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Fred Korematsu’s Drive for Justice

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The following is a guest post by Alexander Salopek, a collection development specialist in the Collection Services Division of the Law Library of Congress. He previously wrote posts on Marriage Equality in the U.S. and Miranda and the Rights of Suspects.

Fred Korematsu was born in 1919 as the third son of four boys. His father and later his mother emigrated from Japan to make a better life for themselves in the United States. Their gambit paid off and they ran a successful plant nursery. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the lives of people in the United States with Japanese ancestry changed. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the Secretary of War to create military exclusion zones, in theory to protect the United States (Irons, 63). There were false beliefs that people of Japanese ancestry were committing or going to commit sabotage and espionage (Justice at War, x). A series of exclusion orders against people of Japanese ancestry were issued – the first was a nightly curfew and the final ones lead to the incarceration of an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps operated by the War Relocation Authority (Chuman, 161). These people were often American-born citizens who were not only innocent, but also believed to be loyal to the United States (323 U.S. 214 (1944)).

Black and white photo with slight coloration added of a young Fred Korematsu from the chest up. He wears a suit and tie, his hair is combed neatly, and he has a pleasant expression.
    Fred T. Korematsu / Unidentified artist / Hand-colored gelatin silver print, 1940 / National Portrait Gallery,     Smithsonian Institution.

When Fred Korematsu saw the orders he was concerned. He told his family he wanted to stay with his serious girlfriend, Ida Boitano. His parents said he had nothing keeping him with them and since he was an adult he could make his own way in life. Korematsu and Boitano moved to a nearby town where he found work. Some commentators report that Korematsu intended to get some minor surgery to attempt to look more Caucasian, although Korematsu maintained that he fixed only a previously broken nose (Bannai, 36). Ultimately he was arrested and confessed that he knowingly ignored the exclusion order (323 U.S. 214 (1944)). He joined his family in the internment camp. It is notable that Korematsu said that jail was much better than the camp (Bannai, 45). The camps did not have adequate housing (Takei et al. 65), privacy was non-existent (Okubo, 74), the food was lacking (Tateishi, 25), and those who attempted to escape were to be shot onsite (Bannai, 56).

Black and white photo of young Japanese American men and women standing behind stacks of luggage as they wait for a bus.
San Francisco, Calif. Apr. 1942. Young residents of Japanese ancestry awaiting a bus at the Wartime Civil Control Administration station. They are part of the first group of 664 San Francisco evacuees to be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration / Dorothea Lange, photographer (April 6, 1942); United States War Relocation Authority. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

While in custody, Korematsu met Ernest Besig, an attorney and member of the local ACLU chapter. Besig hoped to use Korematsu’s case as a way to challenge the internments. Korematsu was charged with violating Public Law 77-503, a law passed by Congress to make it a crime to violate Executive Order 9066 (Irons, 68). Besig was doubtful that the challenge would yield the results that he wanted, but he was hopeful (Bannai 44). Korematsu waived his right to a jury trial and pled not guilty because he thought the laws that made him guilty were wrong. The only witness for the prosecution was the FBI agent that got statements from Mr. Korematsu about how he was of Japanese ancestry and knowingly violated the exclusion order (Bannai, 65). When Korematsu took the witness stand, he made a case for himself as a loyal American with no ties to Japan; though the judge found him guilty, he sentenced Mr. Korematsu to probation only (Bannai, 65). Korematsu’s case was delayed because of procedural questions surrounding probation sentences and appeals. The case ultimately was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and went to the Supreme Court (323 U.S. 214 (1944)).

Before Korematsu’s case made it to the Supreme Court, two cases were decided: Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943) and Yasui v. United States, 320 U.S. 115 (1943). Both cases challenged the constitutionality of the curfew orders, since the two plaintiffs were convicted of breaching them. The pair of cases found that the curfew orders were constitutional under the war powers resolution (Daniels, 54). A year later, the decision in Korematsu’s case challenging the constitutionality of the internments was handed down. Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944) upheld the constitutionality of the internments because the Court showed deference to the judgment of the military and Congress about the need for actions during war time in matters of national security (Chuman, 189). One positive development of the Korematsu decision is that it reiterated what is known as “strict scrutiny” – where the high level of judicial review is applied when racial categories are being discriminated against (Yamato, 27). The decisions were made using a report that later helped shed more light on the plight of Japanese Americans during World War II.

We will continue to follow Fred Korematsu’s journey for justice in a later post. (Part II)


KF228.K59 B36 2015 Bannai, Lorraine K. Enduring Conviction : Fred Korematsu and his quest for justice. University of Washington Press.

KF4846 .C5 Chuman, Frank F. The Bamboo People : the law and Japanese-Americans. Publisher’s Inc.

KF7224.5 .D36 2013 Daniels, Roger. The Japanese American Cases : the rule of law in the time of way. University Press of Kansas.

KF7224.5 .I76 1993 Irons, Peter.  Justice at War: The story of the Japanese American internment cases. Oxford University Press.

KF7224.5 .J87 1989 Irons, Peter (ed.). Justice delayed : the record of the Japanese American internment cases. Wesleyan University Press.

D769.8.A6 O38 2014 Okubo, Mine. Citizen 13660. University of Washington Press.

D769.8.A6 T35 2019 Takei, George, Esinger, Justin , Scott, Steven, & Becker, Harmony. They Called Us Enemy. Top Shelf Productions.

D769.8.A6 A67 1999 Tateishi, John. And Justice for All : an oral history of Japanese American detention camps. University of Washington Press.

KF7224.5 .Y36 2018 Yamamoto, Eric K. In The Shadow of Korematsu : Democratic liberties and national security. Oxford University Press.

Young adult resources

D769.8.A6 K67 1998 Alonso, Karen. Korematsu v. United States : Japanese-American internment camps. Enslow.

KF228.K59 A87 2017 Atkins, Laura & Yogi, Stan. Fred Korematsu speaks up. Heyday

D769.8.A6 C4 1993 Chin. Steven A. When justice failed : the Fred Korematsu story. Raintree Steck-Vaughn.

KF228.K59 G65 2006 Gold, Susan Dudley. Korematsu v. United States : Japanese-American internment. Marshall Cavendish Benchmark.

KF228.K59 K46 2013 Kenney, Karen Latchana. Korematsu v. the United States :  World War II Japanese-American internment camps.  ABDO Pub.

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Comments (3)

  1. Very informative… Wonderful Alexander !

  2. Looks like a good article, but as is often the case, the author makes the error of referring to all the internees as “Japanese-Americans.” Regardless of their opinions or feelings, the elder generation (Issei) were not Americans and could not become citizens. Thus, after Pearl Harbor (12/07/41) they became enemy aliens overnight and were the basis for internment. The American citizen kids were sent along rather than try to accommodate them elsewhere while their parents were interned.

  3. Injustice isn’t what the system developed for citizens whom deserve the rights accorded by the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

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