DOR Shows Korematsu Case’s Relevance to Today’s Civil Liberties Issues


LOS ANGELES — The 2010 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance, held Feb. 20 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, featured San Francisco civil rights attorney Dale Minami as the keynote speaker. Minami spoke on Korematsu v. United States and its relevance to current civil liberties issues and the government’s use of “national security” in curtailing the rights of its citizens.

The annual DOR community programs commemorate President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, and the subsequent incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

In 1942, Bay Area resident Fred Korematsu, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen, defied the government’s order to relocate and stayed in San Leandro, Calif. He was arrested and sent to a concentration camp for Japanese Americans. With the help of attorneys Ernest Besig and Wayne Collins of the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, Korematsu challenged the government’s actions and eventually took his case to the United States Supreme Court.

In 1944, the Court ruled that the relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans was justified for reasons of national security. The Korematsu case is considered one of the most studied and controversial Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century.

In the 1980s Korematsu challenged the court’s earlier decision through a writ of coram nobis. Minami acted as lead counsel for a team of pro bono attorneys who successfully reopened Korematsu v. United States, seeking to overturn Korematsu’s criminal conviction.

“On Nov. 10, 1983, in the Federal District Court for Northern California in San Francisco … we wanted not only the conviction overturned, but we wanted a declaration by the Court that what was done to Japanese Americans was wrong … that the government was guilty of serious misconduct in the prosecution of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui,” the attorney said.

Minami recollected that in May 1982, he received a telephone call from Amherst University Professor Peter Irons, who said that he worked with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and found evidence that the U.S. Supreme Court was lied to, that the government committed fraud in the Supreme Court in 1943-44. Herzig-Yoshinaga had uncovered evidence that refuted charges made by the U.S. that Japanese Americans had to be incarcerated because they were a danger to the American war efforts because they were potential spies and saboteurs. Government lawyers had said in confidential memos that lies had been committed in prosecuting the Korematsu case.

Not-Guilty Verdict for JAs

Korematsu wanted the government to admit it was wrong and to ensure the wartime detention and imprisonment of Nikkei doesn’t happen again to any other group, Minami recalled.

U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel said that the Government deliberately omitted relevant information and provided misleading information in papers before the court in Korematsu’s Supreme Court case in 1943. She held that the government’s charges against Korematsu were unsubstantiated and vacated Korematsu’s 40-year-old conviction.

“This was a not-guilty verdict for the Japanese American community,” Minami declared.

However, Minami cautioned, the Korematsu conviction, which was “legitimized by the Supreme Court,” is still on the books. “It has not affected the legislative or executive branches … We have the Patriotic Act — secret wiretaps, secret searches without warrants, they can look at your financial records …”

Continued activism is needed to present the Nikkei story in new ways to educate people, stated Minami — folks in San Diego are proposing a Fred Korematsu Day, and Assemblyman Warren Furutani has sponsored a bill to give out honorary degrees to Nisei who were taken out of college and incarcerated during World War II.

Most Enduring Legacy

Minami, whose parents were incarcerated at Rohwer, Arkansas, told the Nichi Bei Weekly he was attending the Los Angeles Day of Remembrance because “education about what happened to Japanese Americans is the most enduring legacy we could have, so it’s important to tell the story and retell the story so that history will never repeat itself.”

And, the Los Angeles native added, “I felt that out of respect for the work NCRR (Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress), JACL-PSW (Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District) and JANM (Japanese American National Museum) have done, I make it a point to be here to talk about a client that I really loved — Fred Korematsu — and appreciated the courage that he showed in standing up for his rights.”

Tony Osumi, who emceed the event with 2009 Nisei Week Queen Dana Heatherton, announced, “Fred Korematsu urged all of us to speak up against injustice,” and asked the 250 people in attendance to support Campaign for Justice, which is working to win equitable reparations for more than 2,200 Japanese Latin Americans who were forcibly taken from their home countries, brought to the U.S. and held as hostage for prisoner exchanges with Japan.

The DOR program was sponsored by NCRR, JACL-PSW and JANM.

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