Karen Korematsu's Interview Answers
1. Growing up, did you face any anti Japanese American sentiment?
Yes. In elementary school especially around the time of the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 194. Kids called me racist names and said the attack was my fault and for me to go back to Japan where I came from. This discrimination and bullying continued through junior high school.
2. What was it like when you first found out that your father played such a significant role in American history?
I learned of my father’s U.S. Supreme Court case when I was a junior in high school studying U.S. History. My friend Maya, who is 3rd generation Japanese American like me gave an oral book report on Concentration Camps, USA. She got up in front of the class and started talking about the Japanese American Incarceration of WWII and the conditions in which people suffered during that time. She went on to say that there was one man who resisted the military orders and it ended up to be a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case called Korematsu v. United States. However, she never mentioned my father’s first name, Fred. I thought it was some “black sheep” of the family. It wasn’t until after class when I asked Maya what this was about, that she said, "This is about your dad." I was in disbelief - someone would have told me if this was true. After school I went home and confronted my mother with this question and she said, “Yes, this is about your father.” I had to wait until 8:00 PM for my father to get home from work. When I told my father what Maya had said in class he said, “It happened a long time ago, and what I did I thought was right and the government was wrong.” We never talked about my father’s experience again until 1983 when his U.S. Supreme Court case was reopened.
3. How do you think your father is viewed differently today, as compared to the times during the war?
Today, my father is viewed as an American civil rights hero. In 1942 when he disobeyed the government orders, he was looked upon by his own Japanese American community as being a troublemaker; he was vilified and ostracized until his case reopened in 1983.
4. Do you believe that any of the actions taken against Japanese Americans by the government at the time of military orders, curfews, relocation, and eventually interment, were justified?
5. Do you think the subject of the World War II Japanese American incarceration is taught enough in American public schools?
NO - that is why we at the Fred T. Korematsu Institute is dedicated to work with teachers and students to teach about this history and the mistakes we’ve made. We work especially with teachers and educators in all fifty states and overseas.
6. Do you think with certain public figures, such as Donald Trump, calling for a ban of all Muslims or a database for Muslims, that history will repeat itself down the road, with the possible incarceration of people that some Americans see as threats?
Yes, and the warning came from Justice Antonin Scalia when he spoke to the University of Hawaii Law School in February 2014, where a student asked him about Korematsu v. U.S. “Well of course Korematsu was wrong. And I think we have repudiated in a later case. But you are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again…That’s what was going on – the panic about the war and the invasion of the Pacific and whatnot. That’s what happens. It was wrong, but I would not be surprised to see it happen again, in time of war. It’s not justification, but it is the reality." Scalia also cited a Latin expression meaning, “In times of war, the laws fall silent.”
7. What do you hope that America has learned from recognizing the immorality of the Japanese internment?
First of all, always identify this time in history as the WWII Japanese AMERICAN Incarceration. Obviously America hasn’t learned their lessons in history very well since we keep repeating the same mistakes. We have much work to do in K-12 and public education. People tend to have short memories and we need to keep reminding people not to repeat the same mistakes of the past. These mistakes vary according to different circumstances (anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamaphobia, xenophobia, etc.).
8. How were you able to get the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution established in California? How did this idea of establishing a statewide holiday come about?
There was a grass roots group of people in San Diego who wanted to start campaigning for a Fred Korematsu Day around 2008. They wanted to make it a national holiday and that was a challenge so it stopped the process as holidays costs extra money. That is why we decided to work for a day of recognition and more importantly a focus on education. Then California Assembly Member Warren Furutani asked me if it would be ok to go ahead with the bill as a "Day of Education and Recognition." His co-author was then Assembly member Marty Block. Of course, I said yes.