Gordon Kyoshi Hirabayashi, a 67-year-old Japanese-American sociologist who scored an upset victory this week in his 44-year legal fight over wartime internment, said today that the decision vindicates the American system of government.
A U.S. District Court judge in Seattle ruled that the federal government engaged in misconduct "of the most fundamental character" when it ordered U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry removed to remote, primitive camps during World War II.
Hirabayashi, then a senior at the University of Washington, was one of only three U.S. residents to be prosecuted for refusing to be relocated and spent two years in jail. U.S. District Court Judge Donald G. Voorhees invalidated his 1942 conviction on that charge, justifying the wartime resistance of the young Quaker whose mother had pleaded with him to cooperate with authorities.
"She had read 'The Count of Monte Cristo' and thought I would be tortured or shot," Hirabayashi recalled with a chuckle. Recently retired as professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada, he was interviewed by telephone from his attorney's office in Seattle.
The court decision has been hailed by Japanese Americans across the country. Community leaders have called it a telling blow to the argument that U.S. officials had no choice but to relocate 110,000 ethnic Japanese living in western states to prevent espionage. Many of the relocated Americans lost jobs and property. Bills pending in Congress would give $20,000 to each camp survivor, and a $24 billion lawsuit recently was revived in federal court.
"I think it's really a great victory, not only for me personally but for all Japanese Americans, and finally for America and our system of justice," Hirabayashi said. "It shows people can make the system work for them, even if it takes 40 years."
Hirabayashi said he was puzzled that Voorhees' decision upheld his conviction for curfew violations. But he said Voorhees effectively showed that the government improperly withheld from the U.S. Supreme Court critical information that might have shaken the legal foundation of the relocation orders or at least limited them to far fewer people.
Voorhees ruled that government attorneys should have given Hirabayashi a copy of the "Final Report" by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command. The report indicates that the government, for racial reasons, had made no effort to identify real security risks.
"It was impossible to establish the identity of the loyal and the disloyal with any degree of safety," DeWitt said in the confidential report written before the Supreme Court reviewed Hirabayashi's case in 1943. "It was not that there was insufficient time . . . . It was simply a matter of facing the realities that a positive determination could not be made, that an exact separation of the 'sheep from the goats' was unfeasible."
In his decision, Voorhees said, "Nothing would have been more important to [Hirabayashi's] counsel than to know just why it was that Gen. DeWitt made the decision that he did . . . . Disclosure . . . would have made it most difficult for the government to argue, as it did, that the lack of time made exclusion a military necessity."
Voorhees said Hirabayashi's lawyer "could have pointed out that with very little effort the determination could have been made that tens of thousands of native-born Japanese Americans -- infants in arms, children of high-school age or younger, housewives, the infirm and the elderly -- were loyal and posed no possible threat to this country.
"More time might have been required to consider the loyalty of those who had spent their adult lives in truck gardening or farming or fishing, but a great number of those, too, could have been rather quickly found to be loyal and of no possible threat."
A Justice Department spokesman said he would not comment because department lawyers had not seen the decision.
The crucial report, and the government's apparent effort to keep it quiet, were uncovered in 1982 by congressional researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshiaga and turned over to Peter Irons, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and one of Hirabayashi's lawyers.
Hirabayashi said his decision to resist the relocation might have arisen from his days as a pacifist and campus activist who believed in the strength of passive resistance under the American system.
After his release from prison, he resumed his career in the sociology of developing countries. He taught at American universities in Lebanon and Egypt and spent 26 years at the Canadian campus before retiring. He said he settled in Canada not because he encountered discrimination in the United States but because he found the Canadian offer too good to reject.