When the orders came for Japanese Americans along the West Coast to report for incarceration in internment camps in 1942, 23-year-old Fred Korematsu refused.
He went into hiding in Oakland, but eventually was found, arrested and convicted of defying the government’s order.
His case was ultimately appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — unsuccessfully, it turned out — and eventually Korematsu found himself in the place he sought to avoid: in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah.
There, he suffered for his actions, his daughter, Karen, told students and parents at Korematsu’s namesake school in Davis late last month.
He was vilified, she said.
“He was alone … he had brought shame to his own family,” she said. “He didn’t have friends. Even his brothers deserted him.”
Decades later, of course, he is a hero — celebrated in California on the Fred T. Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, and celebrated every year at Korematsu Elementary School in Davis. But at the time, he stood alone.
“There were very few people who spoke up,” said Marielle Tsukamoto, a former Elk Grove teacher and internment camp survivor. “Fred Korematsu was one of them and he was punished for it.”
Tsukamoto and Karen Korematsu were among those attending a celebration at Korematsu Elementary School that included songs, a book reading by Davis psychologist and author Loriene Honda — whose father, Lawrence, was interned at Manzanar — as well as panelists who answered students’ questions about the internment camps.
Honda, who had been honored earlier that day at the state Capitol, read from her book, “The Cat who Chose to Dream,” which tells of life in an internment camp from the perspective of a cat who snuck into a camp with his family in order to bear witness to history.
The story was based on an actual person, Ralph Lazo, who wasn’t even Japanese but chose to go to Manzanar to witness what was being done to his friends. But not all Americans felt the way Lazo did — that the incarceration of Japanese-Americans was wrong.
In fact, said former internee Mas Hatano, “The majority were happy to see us go.”
One Korematsu student asked how the internees felt about being betrayed by their own country.
Susan Kotarek, a former internee who has three grandchildren attending Korematsu, said many of them complied quietly because they wanted to prove they were good Americans.
Karen Korematsu — whose father did not comply — said, “There was no due process, no charges, no hearings and no day in court,” even though two-thirds of internees were American citizens.
“My father learned about the constitution in high school … and was dismayed the Supreme Court did not find it unconstitutional,” she added.
Another student asked what kept the internees from escaping.
A chain-link fence, several panelists replied.
One described seeing a man shot when he ventured too close to the fence. Another noted that half the internees were children not inclined to flee.
Asked what their best memories were of the camps, as well as the worst, most pointed to the friendships they made — with people they otherwise would never have met — as the best thing to come out of the experience.
But there was a lot of bad, the survivors said, including waking up every morning to the sight of barbed-wire fences.
Honda has said her father came out of the experience as “one of the most kind and gentle people I know.”
It was his story — as well as her work as a child psychologist in Davis working with children who have been neglected, abused or traumatized — that led her to write “The Cat Who Chose to Dream.”
The book features the artwork of Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, who spent much of World War II at the Tule Lake internment camp, and features a special forward by actor George Takei, who also was imprisoned at Tule Lake.
Honda read aloud from the book during Korematsu’s celebration and will have upcoming book readings as well, including at The Avid Reader in May.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy