What has the U.S. government learned from Fred Korematsu? Nothing.

History is repeating itself.

The Santa Anita Park race track is converted into an internment for evacuated Japanese Americans who will occupy the barracks erected in background in Arcadia, Ca., April 3, 1942 during World War II. CREDIT: AP Photo
The Santa Anita Park race track is converted into an internment for evacuated Japanese Americans who will occupy the barracks erected in background in Arcadia, Ca., April 3, 1942 during World War II. CREDIT: AP Photo

Monday marks the birthday of Fred Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent who challenged President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order that allowed for the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese-American people on U.S. soil.

On February 19, 1942, the U.S. government began the forcible detention of more than 120,000 people, mostly of Japanese descent. Korematsu refused to comply. He went into hiding, became a fugitive, and was eventually arrested for violating the order. He courageously took his case to the Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the order, citing national security concerns. Marked as a criminal and often unable to find work, Korematsu spent the next 40 years working to get his case reopened.

Korematsu’s case might sound familiar, in light of President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States over fears of terrorism.

Since the enactment of Trump’s order, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials have detained more than 100 people at airports around the country. Some of them were eventually released after intense litigation by hardworking lawyers and judges with a “firm moral compass.” But some of them — even those with valid visas to enter the country — were turned around and prohibited from stepping foot in the United States. And other people who were preparing to travel are now unable to come to America, some of whom must now remain in refugee camps abroad.

In some ways, this feels like history is repeating itself.

Many Japanese Americans who were interned in the 1940s have since spoken out about the moral imperative to never return to a time when it was acceptable to detain people who have a right to be in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of the people who were incarcerated under Roosevelt’s order were American citizens.


Here are six comments from Japanese Americans that have an important message for the Trump administration to learn from:

Fred Korematsu, 2004

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.

George Takei, actor and civil rights leader, 2014

When I was a teenager, my father told me that our democracy is very fragile, but it is a true people’s democracy, both as strong and as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are. And that’s why good people have to be actively engaged in the process, sometimes holding democracy’s feet to the fire, in order to make it a better, truer democracy.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), former congressman, 2015

Even after we were released, I, along with other Japanese-Americans, faced anti-Japanese slurs and insults in a post-World War II America. We developed a sense that somehow we had done something wrong. It was my father who helped me realize that our “crime” was simply being of Japanese ancestry. In a post-Pearl Harbor craze, this lineage was sufficient for the federal government to pass orders to detain and imprison an entire segment of American society — we were guilty solely by association.

Dr. Satsuki Ina, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Sacramento, 2015

I was born behind barbed wire 70 years ago in the Tule Lake Segregation Center, a maximum-security prison camp for Japanese-Americans in Northern California. My parents’ only crime was having the face of the enemy. They were never charged or convicted of a crime; yet they were forced to raise me in a prison camp when President Franklin Roosevelt signed a wartime executive order ultimately authorizing the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent. We were deemed a danger to the “national security” and incarcerated without due process of law.

Paul Ohtaki, businessman and journalist, 2008

People don’t believe this. If you go beyond — maybe a few states here — they don’t believe that the United States had a concentration camp! They don’t call it that. You can call it what you like, but they put people in who are entitled to every citizen right of anybody else. People don’t believe that!

Fumi Hayashi, Cutter Laboratories, 2006

When you see pictures of black men hanging from trees, and I don’t know how we can do things like that to each other. Sometimes I think if I were on the other side of the fence, would I go to Tanforan [a temporary incarceration camp to hold Japanese Americans] with a whole bunch of buckets and soap? Do I have that kind of something inside of me — that I would do something like that for other people? It’s a big question mark. I can’t say that I would, because I think it’s more comfortable to write a check or even worse, just do nothing.

Chizu Iiyama, activist, social worker and educator, 2009

I don’t have advice. I just say to learn from your own — to study and learn about your history; history of our government and history of all these things that happened. If you are a minority person, learn your history, so you’ll know again what happened in the past so you’ll be sure to deal with the present in a more enlightened way.