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Philly garden to honor man who challenged internment of Japanese Americans

A feeling of "peace and serenity" enveloped 6-year-old Kenneth Finkel that day in 1958 as he walked the grounds of the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden with his father, whose thoughts likely were more complicated, he recalls.

A feeling of "peace and serenity" enveloped 6-year-old Kenneth Finkel that day in 1958 as he walked the grounds of the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden with his father, whose thoughts likely were more complicated, he recalls.

"At that time, I wasn't thinking about his wartime experiences," said Finkel, a distinguished lecturer in American studies at Temple University. "But I'm sure he was, during every step of our time there."

Morris Finkel, a prominent antiques dealer who died five years ago, had served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy aboard the destroyer USS Southerland, the first American warship to enter Tokyo Bay after Japan's surrender, and his wartime experiences had biased him, his son said.

Six decades after father and son toured that peaceful place in Fairmount Park - which dates to the 1876 Centennial Exposition, when the first Japanese garden in North America was installed there - wartime memories still haunt the relationship between the United States and Japan.

On Tuesday, President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a somber ceremony at Pearl Harbor, 75 years after the surprise Japanese attack that triggered the U.S. entrance into World War II.

Amid the anti-Japanese sentiment that followed Pearl Harbor, about 120,000 Japanese people were sent to internment camps during World War II, most of them American citizens living on the West Coast.

Next month in Philadelphia, a new spotlight will shine on the often fraught relationship between the two nations, when the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden holds a ceremony in memory of Fred Korematsu, an ordinary citizen who challenged the forced removal and mass incarceration of himself and other Japanese Americans during World War II.

The event Jan. 30, dubbed Fred Korematsu Day, will include a lecture and discussion about the struggle for Japanese American civil rights and how the struggle manifests today. Shofuso executive director Kim Andrews said officials hope it will be an annual observance.

Korematsu was born and raised in Oakland, Calif., and worked as a shipyard welder. At age 23, he refused U.S. government orders to go to a Japanese internment camp and was arrested and convicted of violating the order. He appealed, but in 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his internment was permissible. That decision was overturned nearly 40 years later, in 1983, when Korematsu was in his 60s.

In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2010, five years after his death, California was the first state to recognize Fred Korematsu Day on Jan. 30.

The Shofuso house and garden were given to the United States by the Japanese government in 1953. Donated originally to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Shofuso was meant to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. The process of moving the house and garden to Fairmount Park began in 1955.

Andrews said the site's message of cultural unity has remained consistent. "Shofuso was . . . intended as gift to American people in postwar years," she said. "That was unusual at the time. Japan was in rough shape, and just coming out of American supervision. It was a heartwarming gesture, a symbol of Japanese culture."

The site "evokes a lot of emotion to visitors, because it represents a lot of Japanese tradition," said Dennis Morikawa, president of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

"We're really proud of Shofuso being a symbol of [the society], and a symbol of the relationship that exists between Japan and the United States. It shows you the enduring relationship that pre-existed the war, and continued after the war."

Next month's event will open the house and garden from winter closure for one day, Andrews said. The site will reopen to the public in April.

Officials hope the site will help cast a calming influence over the emotions of the event, much as it did so long ago for Morris Finkel, who, despite his memories of war, still enjoyed the house and garden, his son says.

"There was this cultural sharing," Kenneth Finkel said. "It was just a beautiful and pleasant place. . . . It affects your spirit when you're there."