. None have been compensated for their losses.
American Racism Toward the Japanese and the Round-Up of Enemy Aliens After Pearl Harbor
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the brutal treatment of American prisoners of war triggered a deep seated hatred toward the Japanese, who were characterized as "little monkeys" and "dwarfed, stunted, childlike people." The expressions "yellow peril" and "nefarious menace" were also used in discussions about the Japanese.
Japanese successes were attributed to their German military advisors. MacArthur said that compared to the Japanese the Nazis were "tolerable" because at least they were "civilized people." The New York Times magazine ran articles in 1942 entitled "The Nips," and "Japanese Superman: That Too is a Fallacy." The later article read: "Japanese are likened to the American Indian in their manner of making war. Our fighting men say that isn't fair to the Indian. He had honor of a sort."
Craig Shirley, author of a book about Pearl Harbor, wrote in the Washington Post: “Within 48 hours of the attack,” on Pearl Harbor “more than 1,000 people of Japanese, German and Italian descent, all considered “enemy aliens,” were detained by the FBI. By the end of the war, the government had interned, detained or restricted the movements of hundreds of thousands of people. Though Japanese Americans made up the majority of the roughly 120,000 people sent to internment camps, German Americans and Italian Americans were interned in Hawaii, while others were forced to move away from restricted areas on the mainland. In addition, more than 11,000 German residents of the United States were interned as well. An estimated 600,000 people of Italian descent were considered “enemy aliens” and kept under restrictions. Foreign diplomats from Germany, Japan and Italy were also rounded up and held. [Source: Craig Shirley, Washington Post, December 2, 2011]
“The Japanese, though, were dealt with most harshly. Days after Dec. 7, Attorney General Francis Biddle ordered all Japanese Americans to surrender their cameras and broadcasting devices to local police stations. Their bank accounts were frozen, and they faced travel restrictions, among many other limitations. The FBI and the Army called for every Japanese individual to be incarcerated for the duration of the “emergency.” However, Biddle urged Roosevelt to show restraint. [Ibid]
Interned Japanese-Americans in World War II
About 100,000 Japanese Americans relocated from the West Coast to the interior of the U.S. at the beginning of World War II, shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They spent the next three years in one of 10 Japanese American internment camps located in different places in the United States.
Two thirds of the internees were Nisei (second generation U.S. citizens of Japanese descent). The remainder were people or descendants of people who were refused American citizenship between 1922 and 1952. None of them were charged with any crime. First generation Japanese experienced their share of discrimination. They were not allowed to become citizens or own land.
There was a camp near Yellowstone National Park and two in Arkansas. More than 13,000 Japanese-Americans were interned at the Minidoka Relocation Center in the desolate wastelands around Hunt, Idaho. They were taken there in trains with armed guards and shuddered windows and not told where they were going. They lived behind barbed wire fences in wooden barracks that were cold in the winter in the harsh winter and sweltering in the summer heat.
More than 10,000 were placed in the Manzanar camp in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley in California. The Japanese-Americans there were trucked in and forced to live in military-style barracks and use latrines that had no dividers for privacy. Some worked as cooks, teachers and doctors but were paid only $16 a month, As bad as thing were some Japanese-Americans said they felt safer in the camps than they did on the streets of American cities, where they were called “Jap,” harassed and occasionally attacked.
The Japanese endured the best they could. Internees built schools and auditoriums, put out newspapers and formed marching bands. At Manzanar there was even a tofu factory. At the same time the internees were humiliated and taken advantage of, forced to renounce any ties to Japan, forced to take a loyalty test and then forced to work in arms factories and fight in suicidal combat missions in Europe.
Japanese Americans Interned in Horse Stalls at Santa Anita Race Track
Some Japanese Americans lived in horse stalls at Santa Anita race track before being shipped to internment camps. Cindy Chang wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “For six months in 1942, they lived here, in the same stalls where horses had slept, before being shipped to internment camps in isolated areas of the country. Back then, arriving adults mourned the loss of homes and businesses, while children explored the grounds, making new friends. In the barns, a thin layer of asphalt was all that separated families from layers of manure. Beds were mats stuffed with straw. [Source: Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2014 ><]
"Remember how smelly the stables were?" June Aochi Berk, who was 10 years old at the time, told the Los Angeles Times. "My friend couldn't eat because the smell of the stables made her sick." Berk pointed out where the showers, the mess halls and the barns that housed families stood."I was pretty young, and I didn't know why we were here, except that we were evacuating from the West Coast," said Shiro Nagaoka, who was 15 when he was forced to leave his Torrance home. "We were enjoying ourselves too much, maybe. We were pretty free to do what we wanted." ><
“Santa Anita was the largest of 17 "assembly centers" in the western U.S., including one in Pomona, housing Japanese Americans removed from their homes during the war with Japan. The Santa Anita detainees, who numbered nearly 19,000, were mostly from Southern California, with a few brought from San Francisco and Santa Clara. Some were housed in temporary barracks; others were squeezed into the horse stalls. Internees recalled that armed guards patrolled the camp and searchlights scanned for escapees. Some were paid $8 a month to make camouflage nets.” They enjoyed “softball games, sumo wrestling matches and new friendships. ><
“Amy Hashimoto graduated from high school at the track. She said her family had to sell a hog farm quickly, at a low price, when the order to evacuate Japanese residents was issued. "We were young enough, and we made lots of friends," said Hashimoto, who went from Santa Anita to an internment camp in Rohwer, Ark. "Our Issei [first-generation immigrant] parents — it was the hardest on them. They were the ones who lost the most." ><
“Min Tonai was 13 when he arrived at Santa Anita. When he saw the barbed wire and guard towers, he said, he felt he was entering a prison camp. His father had owned a dozen produce stands before the war but afterward trimmed vegetables at someone else’s stand, he said. "They were not trying to protect us. They were making sure we didn't get out," said Tonai. Ruth Takahashi Voorheis said she cried once during her years of internment: when she arrived at Santa Anita and saw the horse stall she was to share with her mother, brother and uncle. "It was a communal bath, communal eating. There was a line for everything," said Voorheis, who later was moved to a camp in Arizona.” ><
Wyoming’s Heart Mountain's Japanese American Internment
Nearly 14,000 Japanese-Americans were sent by train from California to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, an internment camp in Cody, Wyoming, located in an area of windy high desert is was freezing cold in the winter. Diana Lambdin Meyer wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Heart Mountain, just 50 miles east of Yellowstone National Park, takes its name from a majestic peak near the camp of the same name, but there was nothing romantic about what happened here between August 1942 and November 1945. [Source: Diana Lambdin Meyer, Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2013 <>]
“Heart Mountain was typical of the Japanese American experience of the day. With 740 acres behind barbed wire, the camp was intended to hold 10,000 citizens, but during its three years, it held more than 14,000 people, including 6,448 from Los Angeles County. Heart Mountain became known as "California's dumping ground." The black, barracks-style buildings reflect the design of living quarters hastily assembled for those uprooted from their homes, businesses, communities and lives. Internees on their way to the camp were required to wear a badge that looked like a paper luggage tag. It had to be attached to clothing and displayed at all times until they arrived at Heart Mountain. <>
“The buildings were so quickly constructed from green timber that within weeks, the wood began to shrink, leaving huge cracks through which the winter winds blew. Black tar paper that wrapped the buildings' exteriors did little to help against winter's subzero temperatures — 13 below F. on Jan. 17, 1943. The camp was the subject of the film "All We Could Carry" by Academy Award-winning documentarian Steven Okazaki. The title references the number of personal items that Japanese Americans could bring to Heart Mountain — usually one small suitcase per person. At the camp “six families often lived in one building, separated by a partition or curtain. There was no such screen in the communal toilet and bathing facilities. <>
“Life took on a rhythm at Heart Mountain. Children attended school in the barracks, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops were formed, sports teams competed, and more than 550 babies were born. In the spring, internees planted fruit and vegetables in the surrounding government-owned fields. They were paid $21 a month. Women shopped using the Sears, Roebuck catalog and at some stores in nearby Cody. Teenagers went to the movies on Saturday nights. No one could leave the camp without a pass, and although most internees had money in the bank, most of those assets were frozen for the duration of the war. <>
“Eight hundred men from Heart Mountain were drafted and served in combat in Europe during the war. Fifteen were killed in action; two won the Medal of Honor. Those Japanese American men who refused military service for the government that had incarcerated them in Wyoming were then incarcerated at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. <>
Why the Japanese-Americans Were Interred in World War II
Why were the Japanese-Americans were interred? Worries about a Japanese invasion were at their peak when the decision to intern them was made. Most those interned lived on the West Coast of the United States, where their were fears of a Japanese attack and a widespread belief that people of Japanese decent could not be trusted.
Japanese in the United States were referred to as “the enemy race” by one top general. All the governments in the western states were pushing for an “evacuation.” One popular newspaper columnist wrote in January 1942, “I’m for the immediately removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don’t mean a nice place of the interior either. Herd “em up, pack “em off and give “em the inside room of the badlands...let “em be pinched, hurt, hungry...let us have no patience with the enemy or with anyone who carries his blood. Personally, I hate the Japanese.” Another columnist wrote, “Of making 1,000,000 innocent Japanese uncomfortable would prevent one scheming Japanese from costing the life of an American boy, then let 1,000,000 Japanese suffer.”
Neal Katyal wrote in the Washington Post: After the Pearl Harbor bombing on Dec. 7, 1941, Army Lt. Gen. John DeWitt deemed the Pacific Coast vulnerable to attack, leading the government to prohibit people of Japanese ancestry (including U.S. citizens) from being anywhere near the coastline. At the time, the attack on Pearl Harbor was fresh in the public consciousness, and the West Coast in particular was in the grip of anti-Japanese sentiment. The Los Angeles Times heartily endorsed internment of the “Japs,” then-California Attorney General Earl Warren came out in support of the plan.
One the reasons for internment was to prevent espionage or sabotage even though there was little evidence that any Japanese-Americans took part in such activities. No American of Japanese descent was ever convicted of sabotage during the war. American military leaders worried that Japan might "succeed in combining most of the Asiatic people against the whites." The FBI kept its eyes out for Japanese conspiracy to turn the black population against the U.S. government.
The government argued that internment was justified by military necessity, Katyal wrote. The nation was at war, and it needed to keep Japanese Americans away from the coasts, to prevent espionage and for the safety of the country. In making its successful case, however, the government chose not to share with the court a key report that flatly contradicted this argument: a January 1942 report, written by naval intelligence, concluded that only a small percentage of Japanese Americans posed a potential threat and that the most dangerous were already in custody or already known. The report concluded that “the entire “Japanese Problem” has been magnified out of its true proportion, largely because of the physical characteristics of the people” and that “it should be handled on the basis of the individual, regardless of citizenship, and not on a racial basis.”
Japanese-Americans Who Fought for the U.S. in Europe in World War II
Japanese-Americans fought and died in Europe. About 30,000 Japanese-American served in the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion . The 442nd Regimental Combat was a unit of 13,000 Japanese-Americans volunteers, most of them recruited form internment camps, who fought bravely in Europe, suffering 9,500 casualties. Ironically, the United States probably could have anticipated Pearl Harbor had more intelligence workers learned Japanese and they hired more Japanese-American workers to interpret the large volume of coded messages.
Steve Padilla wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Tokuji Yoshihashi served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. The unit, known for its motto, "Go For Broke," was one of three Nisei units to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. The 442 refers to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the all-Japanese American units that served with distinction in World War II. The unassuming man turning heads was my father-in-law, Tokuji Yoshihashi. [Source: Steve Padilla, Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2013]
“I couldn't help but smile as people sought him out and asked questions. They remembered the story of the 442 -- often known for its motto "Go for Broke" -- and that's a comfort. "Toke," as the family calls him, is a living reminder of the sad but triumphant story of the Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, who overcame the Axis abroad and prejudice at home. I've heard the story again and again and it still defies reason, still offends. Toke was among more than 110,000 Japanese Americans thrown into internment camps amid racist wartime hysteria. Forced out of their Pasadena home, Toke and his family ended up at the sweltering Gila River camp in Arizona.
Then the nation that had spurned them wanted the Nisei men to fight, so Toke and his older brother, Ichiro, shipped off to Europe. Toke makes a point of saying he was drafted. Over the years, he's shared stories: About throwing away a heavy coat, only to regret it when the weather turned cold; about seeing Italians hitting and spitting on Mussolini's corpse after it was strung up by the ankles in Milan; about how he and fellow Nisei soldiers traveling through New Orleans tracked down a Chinese restaurant because they missed gohan, rice. A kind stranger picked up their tab.
And he's also spoken of that grand day in Washington, when the Nisei marched down Constitution Avenue past President Harry S. Truman. "You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice -- and you have won," Truman said. In time, he married, settled in San Gabriel, raised three children and worked for the Department of Water and Power as a mechanic. With dignity and hard work, he showed Truman was right. Toke was in Washington again in 2011 when congressional leaders awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor, to the three Nisei units -- the 442nd, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service.
Japanese-Americans Who Served in the Pacific Theater
In November 2011 George Nakamura and Yukio Kawamoto, two Japanese-Americans born in California in 1919, received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service in World War II in the South Pacific, which both men performed in even though both their parents were sent to Japanese-American internment camps. About 19,000 Japanese-American served in units in World War II. Most of them served in Europe.
Tom Jackman wrote in the Washington Post: Nakamura and Kawamoto “entered the Army without hesitation. “They didn’t like that,” Kawamoto said of his parents, “but what can you do? You’re an American citizen, you’ve got to do your duty. They were reticent until I was drafted.” Nakamura said the loyalty of Japanese-Americans was being questioned after Pearl Harbor, and some Japanese-American students passed around petitions listing their support for the U.S. “That was not good enough for me, so I joined” without consulting his parents, Nakamura said. “It’s my duty to fight for the U.S. There was no question about it. So I did that.” [Source:Tom Jackman, Washington Post, December 7, 2011]
Both were sent to different parts of the South Pacific... Kawamoto spent a year at New Caledonia in the Army’s South Pacific headquarters, translating seized Japanese documents and helping to interrogate Japanese prisoners, then performed the same duties with the 37th Infantry Division on New Guinea. Meanwhile, Kawamoto learned that his parents had been removed from Berkeley and taken to an internment camp in Utah. While on leave, he even visited them there.”I wasn’t happy about it,” he said. “They were there for the duration of the war, while I was out fighting for the United States. But what could you do?—put up within a month of his enlistment, and sent to separate camps in New Mexico and Arizona. “I guess at the time,” he said Tuesday, “I thought it was just simply inevitable. What the hell was I going to say? I was young, war was going on, what was I to think? I can’t approve it. That was what the government decided to do. I had no other alternative but to maintain my patriotism.”
On New Guinea, Kawamoto interviewed a Japanese deserter and learned of an imminent attack, allowing American troops to obtain reinforcements and prepare for the onslaught. Kawamoto also went to the Philippines and served in the Battle of Manila.
Nakamura said that, once in the military, he felt like he was being “left behind because I was Japanese-American.” When he heard about the opportunity to work for the Military Intelligence Service, he “jumped on it because that was the only opportunity for me to go overseas.” Sent to Australia, he worked with intercepted Japanese communications and documents. But “I was getting tired of that,” Nakamura said. “I wanted to go to the front. I joined the Army to see some action.” He was sent to New Guinea, and in January 1945 at Lingayan Bay, his convoy found a hidden Japanese lieutenant. Nakamura and others convinced 22 Japanese soldiers to surrender, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star.
Ben Kuroki, the Only Japanese-American to Fly over Japan in World War II
Ben Kuroki was the only Japanese American to fly over Japan during World War II. He volunteered for service after Pearl Harbor and earned place on bomber crew despite army air forces ban on soldiers of Japanese ancestry flying. He was presented with the Distinguished Service Medal in 2005 and died in 2015 at the age of 98. [Source: Associated Press, September 6, 2015 ^^^]
Associated Press reported: “The son of Japanese immigrants who was raised on a farm in Hershey, Nebraska, Kuroki and his brother, Fred, volunteered for service after the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. They were initially rejected by recruiters who questioned the loyalty of the children of Japanese immigrants. Undeterred, the brothers drove 150 miles to another recruiter, who allowed them to sign up. At the time, the army air forces banned soldiers of Japanese ancestry from flying, but Kuroki earned his way onto a bomber crew and flew 58 bomber missions over Europe, North Africa and Japan during the war. ^^^
“He took part in the August 1943 raid over Nazi oil fields in Ploesti, Romania, that killed 310 fliers in his group. He was captured after his plane ran out of fuel over Morocco, but he managed to escape with crewmates to England. Because of his Japanese ancestry, he was initially rejected when he asked to serve on a B-29 bomber that was to be used in the Pacific. But after repeated requests and a review of his stellar service record, Secretary of War Harry Stimson granted an exception. Crew members nicknamed him “Most Honorable Son” and the War Department gave him a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was saluted by Time magazine in 1944 under the headline “HEROES: Ben Kuroki, American”. He was hailed as a hero and a patriot at a time when tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were confined at internment camps amid fears of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. ^^^
“After the war, Kuroki enrolled at the University of Nebraska, where he obtained a journalism degree. He published a weekly newspaper in Nebraska for a short time before moving to Michigan and finally to California, where he retired as the news editor of Ventura Star-Free Press in 1984. In 2005, he received the US army Distinguished Service Medal, one of the nation’s highest military honors. “I had to fight like hell for the right to fight for my own country,” Kuroki said at the award ceremony in Lincoln, Nebraska. “And I now feel vindication.” ^^^
Compensation for Interred Japanese-Americans
The first internees were released in January 1945, several months before the war ended. They were given $25 and bus ticket to anywhere in the United States. Most had nowhere to go because their homes and property was seized and stayed in the camps until they were kicked out after the war.
About $28 million was paid to Japanese-Americans as part of the 1948 American Evacuations Claims Act. The event was largely forgotten. It wasn’t until 1983 that a congressional commission recognized the detention as “unjust and motivated by racism.”
In 1988 Congress approved legislation that apologized to the internees and distributed $1.6 billion in reparations, blaming the campaign on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Between 1988 and 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Redress Administration (ORA) awarded payments of $20,000 or more to 81,800 Japanese-Americans. Each payment was accompanied by an official letter of apology from the United States president, something that was much more important to many of the victims than the money. In 2006, $38 million was authorized to preserve the internment camps.
“Because of their own experiences as internees in the U.S. in World War II, Japanese-American have been among the most vocal and passionate supporters of Muslims that have been discriminated against after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center . Rep. Michael M. Honda from California has been outspoken in his support for Muslim and his condemnation of the profiling of Arabs and Muslim to catch potential terrorists.
Gordon Hirabayashi’s Fight Against Internment
Neal Katyal wrote in the Washington Post: Seventy years ago, a young University of Washington senior refused to report to an Army internment camp. Gordon Hirabayashi, like more than 100,000 other Americans of Japanese descent, had been ordered to be interned based on nothing more than the country where his parents were born. Instead of reporting to the Army, he turned himself in to the FBI, and in so doing, changed history. [Source: Neal Katyal, Washington Post, January 6, 2012]
Hirabayashi was born in Seattle and grew up 20 miles south of the city, in a suburb where his father ran a fruit stand. But instead of fleeing to Canada or moving inland, he openly defied the order. He wanted to challenge the system from within. After a trial in federal court, Hirabayashi was convicted of violating the evacuation order. When he was told that the government had no funds to send him to the work camp in Arizona where he was to serve his sentence, he offered to get himself there. So he hitchhiked. When he arrived, the U.S. Marshals office could not find his paperwork and told Hirabayashi he was free to go. He once again refused, and served his sentence.
When he refused evacuation in 1942, no end to World War II was in sight; he faced the prospect of indefinite separation from his family members, who were being sent to the internment camp. Hirabayashi’s roommate, who originally planned to defy the evacuation order with him, eventually yielded to family entreaties to go along with it. Hirabayashi did not.
When his case arrived at the high court’s doors, the justices refused to help. His conviction was left intact in 1943 by a unanimous Supreme Court. Part of the blame may rest with the justices, but part must rest with the United States government, and with the way its lawyer, the solicitor general, conducted the case. Even the ACLU refused to support Hirabayashi’s case until it reached the Supreme Court.
The government argued that internment was justified by military necessity. In making its successful case, however, the government chose not to share with the court a key report that flatly contradicted this argument. That January 1942 report, written by naval intelligence, concluded that only a small percentage of Japanese Americans posed a potential threat and that the most dangerous were already in custody or already known. The report concluded that “the entire “Japanese Problem” has been magnified out of its true proportion, largely because of the physical characteristics of the people” and that “it should be handled on the basis of the individual, regardless of citizenship, and not on a racial basis.”
Justice Department lawyer, Edward Ennis, told Solicitor General Charles Fahy: “I think we should consider very carefully whether we do not have a duty to advise the Court of the existence of the Ringle memorandum and of the fact that this represents the view of the Office of Naval Intelligence. It occurs to me that any other course of conduct might approximate the suppression of evidence.” Fahy refused. Instead, he told the court that the detention of all Japanese Americans was necessary. The court agreed---and in the end, it is not hard to see why. The nine justices were not experts in military necessity, and when the solicitor general says something is necessary for the war effort, it is very difficult to disagree.
In the 1980s, when a federal court of appeals learned that the solicitor general had suppressed evidence in his case, it overturned his conviction---more than 40 years after the Supreme Court upheld it.
Interned Japanese-American Gets Justice After a Long Fight
Fred Korematsu, a young Japanese-American man at the time World War II broke out, refused let himself to be hauled away and was arrested. He took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. Later he was vindicated and given a U.S. a Medal of Freedom. Six years after his death 2005 a California holiday---Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties--- was declared in his honor. [Source: Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2011]
Maria L. La Ganga wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Korematsu, then 22, was with his girlfriend in the hills above San Francisco Bay when the music on his car radio stopped and his world changed. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. He had already faced discrimination because of his ancestry, a union that kicked him out, restaurants that wouldn't serve him, barbers who wouldn't cut his hair. He'd tried to enlist twice but was turned away by a military that changed his draft status to "4C"---enemy alien---even though he had been born and raised in Oakland. [Ibid]
Four months after Pearl Harbor, Korematsu's family was sent to Tanforan Racetrack, where they awaited transfer to an internment camp. Korematsu refused to go. Instead, he changed his name to Clyde Sarah, got minor plastic surgery on his eyes so he wouldn't look so Japanese, said he was of Spanish and Hawaiian descent. He and his girlfriend, who was white, would move to Nevada, he figured, outside of the coastal military zone where Japanese residents were banned. They would be safe. [Ibid]
He was, after all, an American citizen, and "I didn't think the government would go as far as to include American citizens to be interned without a hearing," he recounted in a 2000 documentary. But on May 30, 1942, Korematsu was arrested on a street corner in San Leandro and sent to jail in San Francisco. He was found guilty of violating military orders and sent to Tanforan to await internment, and he ended up at a camp in Utah. "The horse stalls that we stayed in were made for horses, not human beings," he would tell a judge nearly 40 years later, describing the "shame" and "embarrassment" of "all Japanese American citizens who were escorted to concentration camps.” [Ibid]
Fred Korematsu’s Long Road to Justice
Maria L. La Ganga wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “With the help of the Northern California ACLU, Korematsu appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court---and lost, 6 to 3, in 1944. The government argued that internment was not based on racism and that the Army had proof that Japanese residents were signaling enemy ships and prone to disloyalty. But in an angry dissent, Justice Robert Jackson said the government's evidence was lacking and declared that "the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination." [Source: Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2011]
Korematsu became a structural draftsman and “never told his children about the internment camps and the court cases. With a conviction on his record---misdemeanor or no---he had trouble getting work. He never shook the shame. Peter Irons, historian and lawyer, decided in 1981 to write a book about three cases that stemmed from Japanese internment and went to the Supreme Court. Korematsu's was the most famous. Irons had planned a "standard academic book," he said recently, which would explain how the Supreme Court "made such terrible decisions in this case, especially when so many of the justices were so liberal."After he found the Department of Justice records on the cases, the first document he looked at, he said, was "the smoking gun.” [Ibid]
To prosecute Korematsu, Irons said, the Department of Justice had relied upon a report by Gen. John DeWitt, who had carried out the evacuation of Japanese residents in big swaths of the West. It declared that they "had committed acts of espionage and sabotage." But Edward Ennis, a Justice Department lawyer, was suspicious and contacted the FBI, the Federal Communications Commission and military intelligence. They told him that there was no evidence of such acts. Ennis laid it all out in a memo, which was ignored. With that memo and another document discovered by researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, Irons contacted San Francisco lawyer Dale Minami, co-founder of the Asian Law Caucus. They put together a team of young, largely sansei attorneys and offered to represent Korematsu for free. [Ibid]
At one point, Department of Justice lawyers offered Korematsu a pardon if he would drop his suit against the government. "It meant that you admit the guilt of your actions, but we'll remove any penalties," Minami said. The Korematsus said, "'We're not going to take a pardon from the government. We should be the ones pardoning the government.' " On Nov. 10, 1983, in front of federal court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, Minami argued that Korematsu's case before the Supreme Court had been based on fraud and racism. [Ibid]
In the case Korematsu told the court: "According to the Supreme Court decision regarding my case, being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one; otherwise they say you can't tell the difference between a loyal and a disloyal American...I thought that this decision was wrong, and I still feel that way. 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. That is, if they look like the enemy of our country.” [Ibid]
The 1944 Supreme Court decision, though discredited, still stands, but Patel overturned Korematsu's conviction that very day. Korematsu spent his final years as a civil rights activist, his main goal to teach and remind. Not long after his death, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Lillian Y. Lim began worrying that his legacy "was disappearing in our national conscience.” So she created a committee, enlisted her law students and pushed for a holiday. Co-sponsored by Assemblymen Warren Furutani (D-Gardena) and Marty Block (D-San Diego), it passed the state Legislature unanimously. [Ibid]
Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons;
Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated November 2016