He fought against his forced imprisonment, all the way to the Supreme Court. Today, the National Park Service helps interpret the dark history behind World War II incarceration camps.
In 1942, a 23-year-old welder from Oakland, California, refused to be incarcerated in a government camp because of his ethnicity. Fred Korematsu, the American-born son of Japanese immigrants, defied a presidential mandate during wartime and took a stand against racism — a fight that lasted for decades and earned him a legacy as a civil rights pioneer.
Korematsu’s story is not widely known, though three state governments are helping to change that by declaring January 30 Fred Korematsu Day — the first such holiday honoring an Asian American.
The United States officially entered World War II after Japanese fighters bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941; the country had been at war for a little more than two months when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 giving U.S. armed forces broad powers to incarcerate anyone in the name of military defense. The government overwhelmingly used this power to imprison Japanese Americans for having “foreign enemy ancestry” (though German Americans, Italian Americans and Jewish Americans were also detained, in smaller numbers). Ultimately, the military kept 120,000 innocent people under armed guard, mostly in isolated areas of the West, forcing them to leave their homes, businesses, possessions and normal lives behind for years.
When the incarcerations began, Korematsu chose to defy the executive order and live as an ordinary American, changing his name and even undergoing minor plastic surgery on his eyes in an attempt to hide his ethnicity. Still, he was arrested in May 1942, convicted in a federal court, and held against his will at a “relocation center” until the end of the war.
Korematsu maintained his innocence and appealed his arrest all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him in 1944, claiming the imprisonments were a “military necessity.” His arrest was a black mark on his record for decades.
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Finally, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission on the incarcerations that ultimately determined in 1983 that the government had imprisoned thousands of Japanese Americans based on racism and prejudice, not military necessity. In 1982, Peter Irons, a political science professor at the University of California, uncovered secret government documents while conducting research. The documents proved that the Justice Department had knowingly suppressed evidence showing that the incarcerated Americans were innocent of wrongdoing and posed no military threat to justify their imprisonment. The new evidence and the presidential commission’s findings allowed a legal team to reopen Korematsu’s case and overturn his criminal conviction in 1983, more than four decades after his arrest.
During the litigation, the government offered Korematsu a pardon in exchange for dropping his lawsuit. His wife, Kathryn Korematsu, described his reaction this way: “Fred was not interested in a pardon from the government; instead, he always felt that it was the government who should seek a pardon from him and from Japanese Americans for the wrong that was committed.”
Korematsu spent the later years of his life protesting the government detention of suspected combatants at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11, filing amicus briefs on behalf of Muslims incarcerated without trials.
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The National Park Service has played an important role telling the story of Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. Three of the 10 incarceration camps at Manzanar, Minidoka and Tule Lake are now parts of the National Park System, though the camp where Korematsu spent most of his incarceration, the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, was mostly stripped of its buildings and artifacts after the war when the government auctioned off much of the land and property there. Some items are preserved in a local museum, and the site is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
Learn more about Korematsu’s legacy on the Korematsu Institute website and read a recent story in National Parks magazine about some of the remarkable works of art created by Japanese Americans in the camps, written by the daughter of two people imprisoned there.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.