History of Japanese Internment Camps: Korematsu v. United States

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana, philosopher and novelist.

In such times as these, a turbulent political climate and protests happening seemingly everyday, it is important to remember and reflect on the injustices that occurred in the past.

As an aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II,  more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and jobs to be relocated behind barbed wires in “relocation centers,” aka “internment camps.” On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration and deportation of Japanese Americans.

“… No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist,” Korematsu said. “If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”

Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American, decided to ignore the order and instead, argued it was unconstitutional. He refused to go to the internment camps and was subsequently arrested for breaking military law. This led to Korematsu’s lawyers taking the case to the federal court of appeals; they ruled that the military orders were constitutional. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction against Korematsu v. United States.

However, in 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned when new evidence came to light. Professor Peter Irons, a historian, and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a researcher, found key documents hidden from the Supreme Courts during the trials in 1944. Government intelligence agencies hid documents proving Japanese Americans had not committed any acts of treason. However, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned by the U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Francisco, however, the ruling still stands in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Regan, granted reparations to Japanese Americans that were interned during WWII, it also included a formal apology from President Reagan.

“Now more important than ever, we need to teach the lessons to be learned about the injustices of Executive Order 9066 and the WWII forced removal and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans!” –The Korematsu Institute

In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor after his continued activism. January 30 is officially Fred Korematsu Day, as passed by the state of California. This marks the first day in the United States named after an Asian American.



Fred T. Korematsu receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. AP Images. 

For more interesting and important reads:

Japanese-Americans Imprisoned For Ethnicity Speak Out In Defense Of Muslims
Dorothea Lange’s Censored Photographs of FDR’s Japanese Concentration Camps
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