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The U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Japanese Incarceration

America fought World War II to preserve freedom and democracy, yet that same war featured the greatest suppression of civil liberties in the nation’s history. In an atmosphere of hysteria, President Roosevelt, encouraged by officials at all levels of the federal government, authorized the incarceration of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan. One of the most important of the legal challenges to the incarceration policy was Korematsu v. United States, a case brought by Fred T. Korematsu, a Nisei (an American-born person whose parents were born in Japan). Korematsu had been arrested by the FBI for failing to report for relocation and was convicted in federal court in September 1942. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a sharply divided 6–3 decision, upheld Korematsu’s conviction in late 1944. The majority opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, rejected the plaintiff’s discrimination argument and upheld the government’s right to relocate citizens in the face of wartime emergency.

The petitioner, an American citizen of Japanese descent, was convicted in a federal district court for remaining in San Leandro, California, a “Military Area”, contrary to Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 of the Commanding General of the Western Command, U.S. Army, which directed that after May 9, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry should be excluded from that area. No question was raised as to petitioner’s loyalty to the United States. . . . 

Executive Order No. 9066, 7 Fed. Reg. 1407 . . . issued after we were at war with Japan, declared that “the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities. . . .” 

Like curfew, exclusion of those of Japanese origin was deemed necessary because of the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group, most of whom we have no doubt were loyal to this country. It was because we could not reject the finding of the military authorities that it was impossible to bring about an immediate segregation of the disloyal from the loyal that we sustained the validity of the curfew order as applying to the whole group. . . . 

We uphold the exclusion order as of the time it was made and when the petitioner violated it. Compulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from their homes, except under circumstances of direst emergency and peril, is inconsistent with our basic governmental institutions. But when under conditions of modern warfare our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger. 

Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race. He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire, because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast and felt constrained to take proper security measures, because they decided that the military urgency of the situation demanded that all citizens of Japanese ancestry be segregated from the West Coast temporarily, and finally, because Congress, reposing its confidence in this time of war in our military leaders—as inevitably it must—determined that they should have the power to do just this. There was evidence of disloyalty on the part of some, the military authorities considered that the need for action was great, and time was short. We cannot—by availing ourselves of the calm perspective of hindsight—now say that at that time these actions were unjustified.

Source | Toyosaburo Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).
Creator | U.S. Supreme Court
Item Type | Laws/Court Cases
Cite This document | U.S. Supreme Court, “The U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Japanese Incarceration,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 1, 2023,

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