Historic Fred Korematsu Day to be Celebrated on January 30, 2011

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Fred Korematsu. Photo by Lia Chang.

In October, Partners Dale Minami and Don Tamaki joined the family of Fred T. Korematsu and other supporters at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to celebrate the enactment of Fred Korematsu Day in California.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in September signed into law Assembly Bill 1775, establishing January 30 as Fred Korematsu Day, the first time in United States history a day has been named after an Asian American.

The first Fred Korematsu Day will be celebrated January 30, 2011, on Fred Korematsu’s birthday. The Korematsu Institute, launched last year by the Asian Law Caucus in partnership with the Korematsu family, plans to roll out curriculum in K-12 schools that week and on all future Korematsu Days.

The bill, authored by Assemblymembers Warren T. Furutani and Marty Block, honors Korematsu, a man who became a civil rights icon for defying the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Former San Diego Superior Court Judge Lillian Lim and Susan Woo, who were dismayed by the general lack of knowledge of Fred Korematsu’s story, spearheaded the efforts to establish a Korematsu Day. An ad hoc committee was then formed within the Southwest Center for Asian Pacific American Law, with the goal of establishing a Fred Korematsu Day.It is envisioned schools will use Korematsu Day to incorporate the history of the Japanese American incarceration into their curriculum.

“Fred Korematsu’s eventual court victory taught America about the fragility of civil rights especially during times of international tensions,” said Minami, a member of Korematsu’s legal team, which also included Tamaki. “It reinforced our belief that civil rights must be fought for and are not simply guaranteed by the courts or by any governmental institution.”

During World War II, Korematsu was a 23 year old welder in San Leandro, California who defied military orders that ultimately led to the evacuation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, including Korematsu and his family. The Korematsu family was held first in the Tanforan Race Track Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif., then incarcerated in the Topaz incarceration camp in Utah.

Korematsu took his challenge to the military orders to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in 1944, upheld his conviction on the ground that the forced removal of Japanese Americans was justified by “military necessity.” That decision has been widely condemned as one of the darkest chapters in American legal history.

After four decades of having to live with a “disloyalty” conviction on his record that limited him from securing full-time work, Korematsu filed suit to reopen his case on proof that the government, when arguing his case during the war, suppressed, altered, and destroyed material evidence that contradicted its claim of military necessity. In 1983, the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California granted his petition for a writ of error coram nobis (a notice of error) and overturned his conviction.

Korematsu went on to champion the cause of civil liberties, not only seeking redress for Japanese Americans who were wrongfully incarcerated, but also traveling the country to advocate for the civil rights of other victims of excessive government action, especially after 9/11. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 86.

“After my father’s conviction was overturned in 1983, his focus and mission was education,” said Karen Korematsu. “He believed it was important to teach about his struggle for justice and the Japanese American incarceration so that the mistakes of history would not be repeated in the future. The significance of this day will enable students of today and tomorrow to learn and discuss the lessons of American history relevant to the current discussions of the Constitution and our civil liberties.”

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