From right: Esther Takei Nishio tells her story as Alan Nishio, Patricia Kinaga and Susie Ling listen. (Photo by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

PASADENA — The City of Pasadena celebrated Fred Korematsu Day on Monday with a panel discussion at the Main Public Library’s Donald Wright Auditorium, featuring a woman who was the first Japanese American to return to the Pasadena area from the concentration camps.

Following the passage of legislation establishing Fred Korematsu Day in California, the Pasadena City Council voted on Feb. 28, 2011 to observe that day on an annual basis. The ACLU, Japanese American Bar Association, and Latino Heritage were among the groups supporting the move. Jan. 30 is the birthday of Korematsu, who died in 2005 at age 86.

Wendy Fujihara Anderson, founder of the Cherry Blossom Festival of Southern California and a board member of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the audience.

Mayor Bill Bogaard opened the program by saying, “The values and the spirit and the inspiration provided by Fred Korematsu is at the heart of what Pasadena is, what it should be, what it wants to be in terms of embracing differences, celebrating the diversity of our great community, and recognizing the way in which a community like this can be enriched by interaction with people so many different backgrounds and so many points of view.”

The mayor gave an overview of Korematsu’s case: “In 1942, at the age of 23, he refused to go to the government incarceration camps for Japanese Americans. After he was arrested and convicted for defying the government’s order, he appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against him in 1944, arguing that the incarceration was justified due to military necessity.

“It was almost 40 years later that Professor Peter Irons, a legal historian, together with researcher Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, discovered key documents that government intelligence agencies had hidden from the Supreme Court at the time of the proceedings. The documents consistently showed that Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify mass incarceration. On Nov. 10, 1983 … Korematsu’s conviction was overturned by a federal court in San Francisco.”

Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard. (Photo by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Thanking everyone who made the celebration possible, Bogaard said, “The city is proud to be the first Southern California city to pass an annual day of recognition for Fred Korematsu, which commemorates the spirit and meaning of his life and the importance of continuing to preserve and protect civil rights and liberties of Americans.”

Soji Kashiwagi, a member of the Pasadena Human Relations Commission and executive producer of the Grateful Crane Ensemble, described Korematsu as “a civil rights hero who believed what was happening to him and his fellow Americans of Japanese ancestry was wrong. And along with Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui, they dared to defy their government and took a stand for not only their civil rights, but the civil rights of all Americans.”

Test Case in Pasadena

Kashiwagi also paid tribute to panelist Esther Takei Nishio. “She said that she wished that she could do what I’m doing, which is writing stories and plays about Japanese American history and experience and presenting them on stage. But my response to her was that I can do what I do because of people like her, the hardships and sacrifices that she and all those that have come before me have endured. These are the people who paved the way for me.”

After Nishio arrived in Pasadena during the war, “things got so heated … that Dillon Myer, the director of the War Relocation Authority, was called into town to testify to the loyalty and patriotism of Esther Takei Nishio and all Japanese Americans … That took place in this library, in this very room,” Kashiwagi said.

Nishio had lived in Altadena and was held in the Amache, Colo. camp. She recalled that a family friend, Hugh Anderson, visited her in camp in 1944. “He talked to my parents and myself about the possibility of coming back to California as a test case to see what would happen if someone like me turned up in Pasadena and went to school (at Pasadena Junior College). It sounded like such an exciting adventure …

“I hopped on a train in Granada and three days later I arrived at the Pasadena train station. I was met there by students from the school, the counselor to the student Christian association, Rev. Herbert Nicholson, who did so much for the Japanese American community, and of course Mr. Anderson. That was a joyful occasion, but the next thing that happened was sort of a downer.

“Hugh loaded me in the car and whisked me over to the Pasadena police station. My mug shot was taken and I was fingerprinted. I felt like a common criminal.”

When the editor of the college newspaper broke the news of her arrival, “all hell broke loose,” Nishio said. “We were still in midst of war with Japan, and to hear that someone with a Japanese face was in their midst really shook up the neighborhood.”

She was called a “Jap,” spat upon and slapped by a “little old lady from Pasadena” at a bus stop, but did not retaliate. “She knew that she was representing all Japanese Americans and her behavior would determine whether they could come back to California or not, so she endured it,” Kashiwagi explained.

One local resident, George Kelly, formed a “Ban the Japs” committee, and there was a lot of shouting at school board meetings. “There were pros and cons and it was quite exciting for a while,” Nishio said. “Meanwhile, the students were all in my corner (along with) the faculty and especially the principal … There was certainly turmoil and newspapers ate up the story.”

At the same time, Nishio got “a lot of support from the armed forces … I got letters from all over the world from servicemen, different branches of the service, saying that I was an American citizen and I had every right to go to the school of my choice, and what did the citizens of Pasadena think they were doing? It was just so wonderful.”

Some servicemen came to see her and even offered to be her bodyguards.

Kashiwagi added that Kelly, after hearing from Myer about Nisei soldiers’ contributions to the war effort, had a change of heart.

Nishio also had a positive experience as part of “an interracial panel at school made up of an African American, a Latino American, a regular Caucasian American and myself, and we toured various colleges and churches to tell our story. When we went to the University of San Diego, I was astounded when the students told me they had never heard of the evacuation, that so many thousands of citizens had been removed from the state and thrown into American concentration camps. That was quite an eye-opener.”

She was thankful to a group called Friends of the American Way, which sponsored her return to California. “It was so wonderful to get the support of these young citizens after being imprisoned in a concentration camp. When I was joined by these students they taught me that being an American citizen was really a treasure and you shouldn’t give up that right too easily.”

She added, “The citizens of Pasadena should be congratulated because they were stewards of democracy when they took me in. They had a rough time at the beginning, but they came through and upheld the rights of all American citizens whether they looked like the enemy or not.”

Role Models

Panelist Susie Ling, associate professor of history and Asian American studies at Pasadena City College, said that Korematsu, Nishio and other civil rights leaders have been her role models when fighting more recent injustices, from hate crimes against Arab Americans after 9/11 to the current attacks on ethnic studies in Arizona.

She noted that when Korematsu challenged the government in court, “some in the Japanese American community pressured him to stop being a troublemaker. Korematsu did the opposite. As an American, he forced his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as he believed in pursuing justice. Korematsu lost … He must have been so disappointed.”

When Korematsu got another day in court in 1983, the government offered to pardon him for his wartime conviction. Ling quoted him as saying, “ If someone should do any pardoning, I should be the one pardoning the government for what they did to the Japanese American people.”

“I’m proud that my city and my country can now recognize Korematsu as a typical American hero,” Ling said. “Korematsu said … ‘Don’t be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes 40 years.’”

Alan Nishio, a founding member of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (originally National Coalition for Redress/Reparations), worked with Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui during the redress movement of the 1980s. Hirabayashi stayed at Nishio’s home when he came from Canada to speak at an NCRR conference, and Korematsu joined an NCRR delegation to Washington, D.C. in 1987.

“All three not only fought the camps issue during World War II but also remained active in seeking redress … I was honored to be able to work with all three of them,” Nishio said.

Both Yasui and Hirabayashi turned themselves in to authorities in Portland and Seattle, respectively, after deliberately violating curfew and exclusion orders imposed on Japanese Americans, Nishio noted. “They presented themselves (for arrest) because they knew why they were doing what they did.”

All three men were “clearly going against the grain” and were “isolated and ostracized from the community” before being vindicated years later,” he said.

In his final years, Korematsu “testified in Washington, D.C. about the dangers of the Patriot Act … He spoke eloquently about his own experience,” Nishio said, adding, “Unfortunately, Fred is not around to re-testify today” against the National Defense Authorization Act, which could leave “individual citizens in this country without due process.”

Patricia Kinaga, an attorney and documentary filmmaker, recalled being shocked when the wartime Supreme Court cases were not discussed in her constitutional law class at Georgetown University. She found out that her professor knew little about the cases despite their landmark status.

Korematsu had simply wanted to remain in Oakland with his Caucasian fiancée, Kinaga said. “He told his parents he was going to remain behind … They thought he was old enough to make his own decision … He changed his name to Clyde Sera and had plastic surgery in an attempt to change the appearance of his eyes … Fred arranged to meet his fiancée on a street corner one afternoon … Instead, he was met by the military police.”

Kinaga pointed out that the two Northern California ACLU attorneys who stepped forward to represent Korematsu were breaking with the National ACLU’s decision not to impose the internment.

The reopening of his case was prompted by the discovery of a “smoking gun” by researcher Herzig Yoshinaga — a report by Gen. John DeWitt of the Western Defense Command in which he said it was impossible to distinguish between loyal and disloyal Japanese Americans because of their racial characteristics. He also disregarded reports from the FBI, FCC and Office of Naval Intelligence that no acts of espionage or sabotage had been committed by Japanese Americans.

“The War Department’s response was to order the report altered and the originals destroyed” because it cast doubt on the military necessity argument, Kinaga said, and that document “created the basis for the Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui legal teams to overturn their convictions.”

But Kinaga warned that because the cases were heard by district courts and not the Supreme Court, they remain on the books as legal precedent. After 9/11, Korematsu “cautioned us not to repeat the internment,” she said.

Kinaga also discussed the Supreme Court case of Mitsuye Endo, who agreed to become the plaintiff in a habeas corpus petition. “She argued that she should be released from custody (because) the government had conceded that she was a loyal citizen.” The court ruled that the government could not continue to detain Endo, but “declined to address the constitutionality of the internment.”

The panel was followed by a Q&A session. Organizers said they hope to inspire similar events in other California cities as well as other states.

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