Insider’s look at the ‘rebellious’ rights icon Fred Korematsu



By Lorraine K. Bannai (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015, 312 pp., $34.95, hardcover)

This work covers the life of Fred Korematsu, a Nisei from San Leandro, Calif. who insisted on his rights as a citizen in the face of the wartime restrictions on Japanese Americans, and who was tried and imprisoned during World War II for refusing to obey Army orders for “evacuation” based on his racial ancestry. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was convicted. Forty years later, his celebrated case was reopened by a dedicated team of young lawyers, who brought a coram nobis petition and succeeded in persuading a federal judge to vacate the conviction on grounds of official misconduct.

While there have been various published accounts of the Korematsu cases, “Enduring Conviction’s” special contribution is that it tells the story of Korematsu’s entire life. Korematsu can legitimately be called a legend, yet he remains an enigma: What was behind his challenge to Executive Order 9066? The author indicates that his family dynamic played a role in his actions. As a disfavored younger son, Korematsu did not have the access to education and family approval that his elder brothers did, and was relegated to laboring for the family nursery business. In response, he became a rebel, distancing himself from the family and dating non-Japanese women. After Executive Order 9066, the young Korematsu, just turned 23, left his disapproving family behind. After undergoing plastic surgery unsuccessfully in hopes of concealing his Japanese ancestry, he attempted to remain on the West Coast in order to earn money to flee inland with his Italian American fiancée Ida Boitano.

Bannai writes eloquently about Korematsu’s difficult decision whether to act as test case, and his mix of moral certainty and doubt. As the author indicates, it was his love for Ida Boitano — and not an abstract belief in civil rights, as in the case of his fellow Nisei defendants — that first inspired him to evade “evacuation.” He entered the case with considerable misgivings. It is also intriguing to discover Korematsu’s later life. Using excerpts from later interviews with Korematsu and his circle, including some of her own, the author reveals how, following his arrest, he was incarcerated at the Topaz (Central Utah) camp, and then resettled in Detroit, where he met and married a non-Japanese woman, Kathryn Pearson, who remained his lifelong companion and supporter. However, Korematsu refused to speak publicly about his case, with a single exception, until the 1980s. As a result, his daughter did not learn of her father’s wartime actions until she heard about them in high school.

Perhaps the author’s most valuable contribution is her inside account of the Korematsu coram nobis campaign, with which she was herself associated. Once Korematsu agreed to permit his volunteer lawyers to bring the action in his name, he and they faced grave difficulties. When Korematsu informed his brother Joe that he was reopening the case, his brother reacted negatively. Worse, Fred Korematsu was laid off on suspicious grounds by his employer, who feared the associated publicity. Meanwhile, the volunteer legal team was nearly forced to halt their efforts because of lack of funds, and also faced difficult relations with fellow wartime defendant Minoru Yasui and Japanese American Citizens League officials. The author’s description of Korematsu’s last years is inspiring. After his belated vindication, Korematsu entered the public sphere in earnest. In addition to traveling around the country to accept awards and speaking engagements, Korematsu signed his name to an amicus brief on behalf of an American citizen placed in indefinite federal custody after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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