California Dedicates Jan. 30 to Fred Korematsu Who Defied Japanese American Concentration Camps

Fred Korematsu

California dedicated Jan. 30 to the memory of Fred Korematsu, a shipyard welder who legally objected to Japanese American “internment” in World War II.

The state holiday, officially the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, was signed into law by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 23, 2010.

Fred Korematsu Day is the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American. Hawaii, Virginia, Florida and Michigan have since followed suit, according to KQED, while other states are still waiting for legislative approval.

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Korematsu was born in Oakland on Jan. 30, 1919. But he would not be known until May 1942, when he was arrested and detained in San Leandro after failing to report for internment.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of the internment. He believed “people should have a fair trial and a chance to defend their loyalty at court in a democratic way, because in this situation, people were placed in imprisonment without any fair trial.”

Korematsu was arraigned on June 18, 1942. But after posting bail, he was taken by military police to the Presidio of San Francisco.

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On Sept. 8. 1942, Korematsu was convicted of Public Law No. 503, which criminalized violations of military orders. He and his family were sent to the Central Utah War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah.

There, Korematsu worked eight-hour days for $12 a month. Unfortunately, he was forced to live in a horse stall with a single light bulb, making him realize “jail was better than this.”

Korematsu eventually appealed his case to the Court of Appeals, and after being rejected, to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, he still lost because the internment was ruled to be justified in circumstances of “emergency and peril.”

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While Korematsu lost his legal efforts, they eventually led to the adoption of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Signed by President Ronald Reagan, the law granted reparations to some 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated during the war.

In 1983, legal historian Peter Irons and researcher Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga discovered that government intelligence agencies had hidden key documents from the Supreme Court before it made its ruling. Those papers consistently demonstrated that Japanese Americans had not committed any form of treason to warrant mass incarceration.

As a result, a federal court overturned Korematsu’s conviction. Free at last, Korematsu went on to fight for Japanese American rights, as well as other social causes.

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Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton in 1998. He passed away in 2005 at 86.

“Korematsu’s legacy reminds us that we must continue to strike out against injustice in our daily lives,” Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote on Saturday, according to City News Service. “Especially in a moment of increased anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia, each and every one of us must continue his fight for a more equal tomorrow.”

Feature Images via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (right), DiscoverNikkei (left; screenshot)

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