‘Justice is not a gift. It’s a challenge’

Dale Minami led the legal team representing Fred Korematsu in the successful effort to clear his name in 1982 and 1983. Bonnie Youn, principal of the Youn Law Group and secretary of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association, interviewed Minami on his recent visit to Atlanta. Excerpts of his remarks follow:

After Pearl Harbor, all Japanese-Americans became suspect. And the president issued an executive ordered which required in essence 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to prisons, without trial, without hearing, without notice of any charges at all.

Fred Korematsu was one of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans, but he was a bit different. He was one of three men who … refused military orders and did not report to the (internment) camps as he was supposed to. He was arrested.

The case was very simple: Are you Japanese-American, and did you refuse the military orders? The answer was yes, and yes. Very simple. So he lost his case. He wanted to appeal. He knew he would get a measure of justice from the United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the land … but in a very weak decision (Korematsu v. United States), he lost. I say weak because it was criticized universally, that it was based on half-truths, exaggerations and some outright lies. Basically, the court ruled that your ethnic affiliation can predispose you to disloyalty if you’re an American of Japanese ancestry. So he was very, very disappointed.

For 40 years, most Japanese-Americans really didn’t talk about this experience. It was deeply painful to them. I think the fire of the Civil Rights Act and the civil rights movement ignited the imaginations of Americans of Japanese ancestry and Asian-Americans and all people of color. They started to explore their history, and they started to remember the camps and why they were interned and incarcerated..

(In 1982) I was in private practice in Oakland, Calif., and I got a call from Professor Peter Irons, who told me he had discovered evidence that the U.S. Supreme Court was defrauded in 1944 when it issued the Korematsu decision … and he told me he wanted to reopen those cases. … He produced remarkable notes, letters from the government’s own attorneys, telling their superiors they were telling outright lies to the U.S. Supreme Court … about the loyalty of Japanese-Americans, about acts of espionage and sabotage that were alleged to have occurred but never occurred, and about the rationale and military justification for the Japanese-American internment – justification which ignored the fact that not one Japanese-American was ever arrested, charged or convicted of espionage or sabotage.

(When the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California overturned Korematsu’s conviction on Nov. 10, 1983) Fred looked at me blankly and said, “What happened?” I said, “Fred, you won! You won your case.” He looked at me again blankly and said, “That’s good. That’s good.” I think the stress of having to bear the weight of being the person who caused the Supreme Court to rule against his people and imprison those people during World War II was so difficult to bear after 40 years, it was hard for him to accept or comprehend the significance of what had just happened.

One person can make a difference in this world by taking a courageous stand. You can make the point also that dissent is not the enemy of loyalty. That in 1942, very few people stood up to dissent against the decision to incarcerate Japanese-Americans, and we experienced a nationwide civil rights disaster.

The most significant lesson perhaps … is justice is not self-executing. Justice is not a gift. It’s a challenge, that we must continue to fight for these rights. Because the institutions we have, as good as they may be, cannot sustain your rights in a time of crisis. So I think it’s up to us to be activists. It’s up to us to support each other, because when one’s rights go challenged, it’s everybody’s rights that are challenged.

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