Newly Released Book Details Korematsu Case for Young Readers
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
I want to tell you about a small jewel of a book that a friend called to my attention last weekend. It tells the story of one of the darkest chapters in American history — a time when our nation succumbed to mindless fear and unbounded hysteria and abandoned our most fundamental and cherished values, all in the name of a wolf’s call of “military necessity.” Written by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up,” published by Heyday in Oakland, Calif., is a paean to an unlikely hero who found himself swept away into the jaws of history where he would ultimately find resurrection and redemption. While the book is written as a civil rights primer for middle schoolers, its lessons are timeless and end up resonating far beyond the borders of its intended audience.
In 1941, Fred Korematsu was a 22-year-old unrepentant dreamer who yearned to break out of the claustrophobic world of his family’s flower nursery business. His most pressing life goals were to marry his Italian American girlfriend, Ida, and settle down. Korematsu had recently purchased a brand new Pontiac sedan and he spent most of his weekends driving Ida into the foothills of Oakland, where the great bay lay before them like an invitation to a future without boundaries or battle lines.
However, anti-Japanese fervor had been building for decades in America, beginning in 1913 with the first of the alien land laws that prohibited Issei from owning or leasing property. It was followed in 1920 by an even stricter version of the original ruling. And then in 1924 came the total ban of Japanese immigration into the United States. With the rise of ultranationalism in Japan during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was already considering incarcerating Japanese Americans as early as the 1930s, despite the fact that his own privately authorized investigation had found little evidence of disloyalty or conspiracy. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, FDR moved quickly. On Feb. 19, 1942, he issued Executive Order 9066. Within three months, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt removed 120,000 Japanese from the West Coast — the majority of them being American citizens, elderly Japanese immigrants who had lived in America for decades and young children.
Employing the all-encompassing umbrella of “military necessity” as justification, the government used hearsay, rumors and innuendo to legitimize their actions. Anyone who questioned the wartime policy was branded a spy or a traitor. Anyone who looked different was placed under suspicion. Foreignness was a tacit admission of guilt and the media was heavily censored. At a time when the Constitution should have shined its brightest, the highest law of the land and the blueprint of American democracy was abandoned and left by the roadside.
In desperation, Korematsu began planning his escape. He would not abide by the government directives, which he knew were unconstitutional. Instead, he hid in plain sight until Ida was ready to leave California. Together, they would find somewhere in America where it wasn’t a crime to be Japanese. Korematsu took on the pseudonym of Clyde Sarah, a Spanish-Hawaiian everyman who fit into almost every racial category, and none. To ensure his invisibility, Korematsu even underwent minor cosmetic surgery to change his looks. Disguised within his new identity, the young nisei re-emerged into the eye of an Old Testament hurricane as all around him, friends and neighbors were torn away from the very fabric of their lives and sent to assembly centers at horseracing tracks, where they lived temporarily while the internment camps were being hastily constructed in the most desolate recesses of the country.
Korematsu’s charade did not last long. On May 30, 1942, he was arrested on the streets of Oakland and thrown into jail for violating Civilian Exclusion Order 27, DeWitt’s bullwhip notice of evacuation. The California native’s real story began here. Within the crucible of prison, Korematsu was finally forced to confront the brutal reality of the horror that surrounded him, and with nowhere to run, he began to change. The once-shy and self-conscious middle son who yearned only to be accepted as an average American began to find his true identity in the darkness of his confinement and transformed into a lonely voice for reason in the midst of a deepening national nightmare. His own family and other Japanese Americans responded by rejecting him and branding him a troublemaker and a social misfit who did not know when to leave well enough alone. Korematsu was forced to wage his fight in solitude, buoyed only by his own belief in the rightness of his cause and his faith in complete strangers who eventually appeared out of nowhere to join his struggle.
Represented initially by attorney Ernest Besig and later civil rights advocate Wayne Collins, Fred Korematsu took his fight all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where, in 1944, his conviction was upheld on the grounds of wartime expediency. However, in 1983, Korematsu’s case was reopened under a writ of coram nobis when University of California San Diego law professor Peter Irons and researcher Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig uncovered evidence in the National Archives that revealed government misconduct: The Department of Justice had knowingly misled the U.S. Supreme Court by withholding key information that contradicted their allegations of treason against Japanese Americans. The claim of military necessity had been a lie. Rarely used in modern day courts because of its archaic requirements, coram nobis is a centuries-old legal order that allows judges and lawyers to revisit a previous decision that may have been prejudiced by a fundamental error. Led by a team of Sansei attorneys that included, among others, Dale Minami, Don Tamaki, Lorraine Bannai and, from Hawai‘i, Eric Yamamoto and Leigh-Ann Miyasato, Korematsu was exonerated for refusing to obey Civilian Exclusion Order 27.
Atkins and Yogi tell Korematsu’s story from the very beginning in short, simple staccato stanzas that operate more like prose poetry than a conventional narrative. The authors also nestle their tale within an eclectic mix of multicolored visual pop-ups, historical annotations and documentary photographs that gives the entire book the feeling of a free-floating jazz break that is alive, organic and spontaneous. Most impressive are the quiet, simple and unadorned illustrations of Yutaka Houlette, who creates a flat, eternally overcast twilight world that lends a disturbing and foreboding element to the emotional palette of this book. For young readers, “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” will spark difficult, but important discussions that need to be brought up about how America reacted in one of its most difficult times of crisis. For everyone else who reads this book, it is a gentle reminder of how precious and vulnerable our most beloved freedoms are, even in the 21st century.
In 1998, Fred Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian peacetime commendation. Until his passing in 2005, Korematsu traveled the country, speaking out for the rights of the powerless and the dispossessed all over the world.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.