In her new book Enduring Conviction: Fred Korematsu and His Quest for Justice, Lorraine K. Bannai brings an insider’s knowledge to the famous legal case of Fred T. Korematsu, a young man who decided to resist F.D.R.’s Executive Order 9066, which provided authority for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. His was initially the case of a young man following his heart: he wanted to remain in California with his Italian American fiancée. However, he quickly came to realize that it was more than just a personal choice; it was a matter of basic human rights.
After refusing to leave for incarceration when ordered, Korematsu was eventually arrested and convicted of a federal crime before being confined at Topaz, Utah.
He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, which upheld the wartime orders in 1944. Forty years later, a team of young attorneys resurrected Korematsu’s case. This time, Korematsu prevailed and his conviction was overturned, helping to pave the way for Japanese American redress.
Bannai, who was a young attorney on the legal team that represented Korematsu in reopening his case in the 1980s, combines her experiences of working on the case with extensive archival research and first-person interviews. She uncovers the inspiring story of a humble, soft-spoken man who fought tirelessly against human rights abuses long after he was exonerated. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
We spoke with Bannai about her book, published this fall.
Why did you want to put together this book?
Lorraine K. Bannai: There are several reasons. First and foremost, I wanted others to know Fred’s story. Fred was a 22-year-old welder in Oakland, California, at the time the government ordered Japanese Americans removed from the West Coast. He chose not to obey and chose instead to remain with the woman he loved in the area that was, and had always been, his home. For that, he was convicted of a federal crime. In 1944, in one the most infamous cases in its history, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction and, in doing so, the removal of over 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry to desolate camps in the interior United States. Forty years later, on proof that the wartime government had lied to the Supreme Court, Fred reopened his case and gained vacation of his conviction; in related proceedings, two other wartime resisters, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, gained vacation of their convictions, as well. Fred then went on to speak nationally about the constant need to be vigilant to protect civil rights, especially during times of fear. Many people know of Fred’s case; it’s taught in most every law school Constitutional Law class in the country. I wanted to share the story of the good man behind the case and his commitment to protecting others from the type of ignorance and scapegoating that resulted in the wartime Japanese American incarceration.
Further, I wanted to use Fred’s story to illuminate other themes. Fred’s story is also one about the Japanese American community, or at least my experience of the community. I am a third generation Japanese American—a sansei. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles were incarcerated at Manzanar in the Mojave Desert. In examining Fred’s life, I hoped to share the experience of this community, an experience unfortunately not unlike the experience of many immigrant communities of color—met by hostility, treated as suspicious and forever foreign. And I hoped to show that, while Japanese Americans share, in many respects, a common culture and historical experience, they are a community of diverse individuals who had multiple different responses to their incarceration—obedience, fear, hurt, anger, defiance—each response unique and understandable.
In addition, as a lawyer, I wanted to use Fred’s story as a case study about the law and legal system—how oftentimes law and justice aren’t the same thing; the need for government officials and the courts to protect the most vulnerable among us; our own roles and responsibilities as citizens to speak out against injustice; and what happens when we fail to live up to our national ideals. The incarceration of Japanese Americans was called for by civic organizations, officials at every level of government, and the popular media. Few spoke out against it. Most who called for the incarceration believed they were acting the best interests of the country. But we now know that the incarceration was an egregious violation of civil liberties.
At the same time Fred’s case can teach us about the ways in which the legal system and its actors can fail us, it also shows examples of ways in which they can be instruments of justice and the promotion of healing. I was privileged to serve on Fred’s legal team in reopening his case. Working with that team of committed, talented lawyers was one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiences I’ve had in my career.
Q: Describe the process of putting together Enduring Conviction.
LKB: It was a long process. I don’t know if it was unusually long, but it certainly seems like it was! It had been simmering in my mind for a number of years, but did not have room to grow until my home institution, Seattle University School of Law, provided me sabbatical time to really dig in. Much of the work involved research in various depositories, including the national archives, libraries, museums, and the like. For example, it was amazing to see the 1942 handwritten entry checking Fred into the San Leandro Jail, in a log now kept by the San Leandro History Museum, as well as the photos of Fred’s parents in his mother’s immigration file at the National Archives in San Bruno. And it was moving to see the wartime letters between Fred and his ACLU legal advocate Ernest Besig at the California Historical Society in San Francisco. But most meaningful were the dozens of interviews I was able to conduct with people who knew Fred—his wife, Kathryn; his children, Karen and Ken; and other members of his family, his friends and acquaintances, and members of his legal team. There were a lot of trips to the Bay Area to do this work. And there were lots of hours at my dining table surrounded by books and papers. It’s nice to now have use of my dining table again.
Q: Who do you see as the audience for your book?
LKB: There are a number of books about Fred for younger audiences. I wrote this book for a college-age/adult audience. I hope that this book will reach readers interested in the Japanese American incarceration, American history, American ethnic studies, Asian American studies, civil rights, race and the law, constitutional law, and legal history. I am most hopeful, however, that this book reaches a general audience interested in the story of someone who simply took a stand against injustice, despite what others thought. In the end, I think that Fred speaks to each us and tells us that we each have both the responsibility and ability to help this country live up to its ideals, which includes vigilance in protecting the marginalized.
Q: Your book tells such a powerful and important story. How did you come up with the title?
LKB: Perhaps like many authors, I struggled to come up with a title that I felt really captured what this book was about (see above—I was trying to do a lot with this book). I spoke with friends and colleagues and just couldn’t seem to come up with anything that seemed quite right. For example, I didn’t want anything along the lines of “Justice Won,” because, while Fred won the vacation of his conviction, we, as a nation, are a long way from achieving justice of the type Fred sought, particularly racial justice.
I was very lucky to have a small, trusted group who read the manuscript (numerous times) and gave me great feedback from diverse points of view. One of these individuals was Uncle Sam Eng, a very wise, very smart, very well-read, and very exacting 80-year-old. He called me one day and said, “I have a title.” And it’s a great one, I think. I’m eternally grateful to Uncle Sam.