[HISTORY] Japanese Internment Camp Question Returns
- Do we really need to relearn the lessons of Japanese American
In 1942, I was arrested and convicted for being a Japanese American
trying to live here in the Bay Area. The day after my arrest a
newspaper headline declared, "Jap Spy Arrested in San Leandro."
Of course, I was no spy. The government never charged me with being
a spy. I was a U.S. citizen born and raised in Oakland. I even tried
to enlist in the Coast Guard (they didn't take me because of my
race). But my citizenship and my loyalty did not matter to the
federal government. On Feb. 19, 1942, anyone of Japanese heritage
was ordered excluded from the West Coast. I was charged and
convicted of being a Japanese American living in an area in which
all people of my ancestry had been ordered to be interned.
I fought my conviction at that time. My case went to the U.S.
Supreme Court, but in 1944 my efforts to seek protection under the
Constitution were rejected.
After I was released in 1945, my criminal record continued to affect
my life. It was hard to find work. I was considered to be a
criminal. It took almost 40 years and the efforts of many people to
reopen my case. In 1983, a federal court judge found that the
government had hidden evidence and lied to the Supreme Court during
my appeal. The judge found that Japanese Americans were not the
threat that the government publicly claimed. My criminal record was
As my case was being reconsidered by the courts, again as a result
of the efforts of many people across the country, Congress created a
commission to study the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese
Americans. The commission found that no Japanese American had been
involved in espionage or sabotage and that no military necessity
existed to imprison us. Based on the commission's findings and of
military historians who reconsidered the original records from the
war, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, declaring that
the internment of Japanese Americans was unjustified. Finally, it
seemed that the burden of being accused of being an "enemy race" had
been lifted from our shoulders.
But now the old accusations are back. Fox News media personality
Michelle Malkin claims that some Japanese Americans were spies
during World War II. Based upon her suspicions, Malkin claims the
internment of all Japanese Americans was not such a bad idea after
all. She goes on to claim that racial profiling of Arab Americans
today is justified by the need to fight terrorism. According to
Malkin, it is OK to take away an entire ethnic group's civil rights
because some individuals are suspect. Malkin argues for reviving the
old notion of guilt by association.
It is painful to see reopened for serious debate the question of
whether the government was justified in imprisoning Japanese
Americans during World War II. It was my hope that my case and the
cases of other Japanese American internees would be remembered for
the dangers of racial and ethnic scapegoating.
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. I know what it is like to be at
the other end of such scapegoating and how difficult it is to clear
one's name after unjustified suspicions are endorsed as fact by the
government. If someone is a spy or terrorist they should be
prosecuted for their actions. But no one should ever be locked away
simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a
spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the
internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous
times for our democracy.
Fred Korematsu was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the
Presidential Medial of Freedom, in 1998. He and his wife, Kathryn,
continue to live in their longtime hometown of San Leandro