Japanese-American fought government repression
The passing of Fred Korematsu on March 30, 2005 gives us pause for examining the struggle for freedom in this nation. Korematsu was one of three Nisei (second generation Japanese-American) men who gained notoriety through the "coram nobis" trials of the 1980s. A petition for error coram nobis (error before us), filed with the court that permitted the alleged error, is the only avenue of recourse open to those who have been convicted as charged, exhausted all appeals, and served their sentences. A granted petition means the court in question acknowledges a grave error was committed under its jurisprudence, and that a rationale for redress and reparations is hence plausible.
Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi filed the coram nobis petitions in hopes of overturning their convictions for violating exclusion zone restrictions and the curfew imposed by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in 1942.
Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor all persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast were subject to an overnight curfew and confined to an area that included their residences. After the internment plan had been hatched, they were excluded by military order from the same areas and instructed to report to designated assembly centers.
The coram nobis actions were prompted by the 1981 discovery of documents supporting the suspicion that racism lay behind the 1943 (Hirabayashi, Yasui) and 1944 (Korematsu) U.S. Supreme Court decisions upholding the respective lower court convictions. Peter Irons, a UC San Diego law professor who was researching the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans, found two crucial memoranda through the Freedom of Information Act. Both were from Edward Ennis, director of the Justice Department’s Alien Enemy Control Unit (AECU), to Solicitor General Charles Fahy.
In the first memorandum, sent in time for the Hirabayashi and Yasui Supreme Court hearings, Ennis advised Fahy that the AECU had not yet found any evidence that Japanese-Americans had ever engaged in acts of disloyalty. Fahy was no more impressed than WRA commander Lt. General John DeWitt who said, "The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such actions will be taken." Could this be where Donald Rumsfeld got the inspiration for his WMD claim that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"? Fahy did not inform the Court. The Hirabayashi and Yasui convictions were upheld.
The second memorandum advised Fahy that the AECU had found Gen. DeWitt’s "report" on espionage, sabotage and overt acts of treason committed by Japanese Americans to be a complete fabrication. Fahy submitted the report as evidence for the Korematsu Supreme Court hearing. The Court sustained Korematsu’s conviction.
In November 1983, a month after the first coram nobis trial, San Francisco U.S. Judge Marilyn Patel ruled in favor of Korematsu, vacating his conviction and granting his petition. The "error" established that day was that the government withheld exculpatory evidence and provided misleading information to the Supreme Court. Patel expressed strong disfavor with Solicitor Gen. Fahy’s malfeasance but duly noted that she had no authority to overturn the Dec. 18, 1944 decision on Korematsu vs. U. S. Later, in Portland, Min Yasui’s conviction was also vacated but his petition for error coram nobis was not granted. He appealed to the Supreme Court but died two years later after hearing nothing from the Court. Hirabayashi’s case, which dragged on in Seattle for three years, eventually ended with his complete exoneration.
The coram nobis cases are widely considered a major civil rights triumph. Indeed they breathed new life into the campaign for Redress and Reparations, which culminated in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.
The Act provided for a formal apology from the U.S. government to former internees along with $20,000 cash, and the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund (CLPEF). The CLPEF gave financial impetus to the formation of many new Japanese-American organizations dedicated to encouraging former internees to share their stories with the public and with each other. Most of them had never even talked about the internment at home. For the first time, their children were learning through firsthand accounts what they may have heard about fleetingly, if at all, in a history class.
The "opening up" movement sweeping the traditionally reticent Nikkei (Japanese-American) community gave rise to a vibrant new voice of freedom that took its cue from Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui. Within days of the September 11 horrors, Nikkei organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area such as Sansei Legacy Project, Nosei Network, and Tule Lake Committee issued public statements of solidarity with Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim peoples. At rallies and in periodicals, on TV and over the radio, one heard Nikkeis denouncing racist scapegoating and the attack on Afghanistan.
Before the coram nobis trials, it is difficult to imagine Japanese-Americans stepping up so quickly and resolutely. At his memorial service in Oakland family members and friends described Korematsu as a quiet person with no great love of public speaking. Yet he pushed himself to speak out despite the worsening illnesses that finally took his life. In 2003, in the midst of a speaking tour to high schools, universities, law schools, and numerous venues where racial profiling, human rights and civil liberties were discussed, he reflected on his WWII experiences and remarked, "It’s been 60 years since this happened, and it’s happening again, and that’s why I continue to talk about what happened to me."
Published by News and Letters Committees