“It is important for us to study the Korematsu case, not only to understand its historical significance, but also to learn a lesson from it so that this sort of injustice will never occur again.”
I still fondly remember crafting this ground-breaking conclusion to my middle-school essay “The Korematsu Case: Lessons for Today.” The winner of my local Sonoma County JACL Chapter’s Day of Remembrance essay contest, I considered the piece to be profound academic scholarship. Indeed, the story of Fred Korematsu was, in the eyes of my 13-year-old self, a brand-new history.
As a new JACL member with limited background knowledge on the incarceration, researching the Korematsu case was exhilarating. I was absolutely inspired by the legendary group of individuals who, though betrayed by the highest arena of our judicial system, eventually rose again to demand an apology for an injustice committed decades before.
Until high school, even as I further explored my Japanese American identity, I believed I had learned from Fred Korematsu’s story everything that there was to learn. As I moved through the rest of my compulsory education, I shared my newfound knowledge in nearly every history class, wrote more “scholarly” essays and speeches and devoured Asian American history literature, museum exhibits and documentaries.
My JACL involvement also increased as a youth representative for the Sonoma County Chapter and regular National Convention attendee. Foolishly, I thought I understood civil rights, but Fred Korematsu had far more than one lesson in store for me. Indeed, I was yet to realize who exactly Fred Korematsu was as a person outside the courtroom.
By the time I left California for Brown University, my understanding of Japanese American history was exponentially more sophisticated than when I wrote “The Korematsu Case: Lessons for Today.”
Thus, when I was given the extraordinary opportunity to work for Karen Korematsu as an intern at the Fred T. Korematsu Institute this past summer, a re-examination of Fred’s struggle was inevitable.
As I assisted Karen with presentations, research and outreach campaigns, I began to understand a much different side of Fred Korematsu. I realized that, despite deep criticism from inside and outside his own community, Fred Korematsu was never one to aggressively combat those who actively did not support him. This is an extraordinary characteristic.
Indeed, deep-seated tensions arising from World War II, which devastated countless lives in incalculable ways, still influence international and domestic politics. Similarly, the ways in which people have fought for justice since then vary, but in Fred Korematsu’s case, this cool-headed personality illustrates his simple desire to do only what he believed was right. In other words, there was one simple, yet steadfast, cause that Fred Korematsu not only strove for but also tried to shield from the opposing voices around him.
Korematsu’s imperturbability came to mind especially after my summer internship at the institute.
In November of last year, Emi Kamemoto and I, both serving on the National Youth/Student Council, organized a youth summit in Washington, D.C., titled “A Seat at the Table.”
The summit focused on encouraging solidarity amongst communities of color, especially from the perspective of the Asian American community. In light of the injustices in Ferguson, Mo., we hoped to re-emphasize the importance of supporting other minority communities facing oppression.
The most memorable obstacle to solidarity that we identified during our discussions and panel was that past conflicts and disagreements have discouraged different minority organizations from supporting each other.
I immediately thought of the moving photograph that I first saw at the Korematsu Institute displaying a smiling Rosa Parks and Fred Korematsu sharing stories together. Echoing the efforts of Fred Korematsu, the main take away from the summit was that social justice work today increasingly calls for compassion and solidarity amongst peoples facing common injustices.
All jokes aside, if I had to redo my Day of Remembrance essay, I would probably write roughly the same words 13-year-old Kota wrote. Understanding Fred Korematsu’s story to prevent future injustices is a message that, then and now, I strongly affirm. Yet, even during my short seven years being involved with social justice work, my understanding of what exactly that message embodies has evolved considerably.
Thanks to countless opportunities, mentors and experiences, I have come to appreciate and honor Fred Korematsu as not only a hero who fought injustice in the courts but also a leader who compassionately shared his vision of social justice with others, no matter who they were or how they viewed him.
Certainly, I am now better prepared to fulfill the closing sentence of my middle school essay:
“I will therefore insure that my generation as well as future generations will know that they can protect their freedom with the courage to never give up.”
Kota Mizutani is a sophomore studying political science and ethnic studies at Brown University. He currently serves as the EDC Youth Representative and Treasurer for the National Youth/Student Council. In the past, Kota served as the Sonoma County JACL Board Youth Representative as well as the NCWNP Youth Representative.