‘One person who could make a difference’

The General Assembly recognized Fred Korematsu Day in Georgia to honor the man who refused to obey federal orders during World War II to turn himself in for internment as a Japanese-American. Karen Korematsu, his daughter, spoke to the Georgia Asian American & Pacific Islander Task Force at its recent Fred Korematsu Day event at the state Capitol. She said her parents never spoke of Korematsu v. the United States or the Japanese-American internment, and she first learned of them in a high school history class. She came home and asked her father. Excerpts of her remarks follow:

He said simply that it happened a long ago, that he felt what he did was right, and the government was wrong. It was that clear and simple.

For a couple of years after that, I was kind of afraid to ask my father any more questions because I could just see the pain and the hurt in his eyes. … He thought maybe, perhaps, my brother and I might be ashamed of him. So he wanted to wait for us to be a little older so we might understand. … My father, he was never angry, he was never bitter. He didn’t blame anybody. He just was waiting for his time.

Fast forward to 1982. Professor Peter Irons writes to say he wants to talk to my father because he’s writing a book. He had some evidence. … To learn he had uncovered evidence of government misconduct that would allow my father’s case to be reopened, was unbelievable. Until that time, I did not know that my father deep down inside had always been looking for someone to help him reopen his case. But he didn’t know how to do that because attorneys cost a lot of money, and he didn’t know any attorneys.

If you really believe you are right, and you want not only for yourself but for this country to make a big difference – that’s the story of Fred Korematsu, of one person who could make a difference. But the Japanese-American community was not supportive once they learned what was going on. They thought if my father reopened his court case, they would lose the chance for redress and reparations. It was the same story form the time when my father took a stand in 1942 to disobey military orders. His own Japanese-American community did not support him. He was vilified from Day One. They didn’t want anything to do with him, because they thought if they associated with my father, some harm might come to them … so my father just went it alone, always. For him not to have a grudge, really says something about his character. He lived by his principles. Not everyone can say that they lived by their principles. But he truly did.

So when his conviction was overturned in 1983, he had done this not only for himself and for the Japanese-American community, but for future generations. And this weight, not only lifted off his shoulders but all those other people that been incarcerated, because they had walked around in shame all those years. No one really talked about their experiences during the Japanese-American incarceration, because after they got out of camp they just wanted to go forward and prove they were good Americans. They wanted to give back to the community, raise their families, work hard. That’s what this American dream is all about.

When my father’s case was overturned, he could have said, OK, none of you ever supported me, none of the Japanese-American community supported me. But he was not like that. He was shy, but … he realized that education was important, that in order for something like the Japanese-American internment not to happen again, he had to keep speaking out. So that’s why he crisscrossed the United States and spoke to whomever invited him. He really wanted to make a difference, and that’s why he received the 1998 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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