Remembering Fred Korematsu

Korematsu v. United States is easily one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time, and one that people are often unaware of until they get to the strict scrutiny aspect of their Constitutional Law class. In fact, I distinctly remember getting to the World War II portion of history in APUSH back in high school, seeing a brief mention of this case, asking about it in class, only to be brushed off because it “wasn’t important.”

Yesterday was January 30th, 2022: Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, a day that is mostly only observed in California. On the anniversary of Korematsu, I’d like to draw attention to the article my APALSA mentor, Rosa Kim, wrote up a year ago–and also to weigh in with my own thoughts on the matter.

Korematsu is, undoubtedly, an ugly portion of US History that is often swept under the rug. Fred Korematsu was only 23 when he was ordered by the US Government to evacuate his residence and move into one of the Japanese internment camps prepared in the wake of Pearl Harbor, designed to herd the Japanese American population into controlled areas to supervise them. Anyone “at least 1/16th Japanese” were evacuated. Korematsu was the age many of us students are today when he changed his name and had plastic surgery done to try to avoid this mandate. As a US citizen, he did not understand why he was being herded off to camps as a prisoner merely for the way he looked. He chose to stay at home rather than relocate and was eventually arrested for his violation of the order. Korematsu then courageously appealed his case until it reached the Supreme Court, maintaining that the evacuation order was a violation of his 5th Amendment right.

In a 6-3 majority led by Justice Black, the Court ruled that the evacuation order was valid. This was a decision fueled by fear and racism, asserting that protection against espionage by Japan outweighed the constitutional rights of Japanese-American individuals. This was also the first time the Supreme Court applied the strict scrutiny standard of review–holding a law or policy constitutionally valid in the name of achieving a compelling state interest despite the law or policy infringing on a fundamental constitutional right. 

As referenced in Rosa’s article, this ruling had terrible implications beyond its writing. Asian-Americans as a whole felt the effects of the evacuation order. Magazines published ways to “distinguish” Japanese people from Chinese people. However, Asians were merely seen as one and the same and Asian-Americans were forced to reiterate that they were not Japanese to people who viewed them as such. This is an unfortunate example of the all-too-familiar rhetoric: “all Asians look the same.” Japanese-American businesses shut down and families were forced into cramped barracks in the internment camps. Each relocation area was its own town, if you count an area surrounded by guards and barbed wire as a “town.” The prisoners began creating a livelihood within the areas, appointing town representatives and having committee meetings. 

I have an idea why this part of history is so easily overlooked. The Japanese internment camps were nowhere near the horrors and atrocities of the Jewish concentration camps of the Holocaust, which occurred around the same time. US history as it is taught in schools tends to tout this nation as the patriotic, heroic figure of World War II, pointing at Nazi Germany to say, “Hey, look at what they did. We would never do that.” And then it turned around and dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in the name of “stopping the war”–the nuclear remnants of which still affect Hiroshima and Nagasaki to this day. In fact, I have spoken to people who believed Korematsu was a great decision for the Japanese because it “protected them” from the outrage and general racism of the time by confining them to an area where they could be by themselves. I’d like to use the term “paternalistic” to describe that sort of viewpoint.

That does not mean that the Japanese internment camps were a walk in the park. For instance, in the Manzanar camp, a riot broke out and resulted in the beating of Fred Tayama by six men. In the Lordsburg camp, two elderly, disabled Japanese men were shot and killed by a sentry who claimed they were trying to escape–meanwhile, they were merely struggling to keep up with the forced two-mile march from the train to the camp. At the Topaz camp, three prisoners were shot and killed for walking near the perimeter fence. There are many more instances of these inhumane behaviors, that unfortunately not many people know about because we don’t learn these things in school from institutions that are supposed to educate us so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. The prisoners, once released, had a difficult time getting back on their feet from being so removed from society for quite some time. 

The tendency to forget the parts of history that include Asian-Americans directly influence the way Asian-Americans are viewed in the West: the model minority, keeping our heads down and doing only as we are told. When I was younger, everyone would assume I was Chinese, while slanting their eyes with their fingers or throwing peace signs to mock how I looked. They’d call me “Chink”, “Ling-Ling”, implying that I eat dogs–and I, like most other of my Asian peers, was forced to keep my head down and not cause any waves. Asian-Americans are viewed as having not gone through many struggles, but the Asian-American struggle is deeply embedded in the history of the United States, perhaps so embedded to the point where it is difficult to dig up. Fred Korematsu was a hero, a man who stood up for what he believed in and continued to do so until his death.

As a reminder, we are not immune from repetition. We’ve seen history repeat in cases such as Iqbal v. Ashcroft, where, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Muslim population in America noticeably suffered from racism and accusations of being terrorists. In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve seen a huge surge in hate crimes against Asian-Americans, because of the general hateful rhetoric against China at the time. Korematsu, though since overturned, is an example of why we must never forget that the Supreme Court is ultimately a fallible system riddled with biases. 

And also another grim reminder: this is relatively recent history. George Takei, a prominent Japanese-American celebrity, was in Manzanar as a child. We are not all that removed from the events of Korematsu.


Seung Hye (Shang) Yang is a first-year student at BC Law. Contact her at yangben@bc.edu.

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