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Fred Korematsu, 86; Fought Internment

Associated Press
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C08

Fred Korematsu, 86, who unsuccessfully fought Japanese American internment camps during World War II before finally winning in court nearly four decades later, died March 30 at his daughter's home in Larkspur, Calif. He had a respiratory illness.

Mr. Korematsu became a symbol of civil rights for challenging the World War II internment orders that sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to government camps. His conviction for opposing the internment was overturned in U.S. District Court in 1983.


Fred Korematsu was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998. (Dennis Cook -- AP)

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Mr. Korematsu helped win a national apology and reparations for internment camp survivors and their families in 1988. He was honored by President Bill Clinton in 1998 with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mr. Korematsu, the son of Japanese immigrants, was born in Oakland, Calif. He was living there in 1942 and working as a welder when military officials ordered all Japanese Americans on the West Coast -- including U.S. citizens such as Mr. Korematsu -- to report for transportation to remote camps.

Nearly all complied, including Mr. Korematsu's family and friends, who urged him to go along. He refused.

"All of them turned their backs on me at that time because they thought I was a troublemaker," he recalled. "I thought what the military was doing was unconstitutional. I was really upset because I was branded as an enemy alien when I'm an American."

He was arrested, convicted of violating the order and sent to an internment camp in Utah. The Supreme Court upheld Mr. Korematsu's conviction in December 1944, agreeing with the government that it was justified by the need to combat sabotage and espionage.

"There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some [Japanese Americans], the military authorities considered that the need for action was great, and the time was short," wrote Justice Hugo Black in the 6 to 3 ruling.

Current legal scholars almost universally regard the ruling as one of the worst in the court's history. But it was not repudiated until the early 1980s, when American lawyers of Asian descent and civil rights advocates unearthed new evidence that undermined the internment order.

For almost 40 years, Mr. Korematsu did not talk about his experiences. In recent years, he remained active in civil rights issues, speaking out against parts of the USA Patriot Act that he believed violated the rights of Americans of Arab descent.

Survivors include his wife, Katherine, and two children.


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