VOX POPULI: Before it Becomes Normal: Korematsu Day at Hastings Law School




I returned to my alma mater, UC Hastings College of the Law, to celebrate Fred Korematsu Day, hosted by the Asian/Pacific American Law Student Association. We were lucky to have with us Kathryn Korematsu and Karen Korematsu, the wife and daughter of Mr. Korematsu. We celebrated with sushi and edamame, words from distinguished Japanese Americans and scholars and civil rights activists of various races, and inspiring words of commemoration and exhortations to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Korematsu.

Eventually this will become an ordinary day for our children, along with Martin Luther King Day and Cesar Chavez Day, which is a good thing. Our children should feel it is normal to celebrate the accomplishments of an Asian American. But before it feels normal, I want to take a deep breath, smile, and savor how good it feels to celebrate the life of a man who comes from the same fabric of history from which my life was woven. Thank you, Warren Furutani, for authoring AB 1775, which created Korematsu Day!

When I attended Hastings, there were very few non-white professors. I felt like a square peg in a round hole. Now UC Hastings has selected a Chinese American dean who has authored books about race relations and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the school has just celebrated the first Korematsu Day. There has truly been a change.

Fred Korematsu’s story is familiar to many. He refused to enter the Tanforan racetrack detention site with his family as ordered under Executive Order 9066. He faced prosecution and conviction for refusing the “evacuation” order, then challenged his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld it in 1944.

Almost 40 years after that initial decision, a team of volunteer attorneys challenged it in a “coram nobis” action, which is a last-resort action available to reexamine a case where manifest injustice has been brought to light. A federal court overturned Mr. Korematsu’s conviction but did not overturn the holding in the 1944 ruling.

We began the Hastings celebration with a clip from the Emmy-winning 2000 video “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story” (http://www.pbs.org/pov/ofcivilwrongsandrights/). It led up to the moment when President Clinton awarded Mr. Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom with this statement, since much quoted: “In the long history of our country’s constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stands for millions of souls — Plessy, Brown, Parks. To that distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu.”

Hastings Professor Miye Goishi said Mr. Korematsu’s life story stands for the importance of respectful debate, vigilant attention to liberties, the necessity of acting on principle even at high personal cost, patience and persistence, and the importance of accepting help, as the aging Mr. Korematsu did from his young volunteer attorneys.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Dennis Hayashi, who was one of those young attorneys, remembered how Japanese Americans who had themselves been incarcerated had tears in their eyes as they heard U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel read out her decision in the coram nobis case, overturning Fred Korematsu’s conviction.

He remembered with special warmth a woman who said to him, “Thank you for giving us the decision that we always believed was true.”

Hayashi quoted the ringing final paragraph of Patel’s decision: “Korematsu remains on the pages of our legal and political history. As a legal precedent it is now recognized as having very limited application.  As historical precedent it stands as a constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees. It stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability. It stands as a caution that in times of international hostility and antagonisms our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to exercise their authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.”

Hastings Law School Dean Frank Wu and Associate Academic Dean C. Keith Wingate provided a legal grid for viewing the Korematsu case in the context of Asian American history and of present-day racial profiling.

Dean Wingate, who now teaches a seminar on the Japanese American internment, noted “the internment did not come out of thin air,” but followed from other laws and practices that oppressed people of Asian ancestry and treated them as foreigners and threats. He saw public opinion backsliding in that direction since the 2001 terrorist attacks: “Before 9/11 there appeared to be a consensus even among conservatives that racial profiling was wrong.” But since, he said, constitutional law professors had begun to say “Well, wait a minute,” and in practice, racial profiling had clearly been used against Arab and Muslim Americans who were questioned after the attacks and, in some cases, deported on slender grounds for irrelevant reasons.

Dean Wu said a cycle of willed “amnesia” about Japanese Americans’ incarcerations followed the war, ending only in the activism of the 1960s and ’70s, which led to the redress victory of 1988. He identified a cycle of amnesia, activism that led to redress, and backlash, and admonished the audience to be prepared to stand up to historical revisionism, racial profiling, and xenophobic falsehoods because even now writers and speakers such as Michelle Malkin are continuing to repeat “charges that were debunked generations ago” that set up the internment, not as an injustice, but as a model to be followed at need.

Wu said the danger of cycling back into prejudice creates a need to build bridges amongst communities and assert shared rights to basic needs and rights. Journalist Ling Woo Liu reminded us about the power of the media and of the importance of keeping the media accountable.

Veena Dubal, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, explained that many of her South Asian clients face “virtual internment”—a psychological internment in their everyday lives due to excessive official visits and interrogations. She said the Domestic Investigative Operational Guidelines promulgated by the FBI encourage agents to geo-map communities as part of their mission, with no supervisory authority, and allow questioning without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. She also said agreements between federal and local agencies sometimes allow local police to pursue federal intelligence investigations without regard to the privacy protections of state or local law and procedure.

Liu informed us that about 500 packets of educational material on Fred Korematsu were distributed to school children this year, and there are plans to distribute even more packets next year. Karen Korematsu expressed hope that these initial efforts would be like a “pebble in a pond”.

May the example of Fred Korematsu’s courageous determination to do the right thing ripple through our society.


Laurie Shigekuni is a graduate of UC Hastings College of the Law and has an estate planning practice representing clients in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.  Associate Martha Bridegam, also a Hastings graduate, contributed to this article. See www.calestateplanning.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.



  1. German Americans and Italian Americans have cultural groups, organizations and clubs. They should have their own discussion.

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