‘Why I resist’



In May 1942, in the wake of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gordon K. Hirabayashi had no doubt that the United States government was acting unconstitutionally in imposing curfews, loyalty oaths, and mass removal and internment on Japanese-Americans living along the West Coast.

So Hirabayashi, then a University of Washington student, defied two orders—one imposing curfews, another requiring anyone officials deemed a possible enemy to fill out a “loyalty questionnaire. For that he was arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned.

He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1943, it ruled against him. In 1987, via a rarely used legal doctrine, the high court overturned his conviction.

Hirabayashi’s stance made him a household name in Japanese-American circles, and among civil-rights advocates, more generally. As a result, his struggle and case have been analyzed every which way—but one.

It has not been, until A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States, that readers have had access to Hirabayashi’s reflections at the time of his resistance.

The novelty of the book, says one of its compilers, Hirabayashi’s nephew, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, is that it reveals what was going through the mind of an exceptionally principled university student subjected to enormous pressure to toe a line. It is composed of Hirabayashi’s youthful writings in letters and a large trove of notebooks. Those came to light when the project first began, fully 20 years ago. Now, the book, just out from the University of Washington Press, may be the last piece of an infamous passage in American civic and legal history.

Much has been written about his uncle’s case, says the nephew, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he holds the inaugural George and Sakaye Aratani Chair in Japanese-American Incarceration, Redress, and Community. But biographical perspectives have been few, and while his uncle pursued a long career in academe and community activism, his writing dealt with technical aspects of his legal struggles.

Says Lane Ryo Hirabayashi: “In regards to Gordon’s writ of error coram nobis,” the successful 1987 motion to vacate his 1940s convictions, “almost no personal correspondence had been found in terms of what he was feeling, and what he was thinking, at that time. There was nothing of depth from him about when he was 24 and 25 years old.”

His uncle’s notebooks and correspondence of that part of his life “are really fresh,” he says. Their entries range from the high-minded to the mundane to the emotional to the indignant. Gordon Hirabayashi writes, for example, that when a federal agent told him that not signing the loyalty oath would subject him to criminal punishment, he replied, “I don’t make my decisions on the basis of what I think you’re going to do.” Pondering the evacuation order while serving time in prison for defying it, he wrote: “If this is to be the new order here, then the war is already lost so far as democracy is concerned.”

Among many touching thoughts about how his stance is affecting his family, he wrote that “time after time, [my mother] would worry herself sick, then reproach me from every angle. When I refuse to change, she turns around and becomes my strongest supporter.” At the racist fury that was directed at him, he wrote: “We rise to our dignity and challenge being so insulted. Thus there remains hope for progress. I am a chronic optimist.”

Lane Ryo Hirabayashi’s father, the late James A. Hirabayashi, who died last year as an emeritus professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University, had been working on his older brother’s papers, and interviewing him extensively. In 1990, he found his brother’s 1940s notebooks in a garage in Edmonton, where his brother had virtually forgotten about them since the 1960s while teaching sociology in Canada at the University of Alberta.

In the documents, the father-and-son team of James and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi found rich veins of insight into the philosophical and ethical motivations of their resister family member, but also much about his spiritual formation. Gordon Hirabayashi had recorded all that as his legal battle proceeded—and as he sat in King County Jail in Seattle and then at the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, in Arizona.

Among the many rich annotations in A Principled Stand is this: “When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Gordon’s conviction on the charge of violating the curfew order, he had to hitchhike down to Arizona [to the Catalina] work camp where prisoners labored to build a highway through the mountains. (Ironically, more than 55 years after the fact, the…Camp area was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.)”

Clearer now, says Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, are the directions his uncle’s thinking took after an unusual childhood. Born of Japanese-immigrant parents in 1918, in Seattle, Gordon Hirabayashi grew up on a cooperative farm worked by newcomers who, like the Hirabayashis, practiced Mukyokai, a form of Japanese, non-church Christianity. After he enrolled at the University of Washington in 1939, Gordon Hirabayashi discovered an affinity between Mukyokai and Quakerism, including its pacifism.

Lane Ryo Hirabayashi joined his father on working on the Gordon Hirabayashi papers soon after that discovery in the Edmonton garage. The publication now of A Principled Stand is bittersweet for him, he says, because not only did his uncle die last year, but so did his father. He says: “I’ve been talking about it with them since I was a teenager—about what led to Gordon’s decision and also how that affected the decisions my father made in terms of his own career and trajectory. I came away from Gordon’s personal files thinking I had insights into him that even his kids hadn’t had.”

The project began, those two decades ago, when the University of Washington Press asked Gordon Hirabayashi to write an autobiography. “We did find an outline of an autobiography in his papers,” says his nephew. But his uncle was always busy with his scholarship or with redress campaigns relating to the Japanese-American internments. And then, his aging intervened. “My uncle lived a long time,” he says. “He was probably the longest lived member of our family. And in his late 80s and then 90s his memories of World War II faded.”

A Principled Stand is “one we’re really proud of,” says Marianne Keddington-Lang, a senior acquisitions editor at the Washington press who was the last in the project’s line of editors. “Gordon Hirabayashi was a University of Washington student when things began, so it was home ground, for us.” She says Lane Ryo and James Hirabayashi have managed “to retain as much as they could of Gordon’s voice” by creating a “composite narrative that holds together beautifully.”

UWP has a healthy list in Asian-American titles, many in the Scott and Laurie Aoki series, which tends to focus on historical and social-science perspectives on Asian migration to the United States and community life and assimilation there, particularly when there’s a Northwest regional angle. However the press has published more extensively in Asian art, history, and politics.

But A Principled Stand marks both expanded coverage and new directions in Asian-American studies, says Ranjit Arab, a senior acquisitions editor who came to Seattle last summer from the University Press of Kansas. He says Kansas “did not formally have an Asian-American series, but it did have a CultureAmerica series that I oversaw, and we tried to bring in Asian-American topics. That has always been a personal interest of mine, coming from an East Indian context.”

He has come to UWP with “freer rein to go out and find projects,” he says. He and colleagues have been in discussions with senior figures in Asian-American studies to gauge the feasibility of a new series. An announcement may come in the next weeks. With a potential output of four or five titles a year, “we are really hoping to focus on innovative subjects” such as the Asian-American “pushback against empire. There is a strong need for those kinds of works, especially with transnational perspectives.”