In 1941, the United States was home to 127,000 Japanese Americans. Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, these U.S. citizens found themselves under investigation for treasonous connections with Japan. Hundreds of Japanese American community leaders were initially arrested and some were even relocated to Department of Justice detention camps. Over the course of the succeeding weeks, the average Japanese American saw his or her American freedoms curtailed as the government instituted a mandatory curfew for all people of Japanese descent. The climax of these repressive activities occurred on February 19, 1942, when Japanese Americans watched President Franklin D. Roosevelt sign Executive Order 9066, which authorized the exclusion of all people of Japanese descent from Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. This act initiated the internment of Japanese Americans, which uprooted families and placed them in detention centers in the American interior throughout the duration of World War II (the last camp closed in March 1946). Although many Japanese Americans accepted the government's actions, some did not.
Fred Korematsu, a twenty-three-year-old welder born in Oakland, was one of the individuals who challenged the internment order. Unlike other resisters such as Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui, Korematsu had no legal training and was not a social activist. He was an individual who, in standing up for his own rights, represented the interests of a large number of interned Japanese Americans. Korematsu, then, is important because he allows students to understand how ordinary individuals make decisions that impact history. This issue is particularly important because we believe that, while students are generally familiar with internment, they do not clearly understand the difficult maze individuals faced in challenging Executive Order 9066. In a world of quick-fix solutions, we felt it was important for students to understand the process and patience necessary to challenge the law and affect history.
Since Korematsu spent the majority of his life outside the public eye, we determined that it was best if our lesson study focused on the Supreme Court trial which ruled on whether Korematsu was breaking the law by resisting interment. We felt that the best way to explore the trial was to hold a mock trial which addressed the issues presented in the actual trial. Students would be presented with documents from the time that illuminated a particular individual's experience during the war. Our trial, then, would focus less on exploring the mechanics of a legal case and more on hearing different voices of the time. To this end, we envisioned putting people on the stand who would not have been at the original trail (survivors of Pearl Harbor, white neighbors of Japanese families, etc.) By crafting our mock trail in such a way, we believed students would see not only Korematsu's perspective, but those of the judges, lawyers, and community members who were forced to make compromises and uncomfortable decisions with regard to internment.
In conducting this activity, we believed students would begin to understand how certain historical events have various consequences for different individuals. In addition, we believed that students would be forced to consider how a certain place can have a powerful impact upon shaping people's lives and historical events. The mock trail was also a useful tool in helping us devise ways for helping students develop empathy for historical figures.
In the end, we hoped that the mock trail would help students understand internment from both the citizen and government perspective, taking into the account the context of the times. Students, hopefully, would be less dismissive of individuals who did not resist internment while understanding why it was important for individuals to stand up for their rights.