Almost 80 years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending thousands of Japanese-American citizens into internment camps. These Americans were forced to pack all of their belongings into suitcases, sell whatever they could, and move far away to barracks where they were treated like prisoners in their own country.
While that was the story for most, one man named Fred Korematsu decided to take a stand and speak up for the Japanese people who had been stripped of their rights. Korematsu refused to be locked away in the camps and was ultimately arrested for defying the order. In his fight for human rights, Korematsu truly put the criminal justice system and Bill of Rights to the test, pushing his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Last week, the Asian American Culture Club (AACC) gave Harvard Westlake students and faculty the opportunity to speak with Fred Korematsu’s daughter, activist Dr. Karen Korematsu.
Korematsu has dedicated her career to fighting for social justice. In 2009, Korematsu founded the Fred Korematsu Institute, which focuses on the advancement of racial equity and human rights for all. Through the use of education and advocacy, the Korematsu Institute has changed the way Japanese-American incarceration gets taught in schools. Still, Korematsu has a deep belief that Japanese incarceration doesn’t get taught enough in school. She herself didn’t even learn about her father’s Supreme Court case until her friend brought it up after a brief discussion in an eleventh grade history class.
“Back when I was growing up . . . there wasn’t information in textbooks about the incarceration for one thing,” Korematsu said in her all-school presentation. “You might have a mention of World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and then you might have maybe one sentence about Japanese internment.”
In order to combat this, the Korematsu Institute has put a strong emphasis on education, holding educator workshops and creating educational toolkits so teachers are better equipped to tell the story of Japanese-American incarceration. The Korematsu Institute has been able to give out upwards of 12,000 of the kits for free to teachers worldwide. In addition, the Korematsu Institute has held many conferences for teachers and even built a curriculum to pair with the incarceration documentary “And Then They Came for Us.”
When it comes to advocacy, the Korematsu Institute has prioritized the advancement of civil liberties for not only Japanese-Americans, but people of all backgrounds. Korematsu has even signed on to amicus briefs defending the rights of Muslim people, most notably in the Supreme Court case of Trump v. Hawaii. Her father’s 1944 case, Korematsu v. United States, was brought up to draw comparisons to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans and the travel ban which primarily targeted Muslim countries.
After the events of Sept. 11 2001, Fred Korematsu himself spoke out for the rights of Muslim-Americans, famously saying, “No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”
Similar to discrimination and hate crimes against the Muslim-American community following those terrorist attacks , violence against the Asian-American community has grown since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, a report from the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that Anti-Asian hate crimes have surged 169% in the past year alone. While Anti-Asian sentiment has a long history in the United States, Korematsu believes that young people are speaking out more than ever and change is coming.
“It’s encouraging to me to see this type of what I call activism,” Korematsu said. “It’s so important that we learn these skills at this age. Certainly when I was growing up there was none of that.”
In order to address these hate crimes, President Joe Biden recently signed anti-Asian hate crime legislation called the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, aiming to create a position in the Justice Department solely focused on anti-Asian American hate crimes. During Asian Pacific American heritage month, it is important to not only celebrate the AAPI community, but also reflect on the discrimination that the community faces every day.
“Every time we’re silent, every time we let hate flourish, we make a lie of who we are as a nation,” Biden said before signing the bill. “We cannot let the very foundation of this country continue to be eaten away like it has been in other moments in our history and happening again.”
In 1942, Fred Korematsu stood up for what he believed in, and refused to be incarcerated for his heritage. Today in 2021, countless of young people have taken up his torch, fighting against inequality and the rising hate crimes against the Asian-American community. Whether it be checking in on a friend or family member, doing research, or helping spread awareness through social media, people are taking action to stop anti-Asian sentiment.
“If you want to make change . . .we all can,”Korematsu said. “We all have that ability. People think that they can’t make a difference, well Fred Korematsu was one person who made a difference in the face of adversity.”