1 This article traces through a series of charts, Fred Korematsu’s  a Japanese-American, decision to challenge FDR’s  now controversial Executive Order forcing Japanese-Americans only, to leave their home and report to an interment camp in the aftermath of the bombing of the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.  While Japan was allies with both Italy and Germany, neither of those groups were bound by the order.                        

                                                                The Law Falls Silent

 Pearl harbor, Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese military on what President Franklin Roosevelt called “a day that shall live in infamy”  in his radio broadcast shortly following the attack on Sunday, December 7th, 1941.  severely crippling the U.S. in the Pacific.  The  U.S. War Department suspected that Japanese Americans might act as saboteurs or espionage agents,, and many political leaders recommended rounding up Japanese Americans, particularly those living along the West Coast, and placing them in detention centers inland. The U.S. Department of Justice, opposed this claiming there was no proof while the War Department,  favoured detention. 

During Wartime, the President is granted the ability to abridge any or all Americans constitutional rights for a defined period of time for the safety of the country under the U.S. Constitution.  Civil libertarians find this an egregious action, while supporters deem it necessary to secure the country’s safety and stability against a known threat.  While obviously not a Constitutional precedent, the Roman statement, Cicero,  said “Inter arma enim silent leges” “in times of war, the law falls silent,”   because he vociferously said in the Roman Senator, it is a military necessity to control internal flow and ensure the safety of all.

Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, more than 1,200  Japanese community leaders were arrested, and the assets of all accounts in the U.S. branches of Japanese banks were frozen, many proven to have been financing Japan.  Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 allowing  the Secretary of War and the armed forces to move all people of  Japanese ancestry from living in or near designated military areas throughout the United States.  They were then  transported in military caravans  to 26 various sites in  seven states:  Arizona, Colorado,  Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Washington, and Arkansas.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the executive order for the interrment of Japanese Americas after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Chart for FDR signing the order

Fred Korematsu, 23, was a Japanese-American citizen who did not comply with the order to leave his home and job, despite that his parents had abandoned  both their home and their flower-nursery business in preparation for reporting to a camp.  Korematsu had decided to stay behind.  He had plastic surgery on his eyes to alter his appearance; changed his name to Clyde Sarah and he claimed  he was of Spanish and Hawaiian descent.

                      Korematsu fails to report

On May 30, 1942, about six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrested Korematsu for failure to report to a relocation center.  I am not sure where this was, but I am assuming it was San Francisco. 

While waiting in jail,  American Civil Liberties Union approached him asking if they could represent him and make his case a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s order. Korematsu was tried in federal court in San Francisco, and convicted of violating military orders issued under Executive Order 9066.  He was  given five years on probation, and sent to an Assembly Center in San Bruno, CA.

Korematsu’s attorneys appealed the trial court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which agreed with the trial court he had violated military orders.  Korematsu asked the Supreme Court of the United States to hear his case.

Supremes hear the argument

On December 18, 1944, a divided Supreme Court ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that the detention was a “military necessity” and not based on race.   Justices Robert Jackson, Owen Roberts and Frank Murphy dissented.   The majority opinion, written by Justice Black, had a concurring opinion by Justice Felix Frankfurter.

The majority ruled only on the validity of the specific provision under which Korematsu was convicted: the  requirement to leave the designated area and report to a camp.  As the order applied only to people who were Japanese or of Japanese descent, it was subject to the “most rigid scrutiny, ”  and while the majority found that although the exclusion of citizens from their homes generally  is an impermissible use of government authority, they  agreed  there  is an exception where there is “grave [and] imminent danger to the public safety, ”  as long as the it was pursuant  to a “close relationship between the government’s actions and the prevention of espionage and sabotage.” 

Thus the Supreme Court  found there both was sufficient danger  to the west coast of the United States from the Japanese-Americans possible support of Imperial Japan, and further attacks in the Pacific, but also ample evidence to justify Korematsu to evacuate: the order was valid thus Korematsu was required to report.

Download the Korematsu-charts

Clinton awards Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom

                          Presidential Medal of Freedom

Times change. 

In 1998, 54 years later, President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom,  the nation’s highest honor given to a civilian, to Fred Korematsu as an early Civil Rights advocate. 

In 2010, Governor Jerry Brown, a progressive Democrat and former Jesuit monk, urged the state of California to pass the   Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution bill , making January 30, which coincides with both Mr Korematsu’s and  FDR’s birthdays, a state holiday requiring California schools to commemorate Mr. Korematsu and his valiant struggle for civil liberties.  This is first time in U.S. history  a government holiday was named after an Asian American.

Several California schools have seen bee n named in Mr. Korematsu’s honour and the Fred T. Korematsu Institute was established to  educate and advance racial equity, social justice, and human rights for all. 

Posthumously, Mr. Korematsu had died in 2005, the Korematsu family donated two original 1940’s era photographs of Mr. Korematsu  to the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.    On February 2, 2012 the Institute formally unveiled the gifts s for their permanent Civil Rights exhibit, The Struggle for Justice. 


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