Like many Japanese Americans whose families were placed in incarceration camps during World War II, Lorraine K. Bannai, law professor and author of Enduring Conviction, found that, for those who experienced it, the forced relocation and subsequent incarceration was a near taboo subject. Despite growing up in a strong JA community in Northern California, she realized that too few spoke out about the experience, let alone spoke of it at all.
At the time, however, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, implementing the incarceration of those of Japanese descent, several brave souls independently took the government to court, questioning the constitutionality of their incarceration, paving the way for the redress movement and forcing a much-needed dialogue on civil rights. One of these men, the late Fred Korematsu, is the subject of Bannai’s book, which chronicles his early life, his defiance of Executive Order 9066 and consequent conviction, the later efforts to overturn it, and his lifelong commitment to supporting justice in civil rights.
As a newly minted lawyer fresh out of the University of San Francisco School of Law, Bannai became acquainted with Korematsu when she joined the legal team fighting to overturn his conviction for evading wartime incarceration in the early 1980s.
“It was a pretty extraordinary experience,” Bannai recalls.
“Every American lawyer has studied the [Korematsu v. United States] case in law school.”
Like her colleagues on the defense team, Bannai worked the case pro bono, knowing that the invaluable experience would help establish a legacy for future generations. And, because her own family was incarcerated at Manzanar, the case had significant personal meaning as well.
Unlike lawyer Gordon Hirabayashi and sociologist Minoru Yasui who, like Korematsu, went all the way to the Supreme Court arguing against JA internment measures, the latter was more of an everyman.
“He wasn’t a philosopher or professor or an intellectual, but he really just decided that this was something he could do and that he had the right to live free.”
Korematsu’s warmth and openness endeared him to many throughout his life, and in his wake his historic actions continue to inspire others. Since then, Bannai and her colleagues on the defense team, as well as other members of the JA community, have fixed their eyes on bringing awareness to current issues bearing eerie resemblance to the plight that Korematsu and his cohort faced—the profiling of and prejudice against Muslim and Arab Americans.
As director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University, where she also serves as professor of lawyering skills, it is almost a matter of prescience for Bannai.
“[Our families] were put away because they looked Japanese American. They were put away because they were obvious and noticeable.”
Since 9/11 and again, more recently, due to bigoted rhetoric by high profile figures, there has been a spike in racially charged and discriminatory discourse that threatens to become real political action.
“It’s surprising that there are so many people who don’t know what happened during the [incarceration]. And that there are so many people who aren’t connecting it accurately with what’s going on today,” Bannai said. “I can’t believe the rhetoric about how we already did it during World War II so it must be okay today—it’s just turning reality totally upside down.”
For her, the solution is two-fold. On the one hand, public education is paramount, for the unfortunate truth is that JA incarceration is still not widely covered in history classes. Additionally, once that foundation of knowledge is set, it is up to the individual to take initiative and speak out when unjust measures, like Executive Order 9066, are passed.
“The law is just a piece of paper in so many ways,” Bannai said. “The best protection against [it] is the public realizing that they can’t sacrifice civil liberties.”
Writing Enduring Conviction was one way to keep the legacy alive, especially in the current sociopolitical climate where, once again, fear and prejudice are clouding people’s judgment.
For every Fred Korematsu there are scores of others too passive to challenge the status quo; the challenge is to be more like the former.
“People have a tendency to trust the government,” Bannai said. “We have to scrutinize the government and speak out when we think that something is not right, not leave it to somebody else.”
Idleness is a luxury that society cannot afford when we may be much closer to a dangerous repetition of history than we think.