How Fred Korematsu’s story reveals history’s evocative and empathetic power.
In 1942 Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, directing over 100,000 people of Japanese descent to leave their homes and relocate to prison camps bounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Most of those affected were American citizens, including Fred Korematsu who became one of a handful of Japanese Americans to challenge the presidential order, not once, but twice. Facing a conviction for evading internment, he first brought his case before the Supreme Court in 1944, which, in a landmark ruling, affirmed the validity of the executive order. That decision rested on the reasoning that protection against espionage outweighed Kormatsu’s individual rights as a citizen and it stood until 1983 when a district court in northern California struck it down.
The case, Korematsu v. United States, turned its namesake into a civil rights hero whose memory was honored earlier this year with a Google Doodle commemorating Korematsu’s birthday, January 30th—a date that in California is now remembered officially as Fred Kormatsu Day. Remarkably, despite this legacy, Karen Korematsu-Haigh first learned the history of her father, Fred Korematsu, not at home but in high school. As she told NPR:
It was a social studies class when my friend Maya got up in front of all of us to give a book report, an oral book report, about the Japanese-American internment. Her book was called “Concentration Camps USA” [by Roger Daniels]. And when she was talking about the Japanese-American internment, it was a subject I had not heard of before. No one spoke about it in my family. And then she went on to say that someone had resisted the exclusion order and resulted in a famous Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. the United States. Well, I sat there and said that’s my name. And the only thing I knew is that Korematsu is a very unusual Japanese name.
When Korematsu-Haigh quizzed her father, her questions had as much to do with the intervening years of silence as with the legal challenge. His response was simple: “My father said, you know, we’re always very busy with our lives being Americans. I mean, that’s what my father believed, was he wanted to get on and be an American and do all the activities that are privileged to us.” And yet, she recalled, “I could see … the pain in his eyes.” As a result, despite this extraordinary revelation, the contact between past and present remained fragmentary. Recognizing the depth of her father’s suffering, Korematsu-Haigh stopped asking questions, and in the wake of their conversation a renewed silence fell over the household: “The irony to this story is that my brother, Ken, who is four years younger than I am, found out the same way in high school.”
Hear the full interview with Karen Korematsu-Haigh:
Korematsu-Haigh’s experience was not uncommon. As Harry Kitano has written in Japanese Americans and Yasuko Takezawa demonstrated in Breaking the Silence, mid-century Issei (immigrants) and Nisei (the children of immigrants) could be reticent about their wartime history, partly owing to traditional Japanese values and partly because of the shame associated with imprisonment, even when it was so flagrantly baseless. What is uncommon about Korematsu-Haigh’s story is that, notwithstanding his initial reticence to share his story with his children, her father has become a model for political action for subsequent generations, in large part because his personal history exemplifies a complicated and dynamic response to a cultural history of bigotry—a history with more than one dimension that can enable empathetic forms of agency. Such empathetic agency is a deeply personal mode of political engagement that derives from the long emotional afterlife of injustice—in this case, wartime incarceration. It derives from the often-shared experience of injustice, if not the same injustice, but it can manifest in all manner of ways. It can be spurred at any moment, in some cases arising years, even decades after the initial injury. In every case, though, what animates it is a sense of identification among its participants.
Korematsu’s suffering became an emblem for empathetic agency.... He enabled an emotion they and others shared to drive change.
For instance, Warren Furutani, a California state assemblyman who worked on bringing Fred Korematsu Day to fruition, was inspired in his youth by Stokeley Carmichael’s rallying cry to black communities in the 60s calling for self-definition and cultural reclamation. Though celebrating a specific individual, Fred Korematsu Day nonetheless also served a larger purpose: to “emphasize the constitutional rights afforded to all Americans regardless of race or ancestry” and “to uphold the civil liberties of all citizens … especially in times of real or perceived crisis.” Thus read the bill establishing Fred Korematsu Day, the authors of which (including Furutani) decided to link an important abstract political concept to the suffering of a specific individual, Fred Korematsu, embodying in his experience the ever-ongoing struggle between injustice and resistance.
In this way Korematsu’s suffering became an emblem for empathetic agency. And suffering it very much was: Korematsu found himself ostracized in the Tanforan prison camp, because his fellow inmates were sure the legal challenge to Executive Order 9066 would invite retribution; and in the years after the war, Korematsu’s conviction for defying the Order deprived him of numerous employment opportunities. The pain Korematsu-Haigh saw in her father’s eyes thus became inseparable from his ultimate decision to challenge his initial conviction some four decades later. And there lies the moment in which Korematsu’s empathetic agency gains special force: having broken the pattern of institutionalized injustice and silence, and having broken his own pattern of silence, he became an example of how the loss and suffering felt by so many Nikkei might be redirected into political action. He enabled an emotion they and others shared to drive change.
What Fred Korematsu’s story shows is how the complexities of one individual’s personal experience can lead to wider transformation. As Korematsu changed history, his cultural and political status changed as well. For fellow Nikkei, both former camp inmates and younger generations, his narrative spurred changes. By demonstrating the tenacity of institutionalized racism and the power of coordinated resistance, that narrative helped people begin to transform themselves. More than an emblem, then, Korematsu also became a catalyst twice over, initially by winning his protracted legal battle, and then by talking about what was required for victory in the first place: voice, action—and, above else, alliances.
The necessity of allies in any quest for social and political change brings empathy to the fore of activism, enabling seemingly disparate groups of people to find common cause. Korematsu understood the importance of this empathetic agency. In a 2001 interview with Eric Fournier (as quoted in Lorraine K. Bannai’s Enduring Conviction) he noted that
There are Arab Americans today who are going through what Japanese Americans experienced years ago, and we can’t let that happen again. I met someone years ago who had never heard of the roundup of Japanese Americans. It’s been sixty years since this [arrest] happened, and it’s happening again, and that’s why I continue to talk about what happened to me.
Speaking in support of, and in solidarity with, new targets of bigotry, Korematsu identified with the Arab Americans of which he spoke. In so doing he spoke out not only against a specific instance of racial profiling, but also against the root causes of such profiling. Every injustice has an afterlife, though not every afterlife gives rise to recognizable agency. Korematsu provides us with an important example of what’s possible when it does. Rather than closing the door on the past or allowing others to use it to their own ends, he revivified history. Bringing the past into the present, he provided points of emotional contact for others who might, once again, find common cause in that history.