USA: Japanese Civil Rights Icon Fred Korematsu Celebrated

Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American who resisted placement in a World War II-era internment camp, and later fought in courts to have a Supreme Court conviction of “defiance” overturned, was remembered on January 30 in the state of California. In September, California declared this day, Korematsu's birthday, to be the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.

Tom Swiss at writes, “If you're asking, ‘Who's Fred Korematsu?’ then take that as evidence of the way that this nation still has not dealt with one of its most shameful acts, the internment of 110,000 innocent people of Japanese ancestry during WWII.”

During World War II, the United States government moved more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and immigrants from the Pacific coast to internment camps inland. Korematsu, who refused to go, was arrested and convicted for his defiance. His conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1944. Although the exclusion order was rescinded in 1945, it wasn't until the 1980s, when Korematsu reopened his case, that the courts overturned his conviction. In 1988, the United States declared Japanese-American internment unjust and paid retribution to its victims and their heirs.

On the web, Fred Korematsu Day garnered support from diverse places. A blogger who describes himself as a “West-coastie college lecturer” at The Other Two Fifths explains his resistance to white-washing history and support of Fred Korematsu Day:

People who encounter me elsewhere … know I retain a certain cynicism over ‘diversity efforts’ writ large. I dislike those that try to leave our collective checkered past unexamined. I like those with an atonement factor, in which government openly acknowledges past wrongdoing. This is one of the latter.

Until his death in 2005, Korematsu himself advocated on behalf of prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay and Middle-Eastern Americans persecuted after 9/11. Affad Shaikh at This American Muslim discusses leadership, both Korematsu's and the kind enshrined in Islam.

In the Prophetic example Muslims learn that any act by which someone is hurt, or his person or possession or dignity are subjected to any loss is absolutely forbidden and the corollary is that a Muslim is enjoined to be benevolent towards others, to serve them and to fulfill the needs of others when in their power to, regardless of their race, religion or nationality. However, history provides many other archetypes of this model of leadership as well.

Shaikh goes on to write that:

To learn about leadership and to be a leader one only needs to look at the contemporary example set my Korematsu. Like the Prophet, such a leader challenges us to reconsider our beliefs and our conduct so as to be a benefit to others. Leadership cannot just simply be about representing a group; such leadership is limited narrowly to identity politics and immediate self-preservation. I believe that the circumstances of the time and the tenets of our faith demand that we not just represent a community but also lead in society; working to organize the civic infrastructure needed for active citizenship that engages diverse constituents, cultivates leadership and develops potential solutions to complex issues faced by a globalizing society. In celebrating the first Korematsu day, Muslims should make the intention to strive harder to apply the Prophetic example of being benevolent towards others, to serve them and to fulfill the needs of others, regardless of their race, religion or nationality.

Teacher Brian T. Carroll at Capers With Carroll remembers Korematsu's impact on his own life:

While I was growing up, each of my parents spoke of the pain and confusion they felt in 1942 when their Nisei classmates were sent away to government ‘Relocation Camps.’ Later, while I was taking a year of Japanese language at Pasadena City College, the school offered ‘Sociology of the Asian in America.’ The course might qualify among the ethnic studies courses that have just been outlawed by the state of Arizona, but I look back upon it as one of the most fruitful classes I ever took. Three hours one night a week, with a 20 minute break, I quickly began spending those twenty minutes—and the walk to the parking lot after class—with Jiro Morita. At 80, he told me he was taking the class ‘to stay young.’

Caroll wrote that he will post more about the people instrumental to helping heal the injustice of internment, but ends his post with a word of encouragement: “In the meantime, enjoy a civil Fred Korematsu Day. Pick an injustice, and ponder how to alleviate it.”

For more on Fred Korematsu, here's the trailer for a 2007 documentary film, Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story.

Of Civil Wrongs and Rights – trailer from Asian Law Caucus on Vimeo.

You can also get information about various events and history at the Korematsu Insitute.

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