Karen Korematsu, the daughter of the late Fred Korematsu, told the hundreds of attendees that filled Nourse Theater in San Francisco last Friday night to chant that phrase at the Fred Korematsu’s Day of Celebration.
That evening, January 30th, happened to be Fred’s birthday. It was the 5th annual event by the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, and 2015 marks ten years since his passing.
But, who was he? I will be honest, I knew very little about him. That is a shame.
Several guest speakers knew who Fred was and took to the podium that evening. California State Assembly member David Chiu, San Francisco City and County Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission Theresa Sparks were among the few who spoke about Fred Korematsu’s legacy.
David Chiu said, “When I was in school, like so many of you here, and I read “Korematsu v. United States,” and all of us thought, “how could the U.S. government decide to imprison an entire ethnic community? That inspired me.”
The main attraction of the program was the keynote speaker. Actor, GLBT, and political activist George Takei spoke about Fred Korematsu (File photo by Beth Madison).
The five-foot-six Star Trek actor was welcomed with a loud cheer and applause. He walked passed the podium, took center stage without a script at hand, and began teaching with his fifteen-minute speech. He compared Korematsu to the likes of other pioneers who made drastic differences in our world. African American woman Rosa Parks, Latino male Cesar Chavez, and Gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.
“They were all people who spoke out. Stood their ground for justice and equality,” Takei said.
He added, “To this distinguished list of people that spoke out, we add another name. An Asian American name–Fred Korematsu.”
There were many things I learned about Korematsu and World War II that I never actually took time to find out before. I was not the only one, according to my circle of friends. Some were Asian, and some were non-Asian. When I told them I was going to this event to see George Takei talk about Fred Korematsu, a consistent reply was, “who?” They did not know who Fred was.
I found this inexcusable because I identify myself as an Asian American male, (Filipino-American to be exact). Growing up I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. I knew of Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, and Harvey Milk (although, I learned about Harvey Milk on my own time). None of these historic figures are Asian. Nonetheless, in grade school, I learned about their achievements. But not Fred Korematsu, who was Japanese American, born outside of San Francisco, just like me.
Takei told the audience that after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese Americans were looked on with suspicion, fear, and outright hatred.
I learned there were many consequences for Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They had a military-ordered curfew every night, and had to stay indoors from 8pm to 6am. Even their bank savings accounts were frozen–preventing them from using their own money for daily expenses.
On February 19, 1942, more than two months after Japan attacked the United States, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order, 9066, forcing Japanese Americans to be divided, and sent to ten-barb wired internment camps across the country in seven states–Arizona, Arkansas, Wyoming, Iowa, Utah, Colorado, and California.
“We were in prison in our own country,” Takei said.
As a teen growing up, I was aware of Pearl Harbor being attacked by Japan, but I was unaware of how Japanese Americans living on U.S. soil were affected.
Takei continued, ”Fred Korematsu wasn’t going to have any of that. He refused to go. Fred was a young man in love. He had a girlfriend. She was white. An internment meant, he’d be torn away from her. And Fred knew something of this inalienable right. He knew of his rights, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and for him happiness meant being with his girlfriend. He refused to go. And for that he was arrested, and thrown into jail.”
Imagine being Fred Korematsu during that time period. Seeing your loved ones, and other human beings with shared ancestry being deported to unknown territory. Then, you decide, this is unfair. “We” are being imprisoned for not doing anything wrong. I am not going “there.” So you’re on the run, fearing for your life, hiding from law enforcement . You even have minor plastic surgery on your eye lids to look different. That alone, is a symbol of a human being, taking a stand against something so wrong, while everyone else decides to conform to the unfair orders by the government.
Eventually, Fred was arrested. However, with the help of Ernest Besig from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and Wayne Collins, a Civil Rights Attorney, Fred was released from jail ultimately serving as the plaintiff for the “Korematsu v. United States” case in 1944. They were hoping to prove that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in internment camps was unconstitutional, and the case was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. After a 6-3 decision that same year, the U.S. government won this battle, and Fred and his legal team lost the case.
However, there was a bombshell. A report, that was originally missing from “Korematsu v. United States” trial, was found. It said military intelligence had concluded that Japanese Americans presented no threat to American National Security.
”In essence, Fred Korematsu, won. The constitution prevailed. It was a powerful moment,” Takei said.
What if Fred did not do anything at all, back in 1942? What would have happened if he decided to leave his girlfriend, and went to the internment camps?
Takei said something in Japanese, “Shikata ga nai.” In English translation, it means, “nothing can be done about it.”
He concluded his speech by saying, “When the internment came down, so many Japanese Americans went to the imprisonment under the philosophy, “shikata ga nai.” Fred didn’t believe in that language. He stood up. He spoke out.”
I agree with what George says about Fred. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. And for that, he made history.
I learned so much at this hour-and-a-half event, especially from the one and only George Takei, and the special guest speakers.
How much do you know about your roots? I currently work in television news, and I love watching it also since it is history as we know it. But I have been interested to learn more about my ethnic history, and its culture, but I rarely give it time. But I will attempt to change that. I need to fill my racial void. Do you?
I know we are all busy with the daily grind of work, school, family, and friends. And in our free time, from my observation, some people focus on selfies, sports, reality television, exercising, Instagram, and “twerking.” That’s okay.
However, I encourage you to learn about where you came from. Know who struggled to make a difference. Educate yourself. If you already do, I applaud you. I wish I have learned sooner. I am honored to have learned a lot about Fred Korematsu, and be in the presence of an icon, like George Takei. As we go through life, remember what Fred said, “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.”