By Hunter Cresswell
Over 50 people gathered in the Humboldt State University Library on Monday for an evening of watching documentaries and discussing civil liberties, the Constitution and civil rights activist Fred Korematsu, who took his legal challenge against the U.S. internment of himself and fellow Japanese-Americans during WWII all the way to the Supreme Court.
Following Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942 authorized the military to exclude people from military areas without trials or hearings. On March 18 that same year, Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9102 established the War Relocation Authority which administered the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps across the West during the war.
Korematsu, born in Oakland in 1919 to Japanese immigrants, was arrested in 1942 for refusing to report for internment. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which on Dec. 18, 1944 in a 6-3 decision (Korematsu v. United States) upheld the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. Korematsu was released after the war ended.
Decades later, a San Francisco federal court overturned his conviction for evading internment in 1983 and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In 2010 California designated his birthday, Jan. 30, as an annual anniversary to honor his fight for civil rights. Korematsu died in 2005; Monday would have been his 98th birthday.
“I think of him as equivalent to Rosa Parks for the Japanese-American community,” HSU Asian, Desi, Pacific Islander Collective president Cindy Fong said.
The collective provides a weekly space for students who identify or ally with Asian communities and provides them resources and services to enhance their educational experience. Fong said she was one of many to help organize the event to raise awareness about Korematsu.
“I think it’s really important because there are a lot of instances when people of color did noble things but didn’t get acknowledged,” she said.
Drinks and snacks were provided and people could do arts and crafts such as origami or make pins. Event attendees watched the documentaries “Pilgrimage,” “Days of Waiting” and “Children of the Camps,” that each focused on different aspects of the internment of U.S. citizens during the war. Each documentary was followed by discussions facilitated by HSU staff. Among the crowd were students, professors, community members and even the children of interned as well as people who were imprisoned in the camps themselves.
Ed Uyeki left the Minidoka Relocation Center camp in Hunt, Idaho in 1945.
“Three years and four months,” Uyeki said about how long he was interned. “But who’s counting?”
His wife, Aiko Uyeki, was interned at the Gila River War Relocation Center about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona.
“I consider us lucky that we were still high school students,” she said about her time in the camps. “I kind of felt sorry for the adults that already graduated.”
Most of the interned Japanese-Americans lost everything during the war and Ed Uyeki’s family was no different.
“In our case we didn’t have anything left to go back to,” he said; his family moved to Cleveland. “I guess we managed to scratch enough to go to school.”
Ed Uyeki added that he believes some progress has been made to raise awareness about Japanese internment during WWII since Korematsu’s birthday started being celebrated yearly.
“I know people are against calling it a ‘concentration camp’ or ‘internment camp’ but that’s what it is if you can’t leave and people will shoot you if you try,” HSU history lecturer Guy Aronoff said after a documentary played.
During the discussion Aronoff facilitated, participants and Aronoff himself drew parallels between the events that led to Japanese-American internment, the Nazi regime’s Holocaust, and the U.S. government’s recent adjustments to its policy on admitting refugees.
“Some of you, like me, have been listening to the news and been horrified,” Aronoff said.
He spoke of a ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime that wasn’t allowed into the United States and eventually sent back to Germany.
“Almost all of them perished in concentration camps during the war as a result of not getting let in,” Aronoff said.
Pat Saito’s mother and family were interned in the Topaz War Relocation Center near Topaz, Utah during the war. She said she hopes events like this will make people learn from the mistakes of the past.
“Ever since the sansei (third generation) have been able to speak about it ... there was that sentiment of ‘Never again,’” Saito said.
She said it’s important to keep a dialogue open about this chapter in U.S. history.
“Not only learning from our mistakes but learning that it’s truly possible. It’s not just crazy thinking or paranoia. It happened in the U.S. and not that many years ago,” Saito said. “It’s important that the survivors carry that forward.”