SAN FRANCISCO — The University of San Francisco Asian Pacific American Studies Program and School of Law are co-sponsoring “Lockups, Land Grabs and Liberation: Asian Pacific Americans and US Civil Rights” on Wednesday, Feb. 20, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the Maier Room, Fromm Hall, located at Golden Gate and Parker on the Main Campus.
The speakers are:
• Karen Korematsu, co-founder of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education and daughter of the late Fred Korematsu;
• Karen Kai, Robert Rusky, and Don Tamaki, key members of Fred Korematsu’s 1983 coram nobis legal team.
• Professor Bill Ong Hing (moderator), USF School of Law.
The panel will be discussing two cases: Korematsu v. United States and Soko Bukai v. YWCA.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. authorizing military commanders on the West Coast to issue whatever orders were necessary for national security, including the removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans. Curfew and exclusionary orders soon followed. Japanese Americans were placed in remote desert and mountain concentration camps in barracks, guarded by barbed wire and gun towers.
Twenty-two-year-old Fred Korematsu chose to defy the order to report to an assembly center. He was later arrested and turned over to the FBI. The federal district court in San Francisco found him guilty of violating military exclusion orders and sentenced him to five years probation under military authority.
Represented by the ACLU of Northern California, Korematsu appealed the decision and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1944 (Korematsu v. United States, 323 US 214). The court upheld the conviction and approved interning Japanese Americans based on possible “disloyal members” who might have “constituted a menace to the national defense and safety.”
Forty years later, a volunteer legal team filed a petition for writ of error coram nobis in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Korematsu’s behalf. The team had unearthed new evidence that top government officials knew and covered up intelligence information that Japanese Americans had not actually posed a threat to national security at the time of the internment. In fact, top government officials lied to the Supreme Court about the “military necessity” justification for internment.
At the conclusion of oral argument, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel vacated Korematsu’s conviction on grounds of “manifest injustice.” See Korematsu v. United States, 584 F. Supp. 1406 (N.D. Cal. 1984).
In 1913, California enacted the nation’s first Alien Land Law, which limited ownership to aliens “eligible to citizenship.” The craftiness of the “ineligible to citizenship” bar was that it eliminated the possibility of Asian immigrants to own land, because they were explicitly barred from naturalization in 1870. Anyone who broke the law was subject to criminal penalties and their property would be forfeited to the state.
In 1912, a group of Japanese Christian women from the Soko Bukai churches decided to form their own Japanese YWCA. The women wanted to purchase larger space (1830 Sutter St.), but because they believed that the Alien Land Law barred them from owning property, they approached the San Francisco YWCA for assistance in creating a trust to own the property in order to get around the laws. Things went along fine until the Japanese American directors were interned with other Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
When they were released, many of the Japanese American women returned to San Francisco and were instructed to take part in a joint neighborhood program, and the 1830 Sutter building was used as a residential facility for Japanese women and girls returning from the camps.
The building continued to serve community functions through the 1990s, but in 1996, faced with financial challenges, the SF YWCA attempted to sell the building and evict the long-time non-profit tenants that were providing services in the area.
Unable to resolve the dispute amicably, Soko Bukai brought an action against the SF YWCA seeking the enforcement of the charitable trust and the removal of the SF YWCA as the trustee, so that the property would continue to serve the community as originally intended. After contentious litigation, the community was able to regain control of the building at a price that was far below market value.
The building is now owned by Nihonmachi Little Friends, which was previously a tenant.