Gordon Hirabayashi, Japanese American who defied internment order, dies at 93

Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American who was imprisoned during World War II for disobeying an internment order and decades later won a court battle against the U.S. government to clear his conviction, died Jan. 2 at a nursing facility in Edmonton, Alberta. He was 93.

He had complications from the flu, said his son, Jay Hirabayashi.

Dr. Hirabayashi became a civil rights figure in the 1980s after he won a landmark court case concerning laws directed at those of Japanese descent during World War II. These included a mandated mass internment, which the American Civil Liberties Union once called the “greatest deprivation of civil liberties by the government in this country since slavery.”

Largely because of Dr. Hirabayashi’s efforts — and those of two other Japanese Americans who won cases against the government, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui — Congress passed legislation in 1988 apologizing for the policies. Reparations exceeding $1 billion were awarded to former internees.

Dr. Hirabayashi inspired “the American people to recognize that his situation and legal status and those of his generation had been abridged,” said Char Miller, a historian and authority on the Japanese internment. “He really pricked our conscience about the rule of law even in the midst of war.”


Gordon Hirabayashi, center, a Japanese American who was imprisoned during World War II for disobeying an internment order and decades later won a court battle against the U.S. government to clear his conviction, died Jan. 2 at a nursing facility in Edmonton, Alberta. He was 93. (SERGEY SHAYEVICH/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Two months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The document called for those of “Japanese ancestry” to be evacuated from the West Coast “as protection against espionage and sabotage.”

More than 100,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants were transported to internment camps, which were ringed with barbed wire.

Dr. Hirabayashi was not among them.

The son of Japanese immigrants, he was a 24-year-old senior at the University of Washington in Seattle when the government ordered him and his family to board a bus headed for a “relocation center.”

After bidding goodbye to his family, Dr. Hirabayashi turned himself in to the FBI and presented a statement: “This order for the mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese descent denies them the right to live,” he wrote.

“I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives. Therefore, I must refuse this order of evacuation.”

He was taken into custody for disobeying the order and also for breaking a curfew that had been instituted before the evacuation.

“Gordon had a very strong, principled objection to being treated differently from other American citizens,” said historian Peter Irons, who wrote the 1983 book “Justice at War,” the definitive account of the internment camp legal battle. “He deliberately violated the curfew. It was an act of civil disobedience, sort of like Rosa Parks on the bus. He was like, ‘I’m going to make this stand and risk the consequences.’ ”

Dr. Hirabayashi was found guilty in a federal court in Seattle and sentenced to several months in a Tucson labor camp. In 1943, his case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard only his curfew conviction.

The high court unanimously ruled against him and wrote that the curfew was justified because “residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.”

Dr. Hirabayashi later served additional time for refusing induction to the military. He did so, he said, because the Selective Service questionnaire contained racist queries, such as one asking whether he would renounce his fealty to the Japanese emperor.

“If you never had a loyalty to Japan, how could you renounce it?” he wrote in an essay for the 1988 book “The Courage of their Convictions,” edited by Irons. (Dr. Hirabayashi’s conviction for refusing service was vacated in a pardon issued by President Harry S. Truman in 1947.)

After the war, he returned to the University of Washington and received a doctorate in sociology. He taught at the American University of Beirut and later in Cairo. He was working at the University of Alberta during the 1980s when he was contacted by Irons, who was researching a book on the internment camps.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Irons found documents at the Justice Department that showed the government purposely withheld documents that would have helped Dr. Hirabayashi’s Supreme Court case. The papers included intelligence reports that said Japanese Americans posed no threat to the United States.

Using the new evidence, Dr. Hirabayashi reopened his case, which advanced to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. A three-judge panel ruled unanimously in his favor, vacating both of his convictions.

“Although this has been a 40-year crusade, I have never lost faith in the legal system,” Dr. Hirabayashi said afterward. “I feel today that justice has been served. The court has recognized the injustice committed against Japanese Americans during World War II.”

Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi was born in Seattle on April 23, 1918. His parents operated a fruit and vegetable stand in Auburn, Wash.

His marriage to Esther Schmoe ended in divorce. She also died Jan. 2.

Survivors include his wife, Susan Carnahan of Edmonton; three children from his first marriage, Jay Hirabayashi and Marion Oldenburg, both of Vancouver, B.C., and Sharon Yuen of Edmonton; a sister; a brother; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Korematsu died in 2005, and Yasui died in 1986.

“When my case was before the Supreme Court in 1943, I fully expected that as a citizen the Constitution would protect me,” Dr. Hirabayashi wrote in “The Courage of Their Convictions.” “Surprisingly, even though I lost, I did not abandon my beliefs and values. And I never look at my case as just my own, or just as a Japanese American case. It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental human rights of all Americans.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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