[RIP] Fred Korematsu, at center of landmark internment case, dies
- Posted on Wed, Mar. 30, 2005
Fred Korematsu, at center of landmark internment case, dies
By Jessie Mangaliman and L.A. Chung
Fred Korematsu, the unassuming Oakland draftsman who unsuccessfully
challenged the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II --
but was vindicated 40 years later -- died Wednesday of respiratory
failure at the Marin County home of his daughter.
Korematsu was 86.
To many Japanese-Americans and other civil libertarians, Korematsu
was a civil rights icon who risked not only the legal wrath of his
own government, but the scorn of his own people when in 1944 he
challenged the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.
Korematsu's stirring legal saga was the subject of an Emmy-winning
PBS documentary in 2002: He was one of four sons of Japanese
immigrants who owned a flower nursery. When ordered to prepare to go
to detention camp, Korematsu refused because he believed that
Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, violated his
Korematsu went into hiding briefly, his facial features altered by
plastic surgery. He was arrested in San Leandro.
In May 1942, he was convicted in federal court of violating the
presidential order. He appealed.
In the now infamous 1944 case, Korematsu vs. United States, cited in
every constitutional law textbook, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that
the mass detention of Japanese-Americans was justified by national
It was a deep disappointment to young Korematsu, who was in his 20s
at the time. But unexpectedly in 1982, three young Japanese-American
lawyers in San Francisco approached the feisty Korematsu and
convinced him to take his case back to court. -- Karen Kai, Don
Tamaki and Dale Minami were energized by their own parents and
grandparents who had been interned.
The following year, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of U.S. District Court
in San Francisco, overturned Korematsu's conviction, citing
government misconduct through suppression, alteration and burning of
evidence, race discrimination, lack of military necessity, and
manifest injustice. ``We were not only trying to reverse a very bad
legal precedent,'' recalled Don Tamaki, ``but we were also trying to
vindicate our our families.''
To Tamaki, ``the case represented the trials that Japanese Americans
``Fred was a giant in our community and a man who fought not only for
the civil rights for Japanese-Americans but for all Americans,''
Minami said. ``He took an unpopular stand at a time when the country
was in crisis. And he withstood criticism and ostracism 40 years
Said Kai, ``There was truly an understanding that this case was a
historic one,'' she said. ``It had tremendous meaning on a personal
level, but also in a much larger sense in terms of constitutional law
and civil rights.''
Korematsu's case paved the way for the landmark 1988 Civil Liberties
Act, when the U.S. government acknowledged that the detention of
Japanese-Americans was wrong, and apologized.
In 1998, President Clinton awarded Korematsu with the Presidential
Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civil honor.
Korematsu loomed large in the collective memory of young Japanese-
Americans like Chris Hirano, director of community and corporate
development for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of
``He's been incredibly inspiring for someone like me,'' said Hirano.
``He epitomized courage in the face of adversity.''
Hirano said he's spent some time with the unassuming Korematsu.
``What I learned from him is a lesson in simple philosophy of doing
what's right,'' Hirano said, ``and in in doing that, he changed the
Contact Jessie Mangaliman at jmangaliman@m... or (408) 920-