“The mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II draws disturbing parallels to post 9/11 national policies and actions,” said UH Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law Professor Eric Yamamoto during his keynote address to the Hawaiʻi State Bar Association’s Annual Convention on September 22. He was a legal team member in the landmark 1984 litigation reopening the infamous 1944 internment case, Korematsu v. U.S.
Yamamoto is an internationally-recognized authority on issues of reparations, reconciliation, redress and civil liberties. As a young attorney in the 1980s 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.”
Fred Korematsu, a welder working at the time in the San Francisco 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, including the Supreme Court.
In refuting the Supreme Court’s decision, Yamamoto’s team argued that long-hidden documents from the Office of Naval Intelligence, FBI and 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 1984 decision exonerating Korematsu, federal district Judge Marilyn Hall Patel declared “As historical precedent (the Korematsu case now) stands as a constant caution that in times of…declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees.”
In his address, Yamamoto warned that racial or ethnic “scapegoating” still occurs in the name of national security. 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,” he said.
“Japanese American redress opened society’s eyes to the value of healing the wounds of government injustice,” said Yamamoto. “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. Redressing the deep wounds of injustice has become significant to the future of civil societies almost everywhere.”