Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story (2000) - Rotten Tomatoes

Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story (2000)





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Born in Oakland, CA, in 1919, Fred Korematsu was the son of Japanese immigrants who, when the United States entered World War II in 1941, wanted to do his duty as an American and volunteer for the Army. Instead, Korematsu and the other Japanese-American residents of California were rounded up and placed in internment camps, as many inside the government believed that their loyalties would be with Japan rather than America and that they would attempt to sabotage the U.S. war effort. Outraged, Korematsu refused to go, and for a time became a fugitive from justice; he was eventually captured and put on trial. The American Civil Liberties Union sided with Korematsu after his arrest, believing the internment orders were a direct violation of the Constitution, and helped Korematsu take his case to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the Supreme Court found in favor of the U.S. government, but in 1981, Peter Irons, a law professor at the University of California in San Diego, began investigating Korematsu's case and discovered that government prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have cleared Korematsu and freed the other Japanese-Americans held by the government. Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Koramatsu Story is a documentary that examines his long, remarkable journey from being a convicted criminal in 1942 to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.


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Too Easy to Repeat Once again, Rotten Tomatoes has two versions of this; I have chosen the older one. I would also like to throw out an endorsement for a DVD that came in the same batch of library selections with this one that was on a similar theme. It's a recording of the one-woman show [i]Old Man River[/i], by Cynthia Gates Fujikawa about her father, Jerry Fujikawa. Her father is perhaps best known as "Whiplash Wang," from the episode of [i]M*A*S*H[/i] where Radar is led to believe that he has hit an old Korean man, Wang, with a jeep. He is using this to get money out of the Americans. Jerry Fujikawa was an internee in Manzanar during World War II and spent most of his career playing servants, peasants, busboys, and so forth, including the role of the gardener in [i]Chinatown[/i]. And, no, for the most part, he didn't play Japanese guys. Hollywood doesn't care what kind of East Asian you are! This, however, is the story of a Japanese-American man named Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu. He was born in Oakland, California. He grew up in your typical multicultural Californian fashion, though in those days, his parents couldn't become citizens because they'd been born in Japan. If it wouldn't have taken a Constitutional amendment to prevent it, doubtless Fred wouldn't have been allowed to be one, either. He even dated a girl whose family had come to the US from Italy. Before World War II, he tried to join the Army, but he had stomach ulcers. He went to work in a shipyard, and eventually, he was fired for being Japanese. And after that--note, after--came Pearl Harbor, and no one would hire him. Then, the internment. The Japanese community leaders advocated going along with it, mostly to show that they were good Americans. Fred didn't think good Americans should be asked to be locked up. Instead of meekly entering the internment camps, Fred did what he had a Constitutional right to do--and sued. I read recently that the fact that Fred lost his case has actually been more helpful in the long run than you might expect. Not for Fred, obviously, but the justifications used to claim that it was really legal for the Japanese to get locked up without regard to their own personal danger to the country--babies were taken out of orphanages and into the camps, remember--has since meant that it's much harder to discriminate legally against any similarly large group. It has to meet the standards of [i]Korematsu v. United States[/i], and hardly anything does. I don't know if that's true, because I am not a Constitutional scholar. I also don't know how much consolation that would have been to Fred Korematsu. I know that the Japanese community was one of the first groups to speak out against the idea of sending all Americans of Middle Eastern descent (presumably excluding Jews) to their own internment camps after 9/11. The Japanese community has a very clear idea of how unjust it was. Cynthia Gates Fujikawa talks about having done a presentation on the internment camps when she was a child, talks about her ill fortune in giving her presentation just after another girl in the class had finished hers on the Holocaust. By those standards, the camps were no big deal. However, that isn't the point. It wasn't the point for Fred Korematsu any more than it was the point for Jerry Fujikawa--who never spoke to his daughter of those days or the changes in his life those years brought about. However, if the Holocaust is the standard by which we must compare all injustices, there are a lot fewer injustices in this world than if we apply, you know, a [i]reasonable[/i] standard. Fred Korematsu wanted to serve his country. And, of course, he wanted to stay with his girlfriend. He had plastic surgery to look less Japanese, and he was trying to live a normal, healthy life. He wasn't a spy or a saboteur. Some German- and Italian-Americans were locked up, but only if they were believed to pose a threat to the US. Which all Japanese-Americans were. Too few Americans know this history, and perhaps Jerry Fujikawa is one example as to why. After all, his daughter was in grade school before she learned about it all. Fifth grade, I believe. The only book she was able to find on the subject was a collection of Ansel Adams photographs, and her father was grudgingly willing to acknowledge what she already knew. However, the whole thing was seen as more shameful than anything--and not something the US government should be ashamed of. It wasn't the discrimination. It wasn't the theft, either through underpayment or just outright stealing, of so many families' belongings. Somehow, the Japanese-American community seems to have come through the war with a feeling that it was all because they weren't good enough Americans. And in a sense, I think they could have been better--if they had fought for their rights the way Fred Korematsu did. Redress of legitimate grievances, remember?

Edith Nelson
Edith Nelson

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