SALT LAKE CITY — No one can say what 23-year-old Japanese American Fred Korematsu was thinking on the night of May 30, 1942.
Lying in his dark prison cell, he may have questioned how eye surgery and a name change had not disguised his Japanese ancestry. He may have wondered what race had to do with imprisonment. Or he may have worried about seeing his family and girlfriend again.
But when Ernest Besig, director of the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, visited him that week, asking if he would act as a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the government's imprisonment of Japanese Americans, his thinking was clear: The answer was "yes."
After a 40-year struggle, Korematsu appealed a ruling that justified the incarceration of more than 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, at the Central Utah War Relocation Center in Topaz, Millard County.
Friday, in the Gold Room of the Utah Capitol, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a declaration honoring Korematsu and establishing Jan. 30, 2013, as Fred Korematsu Day.
“It’s part of our history,” Herbert said during a ceremony Friday. “We ought to understand, we ought to embrace, we ought to learn from it, and be better because of it going forward. This is more about the future than it is the past.”
Herbert acknowledged the significant effort made by the Korematsu, who died March 30, 2005.
“The declaration was wrong, the conviction was wrong, and under our Constitution, it shouldn't have happened,” the governor said. “He continued to fight for 40 years, and finally in 1983 had it overturned. That requires more than just a declaration, and having a Fred Korematsu Day is the least of what we can do for his great courage.”
Jani Iwamoto, a former Salt Lake County Council member, spoke for five minutes during Friday's event about her experience with Korematsu.
“Fred wasn't a flashy sports figure, a politician or a movie star,” Iwamoto said. “He was an ordinary individual who did extraordinary things.”
Iwamoto said she met Korematsu in law school at the University of California, Davis, in 1982, and was in the courtroom when the honorable Marilyn Patel overturned his conviction.
"It was historical and inspiring," she said.
Ling Woo Liu, director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights, spoke about her work on the Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution bill in California. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill in September 2010, designating Jan. 30 of each year as Fred Korematsu Day.
“It was the first day in U.S. history named after an Asian American," Liu said.
Ron Mano, a Japanese descendent who lives in Draper, said he was happy to see a day commemorating Korematsu.
“There was a real injustice," he said, "and to see something like this, the kind of price to correct that, I think is important.”
Mano recalled taking his then-15-year-old son to visit the Topaz Central Utah War Relocation Center.
“It’s an important part of our history,” he said.