Korematsu Day: Looking Back on a Supreme Court Decision

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked U.S. naval base Pearl Harbor, resulting in the United States’ declaration of war on Japan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously referred to the bombing of Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy.” 

In February 1942, ten weeks after the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066—the authorization of the armed forces to mass transport and relocate all people of Japanese ancestry into “internment camps” in the name of national security. The order affected the lives of over 100,000 people, the majority of whom were American citizens. It also opened the door to an ugly chapter of American history—one of fear, xenophobia, and unbridled racism. 

On the home front, Anti-Japanese war propaganda fueled America’s hatred and paranoia. Such propaganda portrayed the Japanese as monkeys, rats, and snakes—often depicted preying on white American women to further incite anger and fear. 


Time launched articles explaining to readers how to “differentiate” between their Chinese neighbor and Japanese enemy: 

“HOW TO TELL YOUR FRIENDS FROM THE JAPS: Japanese are likely to be stockier and broader-hipped than short Chinese. Japanese are seldom fat; they often dry up and grown lean as they age. Although both have the typical epicanthic fold of the upper eyelid, Japanese eyes are usually set closer together.  The Chinese expression is likely to be more placid, kindly, open; the Japanese more positive, dogmatic, arrogant. Japanese are hesitant, nervous in conversation, laugh loudly at the wrong time. Japanese walk stiffly erect, hard heeled. Chinese, more relaxed, have an easy gait, sometimes shuffle.”

 Life Magazine published “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese” (with helpful images included!):

“The Chinese man is…a public servant, while the Japanese man is…a warrior whose face shows the humorless intensity of ruthless mystics. The Chinese man’s occupation implies that he helps people, while the title of Japanese warrior alludes to danger and disloyalty…The Chinese men are dressed casually, have carefree postures, and adorn slight smiles. However, the Japanese men are again frowning…intimidating and bad-tempered.”


However, despite these oh-so-kind gestures to help distinguish among Asian peoples, many Chinese, Korean, and Filipino Americans were still targets of racism. There are several testimonies of Korean Americans describing the betrayal they felt when American troops came to their door upon mistaking them for Japanese—the same American troops that they had been counting on to defeat the Japanese forces in the Pacific who had invaded the Korean peninsula and were plundering, raping, and ravaging the country. “We’re on your side!” a Korean American man remembers insisting to an American soldier as his family was led away. 

Fred Korematsu, a 23 year old Japanese-American citizen, refused to comply with the order to leave his home and career and move into a camp. He changed his name to Clyde Sarah, claimed to be of Spanish and Hawaiian descent, and had plastic surgery done on his eyes to alter his appearance. After being tried and convicted of violating military orders, Korematsu appealed his case all the way up to the Supreme Court. In this 6-3 landmark decision, the Supreme Court held that the forced internment of Japanese Americans was constitutional. In Korematsu v. United States, the majority contended that the evacuation order was out of “military necessity” and therefore valid. According to the Court, it was unnecessary to address the constitutional racial discrimination issues in this case. 

But was it? 

In a strongly worded dissent which called the executive order “the legalization of racism,” Justice Robert Jackson asserted that “the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination…The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.” The discussion around the Korematsu case has come up time and time again, perhaps the most recent being in Trump v. Hawaii in which Justice Sotomayor compared the travel ban to the dangerous logic underlying Korematsu. The Korematsu decision goes to show that in times of crisis, terror and prejudice manifests itself even in the most venerable institution designed to uphold our cherished system of impartial judgement. Thousands of Asian American citizens paid the price of unchecked prejudice in this case—a case long recognized as wrongly decided. 

Each January 30th, we honor the life of civil rights hero Fred Korematsu and his resistance to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans. In November 1983, the U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Francisco formally overturned Korematu’s conviction, marking a pivotal moment in U.S. civil rights history. Korematsu stood in front of the judge and stated, “According to the Supreme Court…being an American citizen was not enough. They say you have to look like one, otherwise you can’t tell a difference between a loyal and disloyal American. I would like to see the government admit that they were wrong and do something about it so this will never happen again to any American citizen of any race, creed, or color.” 

Korematsu remained an activist throughout his life, speaking at numerous events and university campuses. In 1998, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. He continued to speak out against extreme national security measures after 9/11, spreading the message that “even in times of crisis, we must guard against prejudice and keep uppermost our commitment to law and justice.”

Korematsu passed away in 2005 at the age of 86. In 2010, the state of California officially named January 30 “Fred Korematsu Day,” making the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American. His legacy continues to serve as a reminder that our nation must bear the burden of unclean hands, and a responsibility to acknowledge and learn from our actions. Such is the legacy of Korematsu: a Supreme Court decision which will live in infamy. 

“Fears and prejudices directed against minority communities are too easy to evoke and exaggerate, often to serve the political agendas of those who promote those fears.”

-Fred Korematsu, Civil Rights Activist 


Rosa Kim is a first-year student. She loves to hear from readers. Email her at kimeot@bc.edu.

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