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19 April 2019

Korematsu Day Honors the Legacy of Japanese American Civil Rights Hero

By Lauren Kawana

“He told me he did what he thought was right and the government was wrong. And it was that clear and simple,” said Karen Korematsu, recalling the moment she first confronted her father about his landmark case against the United States. Decades later and ten years since his passing, she wished he could see the legacy he has left.

On Jan. 30, the state celebrated Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution—named for an often-unsung civil rights hero who was born and raised in Oakland, California. Fred Korematsu went down in history as the man who defied the United States government’s Executive Order 9066 during World War II, and embarked on a decades-long legal battle against the banishment of 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps.

“It’s emotional and exciting all at the same time to see my father’s legacy grow,” said Karen, the executive director of the Bay Area-based Fred Korematsu Institute, who successfully lobbied for recognition of her father’s contributions to civil rights in America. This year marked the fifth year since Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Fred Korematsu Day into law, which is the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American. Since then, Hawai‘i, Illinois, Utah and Georgia have also followed suit—with other states in the process. Karen continues to lobby for a national holiday.

In San Francisco, Korematsu Day celebrations culminated in the evening event, “Stand Up for What is Right,” at Nourse Theater, headlined by Japanese American actor George Takei. Known for his role as Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek series, Takei is now starring in a musical based on his own childhood experiences in an internment camp, “Allegiance,” which opens on Broadway this fall. Takei is also known for his civil rights activism, particularly in the LGBT community.

During his keynote speech, Takei chronicled Korematsu’s life for the audience, describing how Fred resisted arrest after Executive Order 9066 was issued in 1942, refusing to accept a life in prison. He changed his name and even used plastic surgery to alter his facial features. When Fred was finally caught, he was convicted of violating military orders and sent to Topaz, Utah with his family.

Korematsu did not give up, however. With the help of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), he appealed his case all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1944 in Korematsu v. the United States, arguing that the internment was unconstitutional and racially discriminatory. Unfortunately, the justices sided against him 6-3, under the rationale that the order was a necessity of national security.
“So many Japanese Americans went into imprisonment under the philosophy of, ‘shikata ga nai,’ or ‘nothing can be done’,” Takei told the audience. “But Fred didn’t believe in that notion. He stood up. He spoke out.”

Korematsu endured the loss of the legal battle for decades until 1983 when San Francisco district judge Marilyn Patel finally overturned the case against Korematsu, citing new evidence that the government suppressed information confirming Japanese Americans posed no military threat to their country.

Korematsu went on to lobby for reparations, which led to a formal apology under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and $1.6 billion in damages paid out to all surviving Japanese Americans who had been interned. In 1998, Fred received the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton, the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian.

“I’m thankful that at least he was recognized for his fight for justice while he was still living,” said his daughter Karen after the event. “Because he was really vilified for taking the stand that he did by the Japanese American community in 1942.”

In 2009, Karen also took a stand. She gave up her hospitality design business to fulfill one of her father’s last wishes: to continue educating others about their civil liberties as Americans. The Institute, which she co-founded with the Asian Law Caucus, has focused on developing and delivering Fred Korematsu K-12 teaching kits free of charge to ensure teachers include this important piece of American history in their curriculum and instill a sense of civic duty in their students—a call to action emphasized in Fred’s most famous quote: “If you have the feeling something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.” Kits include lesson plans, Powerpoint presentations, films (including a documentary on Korematsu’s story), posters and books.

While emphasis is placed on Fred and the wrongful internment of Japanese Americans, Karen said the Institute has always tried to “cover different areas on a broader level, like immigration, racial profiling, and bullying.” For examples, one of the books teachers receive, entitled Patriot Acts, combines oral histories of men, women and children who have experienced civil rights abuses after 9/11 in the wake of the “War on Terror”.

“We try to tell stories more through a multi-racial lens that I hope ultimately leads to racial equality and racial healing,” Karen said. “My father’s story is just the springboard for these others. He is one person who makes a difference. If he can do it, they can do it. That’s my message to the students.”

At the Fred Korematsu Day event, Karen happily announced that all 50 states had finally been reached, with South Dakota teachers being the last to successfully order and receive free kits from the Institute that week.

In addition to Takei, the event featured speeches by Theresa Sparks of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, San Francisco public defender Jeffrey Adachi and California State Assemblyman David Chiu. Chiu said he was inspired to become a lawyer by the young Asian American lawyers who helped Fred reopen his case in 1983. “Fred Korematsu is our Martin Luther King,” he said. “In a post-Ferguson, post-New York era, what would Fred have done?”

In his poem “Dear Young Man of Color,” Vietnamese American spoken word artist Fong Tran lyrically expressed, “our stories may be different but our struggles are the same.” But perhaps the most charming part of the program was a presentation featuring a diverse group of fourth graders from Clarendon Elementary School in San Francisco. Under the direction of their teacher Junko Tanaka, they treated the audience to a video of their version of the Fred Koremastu story, which they filmed last May.

Tanaka said she received a Korematsu Institute kit two years ago and a friend put her in touch with Karen, who came to speak to her students. Once they met her, “they got really motivated,” Tanaka said, and worked hard to create the play. After their performance, her 30 students realized they had the power to teach others. “They are the ones who taught their parents about Fred Korematsu,” Tanaka said.
“I see the positive enthusiasm from teachers and students, you go okay, this is what I was meant to do,” Karen said. “My father’s story of his fight for justice is the springboard and it helps them to understand that period in time. And then I encourage them to go home and learn about their own story, because once they understand their stories, they can appreciate others.”

Geary Zendejas, a young man who attended the event with friends, said he was pleasantly surprised by the evening’s message of solidarity. “As a Latino, I was so delighted that the institute is branching outside of the Asian American community to be a strong opponent of all the atrocities that are happening to the African American community, the Latino community, the Arab and Muslim community,” he said. “It wasn’t just, ‘Let’s celebrate this great man.’ It was like, ‘Hey, the work here is not done.’”

For more information, to donate or to request a free teaching kit, please visit fredkorematsuinstitute.org or call (415) 848-7727.