Law School professor traces history of Japanese internment redress

Bar Association keynote address reveals government secrets

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Cynthia D. Quinn, (808) 956-7966
Interim, Associate Dean for Student Services, William S. Richardson School of Law
Bev Creamer, 956-8478
Communications, William S. Richardson School of Law
Posted: Sep 26, 2011

According to UH Mānoa Richardson Law School Professor Eric Yamamoto, "The mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II draws disturbing parallels to post 9/11 national policies and actions." Yamamoto was a legal team member in the landmark 1984 coram nobis litigation reopening the infamous 1944 internment case, Korematsu v. U.S.
The coram nobis case – and secret government documents it cited - revealed the incarceration was based not on necessity but on “war hysteria, a failure of political leadership and race prejudice,” Yamamoto said during his keynote address to the Hawai‘i State Bar Association’s Annual Convention at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Coral Ballroom on Friday, September 22.
In his talk Yamamoto traced the convoluted legal history of Fred Korematsu’s challenge of the Japanese-American detention and internment, warning that racial or ethnic “scapegoating” still occurs in the name of national security.
He warned, too, that the case cautions us that the Supreme Court abdicates its constitutional role as guardian of fundamental liberties of all “when it takes a hands-off role in addressing government national security actions that curtail civil liberties.”
“Japanese American redress opened society’s eyes to the value of healing the wounds of government injustice,” Yamamoto told an audience that included Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, many members of the state judiciary, and representatives from the Hawai‘i legal community and the Richardson School of Law at UH Mānoa.
“Present-day reconciliation movements in the U.S. and beyond cite America’s apology and symbolic payments to Japanese American internees as catalyst and guide,” said Yamamoto. “Redressing the deep wounds of injustice has become significant to the future of civil societies almost everywhere.”
Yamamoto is a nationally and internationally-recognized authority on issues of reparations, reconciliation, redress and civil liberties and has written and spoken extensively on how healing past injustice reaches deep into a nation’s social fabric. As a young attorney in the 1980's he joined the legal team pushing to overturn the 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision that validated Japanese American internment as an act of “necessity.”
Korematsu, a welder working at the time in the Bay Area, had argued that incarceration based on race, without proof of individual wrongdoing, violated fundamental tenets of American law - equal protection and due process. He lost in three courts of law, including the Supreme Court.
Forty years later, with new evidence that government departments had both withheld and falsified key evidence during a time of war hysteria, the Korematsu team overturned convictions for Korematsu and two other former detainees.
In refuting the factual underpinnings of the Supreme Court’s decision, Yamamoto’s team pointed to new evidence uncovered from government files in 1981 that the War and Justice departments had known there was no military necessity to justify detention and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. Long-hidden documents from assessments and investigations by the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission clearly showed there was no danger posed by Japanese Americans as a group, and no need for mass race-based treatment.
In the landmark 1984 decision exonerating Korematsu, federal district judge Marilyn Hall Patel declared:
‘As historical precedent (Korematsu now) stands as a constant caution that in times of…declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees.
‘It stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of…national security not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability.
‘It stands as a caution that in times of international hostility…our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared… to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.’
That decision helped lead to passage of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act that included a Presidential apology for the incarceration; recognition of government wrongdoings and the resulting human harm; $1.4 billion in symbolic reparation payments; and the financing of public education projects.
In October, Yamamoto and Korematsu’s daughter, Karen Korematsu, will lead a workshop for Hawai‘i high school social studies teachers to assist in preparing curriculum materials for schools throughout the state. The teacher workshop is part of a partnership among the Hawai‘i State Bar Association, the Department of Education, the Richardson School of Law and the Judicial History Center.
During Korematsu’s final successful appeal of his conviction, the law team realized that it was just as important to try the case in the court of public opinion as it was in the justice system, Yamamoto said. Outreach to Hawai‘i schools to make the landmark Korematsu case a powerful piece in students’ understanding of their history, continues that effort.
Yamamoto, especially, recognized how important it was for the Japanese American community to feel a lifting of guilt associated with the charge of disloyalty.
He remembers an older Japanese American woman coming to him with tears in her eyes after Korematsu’s exoneration, saying, “I always felt the internment was wrong. We didn’t do anything disloyal. But after being told by the military, the President, the Congress, the courts and the newspapers that it was necessary, I came to seriously doubt myself. I could not even speak of it, even to my children. But now, the young generation’s fight for us in the courts and for redress has freed my soul.”

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