From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

December 2007 - Quest for Justice: A Profile of Gordon Hirabayashi

Headline from Minidoka Irrigator (from denshopd-i119-00045)
"I felt that during the war it would be hard to get justice... During the war nothing that the army said was questioned."
   -- Gordon Hirabayashi

Over the years Densho has interviewed hundreds of Japanese Americans and others who offer diverse perspectives of the World War II incarceration. Among the interviewees are individuals who played key roles in the fight to prove that the forced removal and detention were unconstitutional, and that the government's justification of military necessity was false. One of those key players is Gordon Hirabayashi, who as a twenty-four-year-old college student, schooled in his constitutional rights, went to jail rather than obey the "evacuation" orders. His challenge became one of four test cases to reach the Supreme Court.

Hirabayashi came by his moral stamina through his studies, the support of his parents, and his pacifist convictions. He was born in 1918 in Seattle and raised in Thomas, Washington, by Issei parents who were members of a Christian farmers co-op. Before the United States entered World War II, Hirabayashi became a Quaker and registered as a conscientious objector. While adhering to his ideals, he had no illusions about the vulnerable status of Japanese Americans: "Discrimination was a way of life. I was going to school. I'm learning about the First Amendment, Bill of Rights and all that. Really finding that attractive. And I'm adopting it personally and appreciating it as part of our constitutional background, but knowing that this doesn't exist for us."

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hirabayashi was a senior at the University of Washington, where he was active in the YMCA and the pacifist movement. Like his fellow citizens of Japanese descent, he at first unthinkingly complied with the curfew order that required all West Coast Japanese Americans to be home by 8:00 p.m. But one evening in May 1942, when classmates warned him it was time to leave the library, he had an epiphany:

I grabbed my stuff and it takes about five minutes to get home so I was just dashing home, and it hit me. A question that I should've faced earlier, just hit me. How come I'm dashing home and all your time keepers are still there? I didn't -- I just needed the question to be raised. I knew I couldn't answer it. You know, without saying, "I can't do it." I turned around, and went back, to the library. "Hey, what's, what's the matter?" I said, "Well, you guys are here." "Well, we got work to do." I said, "Well, I got work to do too. I decided if you guys are here, I'm gonna, I'm gonna work with you. I'll go back when you guys are ready to go." Nobody turned me in. And I didn't take that until it hit me. And when it hit me I knew, gosh, I can't do it. That's two-faced. The only reason I'm subject to go is because of my -- the way it's stated. I'm a person of Japanese ancestry. In fact, there were, there were Canadians in the group, who weren't even citizens, but they didn't have to go. Well, so I couldn't, I couldn't accept it.

Upon more reflection, he concluded that the orders to leave the designated military zone and place himself under the Army's control were unconstitutional. While other Japanese Americans of Seattle rushed to pack what they could carry to the "assembly center" at the Puyallup fairgrounds, Hirabayashi typed a four-page statement explaining his reasons. In the statement "Why I Refused to Register for Evacuation," he cited "Christian principles" and "a duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives." On May 16, 1942, accompanied by his lawyer Arthur Barnett, Hirabayashi presented his statement of protest to local FBI officers, who gave him the chance to register for the "evacuation." When he refused to do so, he was placed in the King County Jail, where he spent five months before his case was heard.

While he was certain of his position, Hirabayashi was concerned about his parents, who had been taken to Tule Lake incarceration camp in California. He was deeply relieved to receive one letter in particular from his mother:

She said when she arrived was -- and was unpacking at Tule Lake, a knock came. And she opened the door, and there were two ladies, dusty, shoes dusty and so on. They had walked from the other end of camp…. They said, "We heard that the family of the boy that's in jail is arriving today. So we came out to welcome you and to say thank you for your son." And when I read that, I experienced a sudden removement of weight on my shoulders, which I didn't realize I was carrying, ever since the time when my mother pled with me to, she said, "I admire what you've done. I agree with you. But if we get separated now, we may never see each other again. If the government could do this sort of thing, it could keep us apart. So please, come with us. It's important to keep together." And I said, "I'd like to, but I'm in, I'm in the hands of others who are looking after me, and you don't have to worry on that part. I just can't go. I wouldn't be the same person if I went now because I, I took a stand, and I can't give it up." And so even tears couldn't change my views.

But it gave me a sense of guilt on failing to respond as a dutiful son. But I didn't realize I was carrying it. When I read that letter saying, that visit gave me a big lift, that weight left. So I realized that I was carrying kind of a guilt feeling as a son, until I read -- because I knew that standing there next to her wouldn't have given her the same kind of lift. So lots, lots of peculiar encouragement came during my experience of taking a stand. And so I've had no occasion to regret the stand, wishing I had done something different.

On October 21, a guilty verdict came swiftly after the judge instructed the jury that all of Hirabayashi's claims of constitutional rights were "irrelevant." They had only to decide whether he had violated the curfew. Hirabayashi spent another four months in jail.

Inside the camps, people followed Hirabayashi's case along with those of Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu, who also protested the incarceration. While waiting for his case to be appealed, Hirabayashi spoke to school children in the camps, who were being taught the principles of democracy while surrounded by barbed wire.

The Supreme Court decided against him on June 21, 1943. Siding with the army, the Court accepted the claim of military necessity for the curfew and exclusion orders. Hirabayashi describes how his faith in the highest court was dashed: "I felt that during the war it would be hard to get justice. And I probably wouldn't get it in the lower courts. But when it got to the Supreme Court, those Justices, their main raison d'etre for existence is to uphold the Constitution. I thought, how in the world can they uphold 'em against me? I didn't see how they could do it. So I thought when it got up to there I'll probably have a hearing. Well, it turned out I didn't…. During the war nothing that the army said was questioned."

After the war, Hirabayashi went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Washington. He taught in Beirut and Cairo, and then settled at the University of Alberta in Canada from 1959 to 1983. Shortly before retiring, he was surprised to receive a call from Peter Irons, a legal scholar who had discovered proof that government lawyers withheld evidence from the Supreme Court in the 1940s cases. Activist lawyers, armed with this evidence, sought to reopen Hirabayashi's and the other Japanese Americans' cases.

In his interview with Densho, Irons explains that before law school he had never even heard about the wartime incarceration.

And I remember very distinctly the day that we talked about the internment cases. And in most law school casebooks they're put together, Korematsu and Hirabayashi, and it generally doesn't take more than one class session or not even that. It's part of the civil rights which focuses mostly on civil rights issues involving African Americans, but -- and also governmental powers. So I remember reading these cases and being struck with what seemed to me to be an obvious injustice and finding it hard to believe that the Supreme Court at that time in the 1940s... we were also trained to, to feel that the members of the Supreme Court back then, people like William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, Frank Murphy, Harlan Stone, Felix Frankfurter, were great civil libertarians and civil rights defenders, and in many cases that was true. And so here you have an example of how they all in the first, in the Hirabayashi case, they all upheld the conviction on the ground of military necessity. And how could such liberal justices have done something like that?

In 1984 Hirabayashi's became the last of the wartime Supreme Court cases to be reopened in federal court. After several years of legal wrangling, his curfew-violation conviction was vacated on September 24, 1987. When federal appeals judge Mary Schroeder declared that "racial bias was the cornerstone of the internment orders," she finally vindicated the position taken forty-five years earlier by a young Japanese American who believed in the Constitution.

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