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Renewing the spirit of civil rights

By Holly Fujie
President, State Bar of California

Holly Fujie

On Dec. 7, 1941, my grandfather, Koichi Suzuki, was removed from his home by FBI agents. He, along with Japanese American leaders from throughout the United States, were not allowed to return to their homes until after the end of World War II. My grandfather left behind three motherless children under the age of 16 with no other relatives in the country and no resources to support themselves. Only through the kindness of neighbors were my 14-year-old mother and her brother and sister able to survive until they, too, were forced by Executive Order 9066 into "Relocation Centers" – first temporary quarters consisting of a horse stall at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno and then a permanent center with armed sentries and guard towers in the desert at Topaz, Utah.

My grandfather was no subversive for his native Japan. He was the principal of the Japanese language school in San Francisco. He was never charged with any crime, and in fact he was asked, and agreed, to take on the job of teaching the Japanese language to U.S. naval officers at the Navy's training facility in Boulder, Colo. And yet he, his American-born children, as well as my U.S. citizen future father – then a UC Berkeley accounting student– and his family, together with 110,000 other US citizens and Japanese immigrants, were incarcerated without accusation and without trial by the American government for years in inhospitable circumstances and hostile environments. They lost their property, their position in society and their liberty based upon racial hatred and wartime hysteria. Neither Italian nor German nationals or their offspring were similarly incarcerated during the war, although the United States was also at war with their ancestors' homelands.

In the end, only 10 people were ever convicted of spying for Japan during World War II – and they were all Caucasian.

Some Japanese Americans sought relief from these unfair actions in the courts. Fred Korematsu is perhaps the best known, and his case (Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944)) was the first case in which the Supreme Court applied the strict scrutiny standard to racial discrimination. It was also one of only a very few cases in which the court has held that the government met the standard. It held that the government's alleged need to protect against espionage outweighed Fred Korematsu's individual rights and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent.

Justice Frank Murphy filed an impassioned dissent, stating that the forced relocation of Japanese "falls into the ugly abyss of racism." He compared the reasoning used to support the evacuation to that of "the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy," i.e., Nazi Germany. He ended his dissent by stating:

"I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatsoever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution."

Almost 40 years later, a team of California lawyers led by Dale Minami and the Asian Law Caucus fought for and obtained from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California – ironically by a judge of South Asian ancestry, Judge Marilyn Patel – the reversal of Fred Korematsu's conviction for refusing to be sent to a relocation center, as well as the convictions of Minoru Yasui (Yasui v. United States, 320 U.S. 115 (1943)) and Gordon Hirabayashi (320 U.S. 81 (1943)) for violations of curfews applied only to those of Japanese ancestry, on writs of coram nobis. The court based its reversal on the ground that "there is substantial support in the record that the government deliberately omitted relevant information and provided misleading information in papers before the court" that was critical to the Supreme Court's original decision.

Specifically, the district court held that the government had suppressed information that the purported military justification for the exclusion and internment of Japanese Americans was, even according to Department of Justice officials writing during the war, based upon "willful historical inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods." In other words, the government had deliberately misled the court in order to justify its actions.

Sixty-seven years after my grandfather was taken from his family, and 20 years after surviving Japanese American internees were granted reparations to represent their losses during the war, most Americans wonder how this could have happened and imagine that it could not occur again in this country. Yet the danger of wartime hysteria still exists, as evidenced by the actions that have been taken recently in this country in the name of the "War on Terror." With the election of President-elect Barack Obama, a lawyer well-versed in constitutional law, and an African American who grew up in the era of civil rights struggles, the country will undoubtedly be expecting a renewed emphasis on the preservation of the human and civil rights of all people during his administration.

As a descendant of parents and grandparents imprisoned in "relocation centers" by their own government, I look forward to this new spirit in the American government with great anticipation, pride and hope.

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