A Civil Fred Korematsu Day, to You and Yours

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tomorrow will be Fred Korematsu Day, as will January 30th in all future years, declared so by Governor Schwarzenegger and the unanimous desire of both houses of the California Legislature. Parallel days in Oregon or Washington might honor Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi. In my own mind, it will be Jiro Morita Day, and by extension—like a Rosa Parks Day or a César Chavez Day—it will be a time to reflect on how citizens in a supposedly civil society can respond at those moments when civility is in jeopardy.

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.”

I spent every possible moment asking about his long life.

In early 1942, when the United States government was preparing to lock up the entire Japanese community on the west coast, the Japanese themselves worked through intense debate over how to respond. Poet Amy Uyematsu, Mr. Morita’s granddaughter, writes,

Grandpa was good at persuading the others
after the official evacuation orders.
Detained at Tulare Assembly Center,
he was the voice of reason among his angry friends,
raising everyone’s spirits
when he started the morning exercise class.

(From “Desert Camouflage,” in Stone Bow Prayer)

Most of the
issei (1st generation immigrants) and nisei (2nd generation/US citizens) decided that obedience to the government’s order would offer their best long-term hope for full integration into American society. Three American-born young men, however, decided to test their 14th Amendment rights and protections. Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui performed that most-American of exercises: they took it to court.

Korematsu (1919 – 2005), born in Oakland, first tried plastic surgery and a name change to evade the order for Japanese to report for relocation. When that failed, he agreed to let his arrest be used as a test case. Korematsu remained at the Topaz, Utah, internment camp while
Korematsu v. United States worked its way to the Supreme Court. They decided against him, 6-3.

Although Korematsu was an unskilled laborer, both Hirabayashi (b. 1918, in Seattle) and Yasui (1916-1986, of Hood River) had earned bachelors degrees from their state universities. Yasui even held a law degree and the rank of second lieutenant in the U.S. Army's Infantry Reserve. The relocation order was preceded by curfews, which each man intentionally violated before surrendering to authorities. Eventually the Supreme Court linked the two cases and rendered a unanimous decision: The government had the authority to order detention and relocation of even U.S. citizens under its war powers. Korematsu’s conviction was not overturned until 1983, Yasui’s until 1986, and Hirabayashi’s until 1987.


In the early 1970’s, I had a brief, chance meeting with Gordon Hirabayashi. During my two years at UCLA, I studied additional Japanese language and a year each of Japanese and Chinese history. I also volunteered as an ESL tutor at Castelar Elementary School (L.A. Chinatown), and as a summer counselor for an Asian session of Unicamp. This took me often into the Asian American Study Center, where Elsie Osajima, Mr. Morita’s daughter, was an administrative assistant. Once, when I entered Mrs. Osajima’s office on some errand, I found several people chatting with Mr. Hirabayashi. It was very like a similar meeting, during the same months, and no more than 500 yards apart, with former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren. In each case, I knew it was a rare privilege to connect with an important moment in history, and yet the situation didn’t allow for me to ask questions. On the spur of the moment, I couldn’t even think of any.

However, the two meetings provide an interesting juxtaposition. Earl Warren, as Attorney General of California, was the driving force behind convincing President Roosevelt of the necessity for removing the Japanese from their homes and communities. The same Warren Court (1954-1969) that did so much to advance civil rights in so many other areas also could have been the court to reverse
Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui. It didn’t. What my parents identified immediately as wrong when their high school chums were hauled away in 1942, the federal courts only caught up with in the 1980’s. Then, California recognition had to wait until 2011.

If there is a lesson in Earl Warren’s life, it is that for any community, prejudice is easiest to see from outside the area, or outside the era. Warren could see the prejudice against African Americans in the South, yet at the same time, he was either blind to, or unwilling to face prejudice against the Japanese in California. This brings us back to Arizona, today, and the efforts to redefine citizenship. Fred Korematsu looked back on his own case and pursued justice an a reversal of the court's decision, not for his own sake, but so that the United States could be counted on to give the 14th Amendment guarantees to every person ever born or naturalized in the United States, and in whichever state they might reside.

May it ever be so.

As I prepared this post, the miracle of Google allowed me to connect with Amy Uyematsu and Elsie Osajima. I intend soon to write more about Jiro Morita. He was an amazing man.

In the meantime, enjoy a civil Fred Korematsu Day. Pick an injustice, and ponder how to alleviate it.

September 13, 2012 update: The Morita family recently posted a selection of photographs, of which this picture most resembles Mr. Morita as I knew him.  It was taken on Reiko's and Jiro's 50th wedding anniversary, about two years before I knew him.

Additional Resources:
Korematsu v. United StatesHirabayashi v. United States
Yasui v. United States
Ex Parte Endo

In this PBS video, Mr. Korematsu tells his own story.

This book targets readers from 3rd to 6th grades.

This book targets grades 7 through 10. Although it appears to be out of print, used copies may be available. Perhaps, now that California has an annual Fred Korematsu Day, it will be reprinted.

Gordon Hirabayashi - On the Day of Remembrance: A Statement of Conscience
In this nearly-two-hour from 2000, Gordon Hirabayashi discusses the Japanese Evacuation and its importance to history.

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon links above are “affiliate links.” This means if someone clicks on the link and purchases the item, I will receive a commission. This has never happened to me as of today, and would only be a pittance if it did. I have no financial arrangement concerning any of the other materials I have linked with. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Vic Kondo was also sent to a camp as a child, I believe, maybe here in Texas.

Lomagirl said...
January 29, 2011 at 7:21 PM  

Lomagirl, Vic told me what camp he was in, but I've forgotten. He grew up just a few miles from where I live, and many of the folks from this area started out in horse stalls at the Tulare County Fair Grounds, and then moved on to Gila, Arizona. He was pretty young. When I asked him about it, he said he didn't remember very much.

Brian said...
January 29, 2011 at 7:58 PM  


This subject is probably the only disagreement between my mother and I that was never resolved before she died. She, here in Exeter, had classmates relocated, but she chose to see it as a necessary evil of the times.

I recently heard a story about that time that gives me hope. The Hirayama family elders worked in Exeter for the Dofflemeyer family. When they were relocated the Dofflemeyers took the Hirayama belongings and put them in storage and held them for the length of the war. When the Hirayamas returned they not only had jobs waiting, but their household possessions also.

The younger of the Hirayama brothers, Fibber, went on to play football and baseball at Fresno State after graduating from Exeter Union High School with one of my uncles. He then played professional baseball in Japan and is credited in changing the professional to a more American style of baseball.

Your post sheds more light on this sad part of US history. Thank you.


Steve said...
January 29, 2011 at 11:34 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...
January 29, 2011 at 11:34 PM  

Sorry for the double comment.

Steve said...
January 30, 2011 at 8:38 AM  

Thanks, Steve. Now I can say my blog has dealt with baseball history in Japan.

There are some wonderful stories of personal friendship and loyalty that come out of the relocation era (and also a lot of good baseball stories). I began this post thinking it was a stand-alone, but I came away thinking I have a series here. The hard part is deciding which one to choose next.

Brian said...
January 30, 2011 at 9:27 AM  

To me the story I hear and passed along shows there were many instances of kindness and grace that haven't been told before. That would be a collection to read.


Steve said...
January 30, 2011 at 10:47 PM  

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