by Daniel Penny


This past January 30th was Fred Korematsu Day, a state-wide holiday in California celebrating the legacy of Japanese American activist Fred Korematsu. Born in Oakland in 1919 to parents of Japanese ancestry who owned a flower nursery, Korematsu was one of three Japanese Americans who protested against the United States’ internment policy during World War II, eventually taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court.

His story was typical of many young American men of that era: he attempted to join the National Guard and Coast Guard in the run-up to the war, but was rejected on the basis of race. To help with the war effort, Korematsu decided to become a ship welder, but was fired from his job when FDR signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of all Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast. In the spring of 1942, the Korematsu family was shipped to a horse racing track that had been converted into temporary housing, but Fred refused to report for relocation–going so far as to get cosmetic eyelid surgery and change his name to “Clyde Sarah” while claiming to be of Spanish and Hawaiian descent. Under his new name, he holed up in a boarding house, but was soon detected by police and arrested for disobeying military orders.

While in jail, Korematsu was contacted by the ACLU, who were hoping to use his case to challenge Japanese internment. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against him, citing military necessity. After the war, Korematsu moved to Michigan for school, married a white woman (which was permitted in Michigan but illegal in California due to anti-miscegenation laws), and moved back to the Oakland area, where he raised a family.

In 1983, legal scholars dug up Korematsu’s case, including evidence the government had intentionally suppressed reports that found no basis for the idea of Japanese Americans disloyalty. His conviction was vacated, and became the basis for a reexamination of the US government’s racist, unlawful wartime policies: he helped lobby for a Redress and Reparations bill signed by Reagan, and went on to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton. And yet, Korematsu never settled for just a personal victory–extending his activism to Muslim detainees at Guantanamo and filing amicus briefs against the discriminatory actions of the Bush administration. Ironically, Korematsu’s conviction was finally overturned in 2018, years thirteen after his death–when the Supreme Court ruled to uphold President Trump’s Muslim ban. Today, his family continues his legacy, fighting for the civil rights of others who the government discriminates against under the cover of “security” and “military necessity.”

There are plenty of photographs of Korematsu from the second half of his life from when he reemerged in the public eye as a champion of civil rights (always nattily attired), but I’m often drawn to a picture taken of him as a young man, standing with his parents in their flower nursery. He wears a light blazer, v-neck sweater, and boldly patterned tie, his thick hair pushed back. There’s something about the way he carries himself, his implacability, his confident, direct gaze. It’s so quintessentially American.