“[Japanese residents] are organized and ready for concerted action. . . . The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” —Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, February 1942

“Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.” —Donald J. Trump, November 2015

January 30 is Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. It is recognized by legislation in the states of California, Hawaii, Virginia, and Florida, and recognized by proclamation in Utah, Illinois, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

Fred Korematsu was a U.S. citizen, born in California, of Japanese immigrants. When he was 23 years old, in the opening months of U.S. involvement in World War II, he ignored and then legally challenged the eviction orders that would eventually incarcerate into camps nearly 120,000 Nikkei (Japanese immigrants and their descendants) living on the West Coast. Two-thirds of these Nikkei were American-born.

The executive order that Fred Korematsu ignored—Executive Order 9066, which was signed on February 19, 1942, by President Franklin Roosevelt—authorized Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to prescribe certain areas as military zones, clearing the way for the evacuation of Japanese Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans. But the authority granted was only used to round up Nikkei families in a wholesale manner.

Exclusion order posted at First and Front Streets in San Francisco directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first section of the city to be affected by evacuation. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is worth noting that, while the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the executive order, Korematsu’s conviction was vacated decades later, when it was found that the government had lied to the court about the threats posed by Nikkei.

Words Matter

In making its case, the U.S. government relied on tortured logic to justify Executive Order 9066. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who advised Secretary Stimson, put forth that the fact no sabotage by Nikkei had yet been found proved just how sneaky the Japanese were. The order itself relied on coded words: Nikkei were “evacuated” just as we do for a natural disaster. They were sent to “assembly centers” and “relocation centers.”

The term “internment” is often used in reference to Executive Order 9066, but it is a mischaracterization. Internment commonly refers to the legal confinement within prescribed limits, as a prisoner—prisoners of war, enemy aliens, or combat troops who take refuge in a neutral country—and not to the mass forced removal and incarceration of a people based solely on their ethnicity. Further, the incarceration included U.S. citizens, many of whom were elderly, young children, or infants. Of the nearly 120,000 Nikkei who had been rounded up, perhaps 8,000 were legally interned. The others were incarcerated without due process.

If they were not actually internment camps, then, what should they have been called? While the assembly and relocation centers the U.S. government employed during World War II were in no way equivalent to the Nazi death camps, they served much of the same purposes. A concentration camp is defined to be “a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.” In fact, President Roosevelt chose to call them concentration camps. So too do many people who lived through the experience, and their descendants now also use this term.

No Harm, No Foul

Since the conclusion of World War II, U.S. presidents have taken steps to acknowledge America’s mistake, and to try and repair the harm done. President Gerald Ford issued a formal apology to the internees, saying their incarceration was a “setback to fundamental American principles,” and rescinded Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1976. (Note that, after seventy-five years, it still remains as a Supreme Court precedent, as no other case has come forward from which to challenge its constitutionality.)

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, authorized an apology and reparations of $20,000 each for the 80,000 or so Japanese Americans who were interned during the war and still alive. While these gestures were appreciated, they could not make up for over two years of incarceration, and the amount awarded pales in comparison to the actual financial losses, estimated to be billions of dollars.

Divided and Conquered

These reexaminations of Executive Order 9066 and discussions of apologies and reparations often focus on the individuals—whether it is Fred Korematsu’s resistance, or other personal stories of internment. What is often overlooked is the impact the order had on the unity of the Japanese American community as a whole, as each and all were questioned about where their loyalties lay.

What is often overlooked is the impact the order had on the unity of the Japanese American community as a whole, as each and all were questioned about where their loyalties lay.

In early 1943, the War Relocation Authority administered a so-called loyalty questionnaire to all incarcerated adults that tore the community apart. Question 27, asking if respondents were willing to serve in combat duty wherever ordered, and question 28, asking if they swore allegiance to the United States and renounced allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, were critical. Male respondents who answered negatively to both questions—approximately 20,000 did—were labeled “No-No Boys.” These No-No Boys were shunned by the majority of detainees, who had answered Yes-Yes. Some of those answering “No” were only expressing their anger at being required to serve a country that had locked them up behind barbed wire. Others did so because they resented being asked to forswear allegiance to an emperor that they, as U.S. citizens, had never had any allegiance to.

Executive Order 9066 also created a dilemma for Japanese-American political organizations. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which was formed in 1929, was an active advocate for the rights of its membership, especially in California and Washington State. But rather than fight the incarceration, the JACL acquiesced, and even aided in the round up community leaders who were suspected of being disloyal, and urged harsh treatment of No-No Boys.

Executive Order 9066 continued to divide the Japanese community even after the war. S. I. Hayakawa, a former president of San Francisco State University and former U.S. Senator from California, was a notable voice arguing against reparations. Hayakawa was not incarcerated during the war, because he lived in Illinois at the time, but he believed that Nikkei actually benefited from incarceration, and that the relocation was done for their own safety.

I Am Korematsu

After Trump refused to recognize CNN’s Jim Acosta at the pre-inaugural press conference on January 11, 2017—because CNN had produced a piece that Trump disagreed with—On The Media’s Bob Garfield chastised reporters for not standing up for their colleague. Garfield said the press corps should have responded in “I am Spartacus” unity, instead of stepping over Acosta’s body in their own self-interest to get their questions answered. The point being that Trump’s strategy worked—by identifying Acosta as a “bad actor,” it divided the press.

President Trump’s recent statements on immigration might seem to be set on fracturing the unity of immigrant communities in the same way. And by slowing the spigot on immigration to pit groups against each other, using false words to paint Muslims as enemy invaders, by questioning the loyalty of Muslim Americans, he is treading in the well-worn path that led to Executive Order 9066.

We are all Fred Korematsu.

Fred Korematsu Day celebrates resistance at great cost during a sad chapter in American history. To honor this sacrifice, let us speak out against divisiveness and falsehoods and defend civil liberties for all, regardless of religious faith or country of origin. We are all Fred Korematsu.

Cover Photo: Korematsu Coram Nobis Press Conference, Flickr.