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2005-04-05

Remembering Japanese American Civil Rights Pioneer Fred Korematsu

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Japanese American civil rights pioneer Fred Korematsu has died at the age of 86. He was jailed during World War II refusing orders to be sent to an internment camp set up for U.S residents of Japanese ancestry. We air an excerpt of the documentary, "Of Civil Rights and Wrongs: The Fred Korematsu Story" and we speak with one of his attorneys. [includes rush transcript]

Late last week, Japanese American civil rights pioneer Fred Korematsu died at the age of 86. He was jailed during World War II refusing orders to be sent to an internment camp set up for U.S residents of Japanese ancestry.

Today we take a look at his story. This is an excerpt of a documentary produced by Eric Paul Fournier.

  • "Of Civil Rights and Wrongs: The Fred Korematsu Story"–documentary produced produced by Eric Paul Fournier. Courtesy of POV.

After the attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government ordered 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes and be placed in the camps. His attorney compared him to Rosa Parks. Korematsu challenged his arrest and the case eventually went to the Supreme Court. The court upheld the establishment of the internment camps. Decades later a federal court decided to vacate Korematsu’s conviction after it was uncovered that the federal government had lied to the high court about the threat posed by Japanese Americans. In 1998 President Clinton awarded Korematsu a presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

In 2004, Fred Korematsu filed a friend-of-the court brief in a case before the Supreme Court challenging the Bush administration’s detention of foreign nationals at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. His brief stated in part, "the extreme nature of the government’s position is all too familiar."

  • Don Tamaki, from 1983 to 1985 he served on the legal team that re-opened the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Fred Korematsu, overturning his criminal convictions for refusing to be interned.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt of the documentary produced by Eric Paul Fournier. It’s called Of Civil Rights and Wrongs: The Fred Korematsu Story.

FRED KOREMATSU: We expect the worst to happen. The curfew notice were posted on the telephone polls. And then after that about a week or so, the notice for the evacuation. I didn’t think that the government would go as far as to include American citizens to be interned without a hearing. And then later on they changed my draft card to 4-C, which is enemy alien. In those days, if you are an Asian, people automatically think you don’t belong in this country. You’re not an American. And I thought that was wrong.

DONALD K. TAMAKI: Fred Korematsu’s case represented the trial that Japanese Americans never had. This was an entire population that without evidence, without trial, without due process of any kind were simply swept into internment camps, many losing their property, some even losing their lives.

PETER IRONS: The real significance of Fred’s case is that it raised for the first time the central issue. Was the internment itself Constitutional?

PROF. RONALD TAKAKI: It was, I think for him, a personal shock of recognition. Who am I? Am I an American? What does it mean for me to be an American?

JOHN TATEISHI: If you look at Fred Korematsu, you see a very ordinary man who just wanted to be left alone, but who defied the United States government because he knew it was wrong.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: In 1942 an ordinary American took an extraordinary stand. Fred Korematsu boldly opposed the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After being convicted for failing to report for relocation, Mr. Korematsu took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The high court ruled against him. But 39 years later he had his conviction overturned in federal court, empowering tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and giving him what he said he wanted most of all, the chance to feel like an American once again.

FRED KOREMATSU: December 7, it was Sunday. and Sunday morning around, gosh, it must have been about 10:00, my girlfriend and I were up on Skyline Boulevard, looking down on the Bay Area, the city and so forth. At that time I was going around with a Caucasian girlfriend, and I liked her very much. And we had spread out the Sunday magazine, the Tribune, and just relaxed. We had the music on, car radio, Sunday, nice sunny day. Of course, we were talking mush. And all of a sudden it stopped, and they announced that Pearl Harbor was attacked. And I just couldn’t believe it. I thought it might be just a dream, but actually the way they were explaining, the bombs were flying here and there, and people were getting shot at and so forth. I said, "Wow." I said, "This must be really going on." There had been so much friction between the United States and Japan, and the way Japan was so active going into China and doing all of that, you know, invasion and so forth, that I had a feeling that they’re just crazy enough to come down here. And that’s what they did. At the nursery, my parents, they were all around the radio listening. They weren’t saying very much. My mother was crying. My father was just disgusted. All of that work that my parents did to that nursery and so forth. What’s going to happen? A few days later the police came down and confiscated all our flashlights and cameras. They confiscated everything that they thought that we would use for signaling.

PROF. RITA TAKAHASHI: The policy to incarcerate persons of Japanese ancestry has a long history. For example, the earliest immigration law of 1790 stipulated that only free whites could become naturalized citizens. There was the 1913 and 1920 Alien Land laws that excluded persons of Japanese ancestry from owning land, as well as the 1924 immigration law which excluded them from further immigration.

FRED KOREMATSU: I was a welder at Moore Dry Dock, a shipyard. I wanted to be in defense work. I was doing so well that the superintendent said that he would like to advance me as foreman. And I thought that was real nice of him to do that. So Monday, when I went in to punch my time in, I find instead of my time card a note telling me to report to the union. Well, okay, so I went to the union. And there, the agent approached me and told me, "You cannot work in the shipyard." I thought that, you know, hey, I’m an American, and I’m here to help out in defense work, and I have nothing to do with Japan. So it was sort of an insult to me. So I went to the superintendent. And he says, "I’m sorry, Fred. I can’t help you." I did finally get another job, Golden Gate Iron Works in San Francisco. And that was owned by a German Jewish family. So they gave me a job on contract basis. And that’s how I worked for him until Pearl Harbor.

PROF. RITA TAKAHASHI: The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the U.S. into the war, a lot of people saw that as a perfect opportunity to get rid of persons of Japanese ancestry. They had a stereotype of being such hard workers and that they got their children involved in all of the work. And everybody in the family worked, and so, therefore, the cost of labor was lower, and therefore they could compete better in the economic market.

PETER IRONS: There were a lot of organizations that wanted internment — the agricultural interests in California, for example — because Japanese Americans had been so successful as farmers and competitors.

PROF. RITA TAKAHASHI: So when Pearl Harbor hit, now they could say it was, quote, "military necessity," and therefore they could wholesale-y exclude persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. There were a lot of persons, agricultural persons to media persons, who were quipping up anti-Japanese sentiments. It took a few weeks before the media started getting into gear. but the Hearst papers in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco got started earlier.

JOHN FRANK: General DeWitt was Lieutenant General, as about as high as they get, was the general in charge of the West Coast. There was some feeling that the West Coast might be invaded. He had recommended that the Japanese Americans be excluded from the West Coast so that they couldn’t give secret tips to the invaders if the invaders ever came. That was sheer baloney because there was no instance ever discovered in which any Japanese American on the West Coast ever did anything disloyal. It was pure foolishness.

PETER IRONS: Colonel Bendetson, who was a government lawyer, wrote all of the arguments for the internment that General DeWitt presented to the War Department. Bendetson, who was a lawyer trained at Stanford and who should have known something about the Constitution simply said that because Japanese Americans belong to an enemy race, their internment could be justified.

FRED KOREMATSU: You see, before the war my parents were very proud people. They always talked about Japan, you know, and also about the samurais and stuff like that. And right after Pearl Harbor, everything just, you know, — they were just real quiet. They kept it to themselves. They were afraid to talk about that.

DONALD K. TAMAKI: The secret service and the F.B.I. had swept into the Japanese American community and had arrested any community leader, any teacher, any civic organization head of any importance in that community.

FRED KOREMATSU: I thought the exclusion order would be only for aliens, those that were born in Japan. I didn’t think that the government would go as far as to include American citizens.

TSUYAKO "SOX" KITASHIMA: If you have the Western Defense Command who was in charge of our movement, if they come at you with a bayonet in your back and say you’re going to move into a horse stall, you do.

FRED KOREMATSU: I knew I couldn’t take my girlfriend with me, so I decided maybe we should try to sneak out to Nevada to get away from this. I told my parents that I would like to leave. I didn’t tell them about my girlfriend. All I said was I wanted to leave. And they were so wrapped up on what they had to do before the evacuation that they said, "Fred, you’re old enough to know what to do, so you go ahead. And if you decide you want to do that, then go ahead." So I did. One day my girlfriend wanted to meet me. I was waiting for her at the corner, and she didn’t show up. I ran out of cigarettes. So like a darn fool, I went across the street to the drug store, and someone recognized me, I assume, because when I came back and I was standing there for another five minutes, then the police came. And they looked around and then looked at me and says, "Did you see any short Japanese person around here? Asian?" I says, "No." They looked at me and says, "Well, let me see your identification." By that time the two M.P.s came from the military. And he says, "We have to take you to City Hall." After I was arrested, I never did see my girlfriend again. So there must have been something going on in there, but I didn’t know.

PETER IRONS: Every branch of government that is responsible for protecting the Constitution failed. I think that the Congressional branch failed, because Congress had no hearings on internment. Within the Executive branch, the President signed this order without probably giving it more than a half an hour’s thought, because nobody had been responsible for presenting contrasting sides of this issue. And within the Judiciary, the Supreme Court literally abandoned its role of asking probing questions.

ERNEST BESIG: I believed in principles, and certainly I believe that all persons without distinction are entitled to the support of the Constitution. We tried to find a legal challenge to the internment, but, of course, in order to do that you have to have a test case. You have to find somebody who is willing to have his case carried through the courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court. So we were on the lookout to find a case of that kind. It wasn’t easy, until I heard of Fred Korematsu’s case in the newspapers. And I at once undertook to visit him at the county jail, where he was being, shall we say, detained.

FRED KOREMATSU: Well, here this man was in the visitor’s room in a grey suit, a young man. And he shook my hand. He says, "I’m Ernest Besig. I’m an attorney, and I belong to the ACLU." And here this fellow that I don’t even know, and out of the blue sky come and wanted to help me.

ERNEST BESIG: I was there to persuade Fred, and I was hopeful that he would support a test case, that he would be willing to be the test case, the person who would challenge the government’s discrimination against him. And ultimately, he did.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney Ernest Besig from the documentary Of Civil Righst and Wrongs: The Fred Korematsu Story, produced by Eric Paul Fournier. Yes, Fred Korematsu died last week at the age of 86. He was jailed during World War II after he refused orders to be sent to an internment camp for U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry. After the attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government ordering 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into the camps. His attorney compared him to Rosa Parks. Korematsu challenged his arrest, and the case would eventually go to the Supreme Court. The court upheld the establishment of the internment camps, but decades later a federal court decided to vacate Korematsu’s conviction, after it was uncovered the federal government had lied to the high court about the threat posed by Japanese Americans. In 1998, President Clinton awarded Korematsu a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor. We’re joined right now in this last minute of the program by Don Tamaki, who served on the legal team that opened the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Fred Korematsu, overturning his criminal convictions for refusing to be interned. After President Clinton awarded Mr. Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, you would think that Mr. Korematsu would have left it there. But 20 years later, in 2003, he rose again to challenge the internment of others at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In this last few minutes, Don Tamaki, can you talk about what he did?

DON TAMAKI: Well, he filed an amicus brief basically saying that what was wrong in 1942, with respect to Americans of Japanese ancestry, is wrong in post-2001, with respect to American citizens, that we ought not to face jailing and incarceration without trial, without evidence and without charges. That was his point in filing the amicus brief. The regrettable thing is that Korematsu v. The United States, which was one of the worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued ever, the 1944 decision which upheld the Constitutionality of the internment — the regrettable thing is it’s more relevant today than it was, you know, years later when we re-opened Fred’s case.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Don Tamaki, on that note I want to thank you very much for being with us. Don Tamaki, attorney for Fred Korematsu v. The United States.

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