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Fred korematsu fought internment of japanese americans

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Posted on Thu, Mar. 31, 2005
Fred Korematsu, fought internment of Japanese-Americans, dies


Knight Ridder Newspapers

SAN JOSE, Calif. - (KRT) - Fred Korematsu, the unassuming Oakland, Calif., draftsman who unsuccessfully challenged the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II - but was vindicated 40 years later - died Wednesday of respiratory failure at his daughter's home in Marin County, Calif.

Korematsu was 86.

"He had a very strong will," said Dale Minami, his friend and attorney. "He was like our Rosa Parks."

To many Japanese-Americans and others, Korematsu was a civil rights icon who risked not only the legal wrath of his own government, but also the scorn of his own people when in 1944 he challenged the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans.

Korematsu's stirring legal saga was the subject of an Emmy-winning PBS documentary in 2002: Born in Oakland, he was one of four sons of Japanese immigrants who owned a flower nursery. When ordered to go to detention camp, Korematsu refused because he believed that Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, violated his constitutional rights.

Korematsu, a 23-year-old welder at the time, went into hiding briefly, altering his face with plastic surgery. He was soon arrested in San Leandro, Calif.

In May 1942, he was convicted in federal court of violating the presidential order. He appealed.

In the now-infamous 1944 case, Korematsu vs. United States, cited in every constitutional law textbook, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the mass detention of Japanese-Americans was justified by national security concerns.

At the time, it was a deep disappointment to young Korematsu. But some Japanese-Americans thought he was unpatriotic. After losing the case, Korematsu resigned himself to internment camp.

In 1982, three young Japanese-American lawyers in San Francisco approached the feisty Korematsu and persuaded him to take his case back to court. Minami, Karen Kai and Don Tamaki were energized by their own parents and grandparents who had been interned.

The following year, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of U.S. District Court in San Francisco overturned Korematsu's conviction, citing government misconduct through suppression, alteration and burning of evidence, race discrimination, lack of military necessity, and manifest injustice. "We were not only trying to reverse a very bad legal precedent," recalled Don Tamaki, "but we were also trying to vindicate our families."

To Tamaki, "the case represented the trials that Japanese-Americans never had."

"Fred was a giant in our community and a man who fought not only for the civil rights for Japanese-Americans but for all Americans," Minami said. "He took an unpopular stand at a time when the country was in crisis. And he withstood criticism and ostracism 40 years later."

"There was truly an understanding that this case was a historic one," said Kai, one of his other attorneys. "It had tremendous meaning on a personal level, but also in a much larger sense in terms of constitutional law and civil rights."

Korematsu's case paved the way for the landmark 1988 Civil Liberties Act, when the U.S. government acknowledged that the detention of Japanese-Americans was wrong, and apologized.

In 1998, President Clinton awarded Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.

Korematsu loomed large in the collective memory of young Japanese-Americans like Chris Hirano, a director at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

"He's been incredibly inspiring," said Hirano. "He epitomized courage in the face of adversity."

Hirano said he had spent some time with Korematsu. "What I learned from him is a lesson in simple philosophy of doing what's right," Hirano said, "and in doing that, he changed the world."


2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Visit, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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