Japanese Americans reflect on 80 years since U.S. incarceration

Eighty years might feel like distant history for some people, but for Karen Korematsu, May 30, 1942, will always mark a moment in her family's personal history.

"This Monday, May 30th will be 80 years when my father was arrested in San Leandro for disobeying military orders," said Korematsu.

It was eight decades ago when the U.S. government put more than 110,000 Japanese immigrants and American citizens into concentration camps based on their ethnicity, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That number would grow to 120,000 by the time World War II ended in 1945.

Korematsu's father Fred Korematsu was an American citizen who challenged the government by refusing to report to the assembly center in April 1942. He was picked up by police in May.

"He thought he had rights as an American citizen. Why should he go to a prison camp when he had done nothing wrong and only because he looked like the enemy," said Karen Korematsu.  Her father Fred Korematsu stayed in the East Bay until he was caught.

For Satoshi Hibi, a 91-year-old Bay Area man, memories of April 1942 are quite clear.

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At the time, a stranger snapped a family photo of Hibi standing with his mother and his younger sister. The photo shows them waiting with their luggage along a street. Hibi is standing and wearing a jaunty hat as he faces his mother. He was just a grammar school student at John Muir Elementary School in Hayward.

The stranger, it turns out, was the famous photographer Dorothea Lange, who was taking photos for the government.

"We were waiting to take the bus to Tanforan," said Hibi, 

At the Tanforan racetrack in San Bruno, Hibi remembers being confused.

"We were not allowed to leave. They give you a number and assigned a place," said Hibi, "We were told to make mattresses. All the residents had to go put hay in the bags. That's what we used for mattresses. I got pneumonia, and I was at camp hospital."

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 had unleashed a tidal wave of fear and anti-Japanese hate.

Hibi and other children who were too young to understand war, were old enough to feel the pain of prejudice.

"I remember losing all my friends. Their parents said don't go there," said Hibi, "I was picked on, beaten up at school."

"We lost everything," said Hibit, whose parents were artists and ran a Japanese school in Hayward.

"When the order came, people just had days, less than a week to get their affairs in order. People had to sell their homes, their businesses, their farms. They could only bring what they could carry," said Steve Okamoto, whose parents were American citizens and were sent to the Tanforan, assembly center when he was just a baby.

His family had been in San Francisco since 1898. Still, they were forced to leave their home and were sent to Tanforan racetrack.

"My family and others, we had to live in a horse stall, a horse stall that was filled with manure and urine, no partitions in toilets, having to lose your name and wear a tag with a number," said Okamoto.

Tanforan was one of the dozens of makeshift assembly centers on the West Coast.

From there, people were transported to one of the 10 concentration camps or other detention centers across the U.S. The internees were forced to live for years in drafty barracks behind barbed wire on desolate land. Families were sometimes separated, their livelihoods and lives lost.

Hibi's family was imprisoned at Topaz, Utah.

The internees' fate had been decided by the stroke of a pen, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.

Executive Order 9066 authorized the military to create military exclusion zones and force civilians out.

The Executive Order never mentioned Japanese immigrants or citizens. Discrimination and fear on the West Coast, however, had been growing long before Pearl Harbor.

"It was years and decades of discriminatory legislation. Japanese could not become citizens in this country. They could not own land," said Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

"The attack on Pearl Harbor really catalyzed that fear and prejudice that ran rampant, which led to the incarceration and exclusion of Japanese Americans along the West Coast," said Tonai.

It was at San Francisco's Presidio that Lt. General John DeWitt declared the entire West Coast a military zone.

DeWitt's office, remains preserved, but empty on the second floor of a Presidio building that's now a private school.

National Park Service Ranger James Osborne DeWitt gives tours of DeWitt's office and the role the Presidio played in the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

"It was in this office in March of 1942 that he signed all those assembly orders," said Osborne, "The 108 exclusion orders applied only to people of Japanese ancestry."

Some 80,000 of those in the concentration camps were American citizens, many of them children.

"So really this is where it became racist. And there were none on the East Coast saying people of German ancestry all have to report," said Osborne, "Because there was this sense of urgency, we'd just been attacked, it was easy to say they aren't as human as we are, or they're not as loyal."

Osborne says ironically, DeWitt knew that less than a mile from his office housed in building 640, was a secret project, the Military Intelligence School where 58 Japanese Americans were training to become wartime interpreters, loyal soldiers even as the law punished their parents.

"This was top secret, they could not tell their families under court-martial, they were threatened not to tell anyone their whereabouts or what they were doing. This was actually one month before Pearl Harbor," said Rosalyn Tonai, Executive Director of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

The school building along Crissy Field is now a museum and also honors the tens of thousands of young Japanese Americans who joined the military to fight for the U.S., despite being in a segregated unit. 

The 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most highly decorated unit in history, for its size and duration, receiving numerous awards including 21 Medals of Honor.

Other Americans took a different path to show their patriotism, fighting for their rights in the courts.

Fred Korematsu, Mitsuye Endo, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui, all filed cases objecting to the incarceration.

"All due process of law was denied. So the Japanese Americans never were charged with a crime, access to an attorney or had their day in court. And my father thought it was wrong as an American citizen," said Korematsu.

Korematsu's legal battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost his case Korematsu v. United States in a 6-3 decision by the justices.

At the Presidio Officers Club, an exhibit has a quote, however, from dissenting Justice Owen Roberts, who called it "a clear violation of Constitutional rights."

"This...is the case of convicting a citizen as a punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on his ancestry and solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty," writes Justice Owen Roberts.

In the 80 years since Executive Order 9066, there's been a national reckoning of the wrongs.

Researchers uncovered secret government documents showing no Japanese American espionage or need for mass incarceration.

In the courts, judges vacated the convictions of three men, Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui.

In 1989, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which included an official apology for the incarceration and a $20,000 check for reparations.

"The Japanese Americans did get reparations. It took almost 50 years for Congress and President to sign the Civil Liberties Act," said Osborne.

The letter of apology and reparations check from President Bush came too late, however, for many who had already passed on.

At the Presidio Officers Club, an exhibit called Exclusion details the Presidio's role in the incarceration proceedings. 

In the hallway as part of the exhibit, a wall of windows bears the names of the detainees. Satoshi Hibi's name is among those who were incarcerated in Topaz, Utah.

Each person's story is a part of the nation's history.

Now, it is a race to honor the legacy they leave behind while they are still able to share their stories.

The National Japanese American Historical Society has re-opened the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center with new exhibits to help educate students and the public about the history of Japanese Americans who are credited with helping to bring the war to a close more quickly. 

At Tanforan, a memorial to the 8,000 people who passed through the assembly center is set to be completed in July. 

"We're building a memorial right now because most of these 8,000 they're not here any more," said Okamoto.

For some survivors, there is the hope that history will not be repeated.

The Korematsu Institute is planning to hold more educational seminars and workshops nationwide in the coming years to raise awareness about Fred Korematsu's case and the implications it has on current issues.

"My message is Fred Korematsu was one person who made a difference in the face of adversity and so can you," said Karen Korematsu.

There is also hope that future generations will find lessons to live by.

"During wartime, the treatment of innocent people," said Hibi, "People are not treated as individuals but as members of groups."

"I would like them to know what FDR did. It's his ultimate responsibility," said Hibi, "He could have asked for more tolerance."

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at jana.katsuyama@fox.com and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.