May 29, 2012

Jim Hirabayashi, who passed away peacefully last week at age 85, lived a remarkable life filled with accomplishment and governed by principle, a word everyone who knew him seemed to use.

He grew up in a rural largely Japanese American setting in the valley between Auburn and Kent, Washington, one of five children of Japanese immigrants who farmed and later ran a country grocery store. As a young man, Jim became enamored with baseball, an interest that would endure throughout his life. With his family, he was incarcerated at the Pinedale Assembly Center in Fresno, then at Tule Lake. (His oldest brother, Gordon, famously did not accompany the family to the concentration camps.) After the war, he returned to Washington, attending the University of Washington, then decided to pursue an academic career, getting a Fullbright fellowship to do fieldwork in a village in Nagano prefecture and eventually ending up getting a Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard.

Married and with two children by then, he took a job at San Francisco State University in 1959 and stayed there for some thirty years. He was the second Nisei faculty member at SF State, the first being S.I. Hayakawa, who was friendly, but who later became an ideological opponent. Jim became one of the founding fathers of ethnic studies, marching with students in the strike that led to the founding of the country’s first ethnic studies department, eventually becoming dean of that department. He later became chair of the anthropology department and dean of undergraduate studies, in between teaching and research, including two lengthy stays in Africa that influenced his embrace of ethnic studies.

I first met Jim in the late 1980s when he was hired as the chief curator of the Japanese American National Museum before it opened to the public. Despite his impressive resume and stern look, he had a disarming wit, a refreshing lack of pretension, and inclusive, team-building style. He valued other people’s views, didn’t pull rank, and treated subordinates well. His intellectual framework–his insistence that the importance of a place like JANM was that it allowed Japanese Americans to tell their story in the way they wanted to tell it, as opposed to having someone else tell it–became a key in shaping that institution’s philosophy and future direction. So for those of us interested in Japanese American studies, Jim played a critical–and largely behind the scenes–role in the founding of both Asian American studies, where most of the academic research on Japanese Americans over the past forty years has come from, and in establishing arguably the most important institution of the past fifty years in interpreting the Japanese American story to the general public. For these contributions, we owe him a great debt.

In between, he continued to play softball into his 60s, seriously pursued acting and the performing arts (he used to complain about being typecast playing grouchy Issei characters, but I think he enjoyed those roles!), and raising a young daughter years after his first two children had grown up. (“I like to space my kids,” he would deadpan about the nearly forty year age gap between his children.) He also cherished collaborating with his son Lane on various academic projects, the most recent being an edited volume of Gordon Hirabayashi’s wartime diaries and letters forthcoming from the University of Washington Press.

We used to have  number of running jokes between us. One was a mock “debate” on the relative merits of the Nisei versus the Sansei. As a proud member of the latter group–one I argued had been unjustly neglected in history because of the overweening influence of the former–he defended the honor of his generation, usually by pointing out the inability of the typical Sansei to use tools, garden, kill chickens, or have other skills honed in a rural depression era upbringing. (I countered with a specific Nisei’s inability to use a computer well.) But at the same time, he was in some ways more “Sansei” than “Nisei,” if Nisei were indeed the “quiet Americans.” In his courageous stand for ethnic studies at San Francisco State, he stood mainly with Sansei and other younger people against another Nisei–the college’s president, Hayakawa. His pursuit of an academic career and his marriages to non-Japanese American women at a time that was very rare, and his later love of acting were all highly atypical of his generational peers and much more common among Sansei. He was very much ahead of his time in many ways.

I extend my sympathies to Lane, Jan, Tai-Lan, and the extended family. But even in sadness, I can’t help but smile when I think of Jim and his love of life, gentle and self-deprecating humor, and firm commitment to his principles. The world will be poorer for his passing.

Brian Niiya, Content Director, Densho

View the Archive Spotlight interview excerpt from Densho’s 2008 interview with Jim Hirabayashi