Do you know who Fred Korematsu is? He is not yet a household name like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., despite the integral role he played in protesting the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. That’s because the story of how he managed to wrest a formal apology from the United States government for its shocking abrogation of the rights of its own citizens in the 1940s belies the myth of American exceptionalism. We can sanitize and spin the stories of Parks and King into proof that our democracy is uniquely great. Focusing on their success and legacy, we invoke their struggles not as evidence of a system flawed at its core, but that American democracy does work. Yet what happened to Korematsu exposes the discomfiting fact that fear-fueled racism and authoritarianism have always been an executive order away from subverting our egalitarian ideals.
With perfect timing, the creators of a new middle-grade nonfiction series, Fighting for Justice, have selected Korematsu’s story as the subject of their powerfully affecting first title, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up. Written by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette, this slim book does justice to its namesake by celebrating his achievements without sanitizing the circumstances that necessitated them. Through a fusion of narrative vignettes, historical context, and guiding questions, Atkins, Yogi, and Houlette make visible the toxic effects of racism and nativism. They attend to the specificity of what happened to Japanese Americans and link their struggle to those of other marginalized and oppressed groups. In the process, they teach child readers to recognize propaganda when they see it and to appreciate the necessity of using multiple forms of primary evidence to back up historical claims, thereby helping teach them how to assess the news.
This book does justice to its namesake by celebrating his achievements without sanitizing the circumstances that necessitated them.
Many Americans knew long before last November that the horrors of an omnipresent and repressive government have never been confined to the realm of dystopian fiction. When we go to the dark crossroads of racism and xenophobia, we find Fred. We find Vincent Chin, and Balbir Singh Sodhi, and Srinivas Kuchibhotla.1 However, not everyone dares to remember; others choose to forget. That some Americans do need to be reminded of how we mistreated our own citizens in the recent past was evident in the recent debate around the creation of a national Muslim registry. In an interview with Fox News a week after the presidential election, former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie defended the prospect of a Muslim registry by citing the “precedent” of Japanese internment camps.2
Someone needs to send Higbie a copy of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, which paints a vivid picture of what happened after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Law enforcement officials ransacked the homes of families like Fred’s for proof of disloyalty simply because they were Japanese American. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to force Japanese Americans out of their homes and into state-run prisons. Eventually 120,000 people, most American citizens who had committed no crimes, were incarcerated without any chance to defend themselves against the suspicion that they might be spies. Since families were only allowed to bring one or two suitcases with them to the prison camps, many were forced to sell or give away their belongings at a loss. Some were imprisoned for up to four years; when they emerged, jobs, friends, lovers, and property left behind were often gone.
Few children’s books have tackled this dark episode in US history, and those that have most often highlighted the resilience that helped families carve out a sense of community within the camps. Ken Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us (1993) has its protagonist channel his emotions into sports. The heroine of Amy Lee-Tai’s A Place Where Sunflowers Grow (2006) rediscovers hope and beauty through her art class at Utah’s Topaz Relocation Center. In contrast, Lois Sepahban’s Paper Wishes (2016) refuses to focus on the good: its protagonist, 10-year-old Manami, is so traumatized by her imprisonment in California’s Manzanar camp and the loss of the beloved family dog that she literally loses her voice. Incorporating aspects of both approaches, Fred’s creators artfully combine poetry, paintings, photographs, and prose to celebrate personal acts of resilience while condemning the social circumstances that made such courage necessary.
The story of Fred’s life is divided over 12 chapters of poetic free verse, interspersed with documentary evidence that links his story to other, broader narratives. The poetry chronicles his life from adolescence in the 1930s to the aftermath of the court case he brought against the US government in 1944 to challenge the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. In a few well-chosen words, chapter 1 introduces us to an unassuming child protagonist who, far from wanting to disturb the universe, just hopes to fit in with his friends by getting his hair cut “in the latest style … by a real barber” instead of his mother. The opening endears Fred to us by representing him as a regular kid, thus paving the way for what will become a key moral of Atkins and Yogi’s story: you don’t have to be a superhero to fight for justice. Ordinary citizens who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances can resist and persist even in the face of failures and losses. When a barber refuses to give Fred a haircut because he is Japanese American, we see the first signs of a nascent activism:
this isn’t fair.
He has as much right to that
haircut as any of his friends.
Fred walks out
past other barbershops
that will not cut his hair
that will not serve him food.
The young reader learns with Fred: the prose section on “Discrimination” that follows the opening poem defines “segregation,” describes stereotypes attached to various immigrant groups, and asks its audience to consider why discrimination happens. Whereas the poetic interludes and Houlette’s pictures evoke what it feels like to experience injustice, the prose sections supply an objective account of what happened to Japanese Americans as a group, using facts, definitions, timelines, and primary evidence that includes photos, letters, prison identification tags, and snippets of government memos.
The military officials who consigned US citizens to prison camps did so without any evidence of wrongdoing; Atkins, Yogi, and Houlette, for their part, present a substantial dossier of texts and images that prove how badly Japanese Americans like Fred were treated. In so doing, they not only educate their audience about this particular historical moment, they also furnish them with a primer for how to back up historical claims with multiple forms of evidence. These include a sketch by Miné Okubo that portrays the fierce dust storms that ripped through the prison camps, and a portrait by Chiura Obata of Hatsuki Wakasa, who was shot and killed by a guard when he walked too close to a barbed-wire fence.
By including artistic renderings alongside more conventional forms of documentary evidence and asking questions as well as stating dates and definitions, the creators of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up characterize history as a process of truth-seeking that involves the accretion of multiple forms of evidence. Rather than pretend that an absolute line differentiates fact from fiction, they model the practice of collating different kinds of evidence in order to support their claims. Encouraging young people to adopt this thoughtful, thorough, and evidence-based approach to inquiry is as important as educating them about particular historical moments.
Atkins and Yogi also link the story of what happened to Fred and other Japanese Americans to broader narratives of racialization and racism. Running underneath a photograph of a black child consigned to drinking from the “colored” rather than the “white” water fountain, for instance, is a timeline that includes Chinese and Mexican exclusion acts, important precursors to Executive Order 9066. Fred’s story is the story of all racialized Americans subjected to various injustices large and small, which can sometimes engender a sense of mutually supportive solidarity. The book cleverly shows this by ending the barbershop vignette with such a moment:
He goes to Oakland’s Chinatown
where people who look like Fred
However, Atkins and Yogi also emphasize the diversity of viewpoints that exists within particular ethnic groups. More rebellious than his brothers, teenage Fred resists his parents’ efforts to teach him about Japanese language and culture; he would rather dance to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington at school events than celebrate Japanese holidays at home. Similarly, Fred’s parents object to his decision to bring suit against the government to protest the incarceration; they and other inmates “are afraid / his fight will make things even harder / for Japanese Americans.” In such ways, the book purposefully resists the homogenization that so often characterizes depictions of and expectations for racialized groups. Atkins and Yogi also show how precarious interracial alliances were: when Fred starts to date an Italian American girl, both their families object, and his girlfriend eventually abandons him because of the social stigma.
The chapters that focus on the incarceration itself are especially powerful. Like the ghostly horses that are both there and not there at the bottom of one of Houlette’s pictures, families such as Fred’s were forced to reside in a kind of limbo. They were treated more like animals than human beings, enemies rather than citizens.
By skirting the euphemisms “evacuation” and “internment” in favor of “forced removal” and “imprisonment,” Yogi and Atkins’s text emphasizes the unlawfulness of the incarceration process. In their excellent meditation on “The Power of Words” (reproduced above), they describe how the US government routinely used euphemistic language in an effort to make “its actions against Japanese Americans seem harmless,” describing prisons, to offer another example, as “assembly centers.” Given their emphasis on defining key terms, it would have been helpful if Atkins and Yogi had apprised child readers of the reason why “incarceration” is preferable to the almost still universally used “internment”: the latter refers to the legally permissible detention of enemy aliens, and F. D. R.’s executive order—which denied fair trial to citizens—was not legal.
A companion piece, on “The Power of Pictures,” illustrates how the US government inflamed racism and nativism by disseminating wartime propaganda that portrayed the Japanese as “evil and dangerous.” No wonder, then, that “very few people spoke up to say that the government was violating Japanese Americans’ rights.” To highlight that the government can make mistakes and treat people unjustly is a lesson that cannot be taught early enough. Such teaching need not lead to cynicism or disillusionment, but can instead prompt young people to recognize that democracy is a participatory process that depends on citizen involvement. By broaching such questions as “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Have you ever been an ally to someone who needed help?,” Atkins and Yogi encourage young readers to reflect on what we owe one another as fellow citizens. What are our civic obligations? The moral of Fred’s story is that silence in the face of a civil rights violation is never the answer. Regardless of who perpetrates the wrong or who is targeted, such violations undermine democracy as a whole and necessitate a collective response.
The Supreme Court ruled against Fred in 1944, a crushing loss for him and all Japanese Americans who worked to prove that they were denied their due rights as citizens. Long decades would pass before a team of volunteer lawyers finally managed to get the ruling overturned, in 1983. A particularly wonderful aspect of Fred’s story, which Atkins and Yogi rightly play up, is that it attests to the importance of allies. Fred’s included Ernest Besig, a lawyer working for the ACLU on the original case, and Peter Irons, who dug up the documents that proved that the US government had lied about having evidence of Japanese American espionage during the original trial, thus forcing the court to reopen Fred’s case.
Fred’s story is especially important to tell because it shows an ordinary person continuing to seek justice even in the face of failure. Fred Korematsu Speaks Up could not have come at a more necessary moment. For Americans of color (especially women), the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and religious minorities, the freedom from direct interference—to simply live life—was never a guarantee. And each time we manage to chop one ugly head off the hydra of white supremacy, it feels as if two others rear up to taunt us. But as long as white supremacy has existed, so have acts of resistance and attempts to unsettle it. There is great comfort and hope in that. There is also gratitude and inspiration, because of people like Fred Korematsu.
It was not easy.
But Fred fought
to make the United States—
a fairer place.
And he won.
We all won.
Democracy is funny like that; either everyone lives in one or no one does. Fred Korematsu gives all its readers, young and old, tools to work toward achieving democracy, and the hope to imagine it. Through the questions it poses, and the life of its unpretentious namesake at its center, it demonstrates that ordinary people can become heroes. For children of color, it’s also a necessary reflection that shows that rather than being in the margins of this country’s history, people of color were and are at its very center. Representation matters.
We don’t inherit democracy; we create it. Fred Korematsu Speaks Up shows us how.
- See Frank H. Wu, “Why Vincent Chin Matters,” New York Times, June 22, 2012; Deepa Iyer, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press, 2015), pp. 14–15, for a comprehensive understanding of racist violence in the aftermath of 9/11, of which Balbir Singh Sodhi was the first victim; Raj Halder, “Indian Americans Won’t Be Safe as Long as the White House Is Inciting Fear,”Washington Post, March 14, 2017. ↩
- Derek Hawkins, “Japanese American Internment Is ‘Precedent’ for National Muslim Registry, Prominent Trump Backer Says,” The Washington Post, November 17, 2016. ↩