Born in Seattle to issei parents who had converted to Christianity in Japan while learning English, Gordon Hirabayashi grew up in a rural farm community outside of Seattle during the 1920s and 1930s. His mother and father, Hirabayashi would recall years later, provided him with ideal examples of dedication to beliefs, conduct in accordance with those principles, and protest in the face of injustices. “If my father was the quiet and solid foundation with his unostentatious dedication to the oneness of belief and practice,” Hirabayashi remembered, “my mother was the fire, providing warmth and sometimes intense heat. She was an activist, outgoing, articulate, feisty” (Hirabayashi, 9).
Hirabayashi graduated from Auburn High School (Auburn, Washington), and in 1937 entered the University of Washington. While a student at the university, Hirabayashi participated in Christian youth activities and became a religious pacifist. He joined the Quakers, and applied for and received conscientious objector status before Pearl Harbor.
Sometime in early 1942, Hirabayashi decided he needed to bear witness against the mass removal and confinement of Japanese Americans. He turned himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after purposefully disregarding the army's curfew orders and refusing to report for “evacuation.” A court convicted him of violating the curfew and exclusion orders, and sentenced him to a prison term of 90 days. Bail was set at $5,000 if Hirabayashi agreed to join his fellow Japanese Americans at the Puyallup Assembly Center. Instead, based on his principles, Hirabayashi chose to remain in the King County jail.
On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the Hirabayashi case in May 1943, and rendered a decision the following month in favor of the government. Chief Justice Harlan Stone contended the case did not involve a citizen's civil liberties or constitutional protections against racial prejudice but the government's ability to wage war successfully. The court essentially held the military was exempt from judicial review during times of national emergencies.
Although he joined the unanimous vote against Hirabayashi, Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy wrote a stinging rebuke. “The broad provisions of the Bill of Rights … are not suspended by the mere existence of a state of war…. Distinctions based on color and ancestry are utterly inconsistent with our traditions and ideals.” Murphy's observation, however, failed to sway the justices. In reference to Japanese Americans held in U.S. concentration camps, Justice Murphy observed: “It bears a melancholy resemblance to the treatment accorded to members of the Jewish race in Germany …” (Daniels, 276).
In addition to his jail time for violating the curfew and exclusion orders, Hirabayashi spent a year in federal prison, along with other conscientious objectors, for refusing induction into the U.S. military.
After the war, Hirabayashi earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Washington. He taught in Lebanon and Egypt, and in 1959 accepted at position at the University of Alberta in Canada where he remained until his retirement in 1983.
Based on new evidence that the government had lied to the U.S. Supreme Court in his 1943 case, Hirabayashi joined the coram nobis campaign of the 1980s to reverse his World War II conviction and those of Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui. Hirabayashi wrote of that opportunity, “I fully expected that as a citizen the constitution would protect me. Surprisingly, even though I lost, I did not abandon my beliefs and values. Accordingly, when the discovery of government misconduct in my case during the war was revealed 40 years later, giving me the opportunity to petition for a re-hearing, I did not hesitate for a moment” (Hirabayashi, 5).
In 1986, a court of appeals ruled the government had seriously prejudiced its case by suppressing evidence, and vacated Hirabayashi's conviction of violating the “evacuation” order but let stand his violation of the military curfew. After an appeal of that decision, the court reversed both of Hirabayashi's convictions. But because the government chose not to appeal those lower court rulings before the U.S. Supreme Court, a reversal of Hirabayashi's wartime conviction was not achieved.
In 1999, an area of the Coronado National Forest in Arizona was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site, and after Hirabayashi's death in 2012, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's
highest honor for civilians, for his principled stand against the mass removal and detention of Japanese Americans. Jeanne Sakata wrote a play, Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2007. Based on Hirabayashi's wartime ordeals, the play followed a solitary man's fight against his country's betrayal of its constitutional ideals and promises.
Perhaps summing up his life's achievements, Hirabayashi told a gathering of Quakers in Canada, “For myself, I have appreciated the confrontations and the opportunities for personal growth especially the challenge to seek the inner light. Frequently as I looked across the murky waters towards an unknown future, the only realistic position available was the idealistic one” (Hirabayashi, 21).
Gary Y. Okihiro
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Hirabayashi, Gordon. Good Times, Bad Times: Idealism Is Realism. Canadian Quaker Pam phlet, No. 22. Argenta, BC: Argenta Friends Press, 1985.