This is our country, too: Fred Korematsu’s daughter on her father’s civil rights legacy

Pub date January 26, 2012
WriterSoojin Chang
SectionPixel Vision

“One never knows after someone dies what happens to their legacy. Sometimes it becomes a part of history and sometimes it grows,” Karen Korematsu -remarked in a phone interview with the Guardian this week. Her father, civil rights activist Fred Korematsu, will be honored statewide with his own official day on Mon/30. You can celebrate his legacy locally at the Oakland Museum of California’s Lunar New Year event on Sun/29, where Karen will be speaking about her dad’s contribution to our cultural heritage.

“In the case of my father, his legacy seems to be growing,” Karen continued. “His story resonates and remains important to people.” Last year was the first time California celebrated the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. This year, events from a photo exhibition in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, panel discussions, and teacher workshops in Humboldt, San Diego, Davis, San Francisco, and San Jose will commemorate his work.

The Oakland Museum of California’s celebration will be especially meaningful — Korematsu was born and raised in Oakland.  The event will include remarks from Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, a talk by Karen, performances by students from the Korematsu Discovery Academy in Oakland, vocalist Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto, and koto player Brian Mitsuhiro, and a screening of the Emmy Award-winning Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: the Fred Korematsu Story.

The elder Korematsu was a civil rights hero who refused to be incarcerated in the Japanese internment camps during World War II. When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 requiring Japanese Americans to be placed in internment camps, the 23-year-old Korematsu refused to report. He attempted to continue his life as a normal American citizen, but was spotted and arrested in San Leandro three months later. Convicted for violating military orders, he lived for several months at the Tanforan assembly center in San Bruno and subsequently was transferred to Topaz, Utah — one of the 10 incarceration camps that were set up for Japanese Americans during WWII — where his family was also being held. 

Korematsu refused to let go of the belief that his civil liberties as guaranteed by the constitution were being directly violated. He appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court to no avail. 

That is, until 1983, when researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and professor Peter Irons brought to light previously-suppressed documents detailing the FBI and military intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Japanese Americans were not threats to national security. 

Korematsu’s case was re-opened by a legal team of pro bono attorneys and at long last, his conviction was overturned in a federal court in San Francisco. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice released an admission of error in the case of the Japanese American internment camp. 

Karen is disappointed that her father didn’t live to see the apology. But she sees the confession as an important step towards bringing “accountability to people in government who need to take responsibility in making sure that decisions are always in the best interests of all Americans.”

She holds that actions like those of her father are especially relevant today, in these times of anti-immigrant sentiment. “He took a stance against racial profiling in issues such as national security and immigration,” she said. 

Following 9/11, Fred, along with the Japanese American Citizen League, spoke out against the national security measures the U.S. government was taking towards Muslim inmates being held at Guantanamo Bay. He became an active member of the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. He assisted in the passage of a bill that prompted an official apology from the U.S. government, granting $20,000 for each surviving Japanese American who was incarcerated.

Today, Fred’s legacy lives on through the work of the Korematsu Institute. Founded in 2009 through the Asian Law Caucus, the institute’s mission is to advance pan-ethnic civil and human rights through education. 

Karen said that one of the many ventures of the institute is creating supplemental curriculum for K-12 schools to provide historical information that is missing in textbooks. She believes that her father’s story is an important lesson for children. “It tells the truth about American history, the Constitution, and their own backgrounds,” she said. 

Sensitive to the current financial troubles of California’s school system, the Korematsu Institute raises funds independently to create educational kits that it distributes to schools free-of-cost. 

Upon her father’s death, Karen believed that she had been passed on the torch in terms of challenging prejudice through education — so that nothing similar to the Japanese internment camps will ever happen again. “It’s heartwarming to tell my father’s story and see his legacy grow,” she concluded.


Lunar New Year celebration

Sun/29 noon-4:30 p.m., free with museum admission

Oakland Museum of California

1000 Oak, Oakl.

(510) 318-8400