THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The life and times of resister Gordon Hirabayashi (Part 1 of 2)


As we remember the wartime removal of Japanese Americans, one outstanding figure to celebrate is Gordon Hirabayashi, a man of principle whose legal challenge to official injustice went all the way to the Supreme Court. Jeanne Sakata’s 2007 play “Dawn’s Light” has now brought Hirabayashi’s wartime tale exploits to countless audiences. However, there is a good deal more to Hirabayashi’s life and contributions than just those of the war years.

Born in 1918, and raised in Auburn, Wash., Hirabayashi later said of his youth, “I grew up on a farm: I can recall year after year of our family just barely making ends meet. In fact, many were the years that our summer’s crops merely paid off the winter’s grocery bills, so that the following winter loomed before us without much financial cushion on our part.”

In 1937, Hirabayashi enrolled at the University of Washington. Impressed by the Quakers, whose philosophy resembled that of the Japanese Christian sect in which he had been raised, the Nisei student joined in their pacifist activities on campus. In the wake of Executive Order 9066 and the imposition of a special curfew on Japanese Americans, he protested the violation of his rights as a U.S. citizen by turning himself into the FBI and building a legal case against official policy. He was placed in a holding cell on the 11thfloor of the city-county building in Seattle, where he would remain for the next nine months. Following a trial, Hirabayashi was convicted of violating curfew regulations and declining to register for “evacuation.”

Hirabayashi appealed, and in early 1943 the Supreme Court took up his case. The young Nisei was granted bail and released on the proviso that he move outside of the West Coast excluded area. Thus, accompanied by a pair of marshals, he relocated to Spokane. During this time he worked as a restaurant waiter, a night watchman, and emergency room orderly in a hospital and a clerk in a university bookstore. In May 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Kiyoshi Hirabayashi v. United States (since Hirabayashi’s given name is “Gordon” — a fact later verified on his birth certificate by his family — the captioning of the case by use of his Japanese middle name represents a subtle but telling indication of official racism in the case). The Court unanimously upheld his conviction. The justices, ruling in the middle of the war, showed extreme deference to military claims of a danger to national security (a claim that author Eric Muller has convincingly demonstrated to be based on knowingly false statements by military officials about the possibility of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast). Meanwhile, as in the more famous Supreme Court case of Korematsu v. United States a year later, the Army engaged in egregious manipulation and withholding of evidence to strengthen its case.

Since there was no proof of any disloyal activity by Hirabayashi (or any other West Coast Japanese American), the decision legitimized racial stereotyping and popular prejudice as grounds for official action. Indeed, the legal limbo of the Nisei, confined only for the “crime” of looking Japanese, was reflected in Hirabayashi’s punishment. As he asked to be incarcerated a road camp, and the government refused to pay for his transportation to a camp outside the excluded zone, he was forced to hitchhike to the Catalina Honor camp, near Tucson, Ariz. where he was confined. (In 1999, the site was renamed in his honor, the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site). Even these government officials recognized the exceptionally upright nature of their convict, as he made his trip completely unguarded. Because of his late arrival in Arizona, prison officials there could not find the paperwork in his case and discussed letting him go. Hirabayashi claimed that this would look suspicious. Finally, after dismissing their putative prisoner and persuading him to go take in dinner and a movie and then return, they found his paperwork and incarcerated him for his term.

photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

Almost no sooner had he been released from prison than he was inspired to join the movement of Nisei draft resisters, who protested the government’s forcing them into military service when they and their families were denied their citizenship rights. Rather than registering as a conscientious objector, as he had done in 1940, he refused to register at all. Arrested once more and convicted of draft evasion, he was sentenced to a year in the penitentiary at McNeil Island, near Seattle. (He would later be included in the blanket pardon offered to the draft resisters by President Harry Truman at Christmas 1947).

In 1944, Hirabayashi caused a fresh public stir when he married a white woman, Esther Schmoe, who was the daughter of the renowned peace activist and humanitarian Floyd Schmoe. The young couple was targeted by hostile press coverage. Schmoe bravely went through with her wedding in the face of racist hate mail about her marrying a convict and member of an “enemy” race. His wife and a set of baby twin daughters would be waiting for him when he emerged from prison.

So much for the known Gordon Hirabayashi — it is fascinating to discover the unknown, postwar one. In September 1945, following his release from prison, Hirabayashi returned to Seattle. He found housing with his wife and new daughters in a low-income housing project. A son, Jay, was born in 1947.

Hirabayashi enrolled at University of Washington to complete his studies. He swiftly finished the credits for his B.A., then enrolled in graduate work in sociology, and was hired as an instructor. In Spring 1948, as part of his M.A. thesis, he put together a “sociometric” survey of Nisei students about their attitudes toward other groups. He found a large percentage of Nisei preferred to socialize ingroup than with others, even though at the same time they expressed hostility toward various other Nisei.

Completion of the survey had two important results. First, with support from sociology Professor Robert O’Brien (who had worked as director of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council during the war and was known to be sympathetic to Nisei) in 1949 Hirabayashi and a fellow student, Keith Griffiths, won a $2,000 fellowship from the Seattle chapter of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League to conduct a large-scale survey of public attitudes toward racial and religious minorities on behalf of the Seattle Council of Social Agencies.

During the months that followed, Hirabayashi directed interviews of several hundred people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. He found a large percentage of local whites were still actively hostile to Japanese Americans and other minorities. While Japanese Americans, in turn, expressed less negative sentiments than whites toward minorities, there were many who expressed hostile attitudes: 27 percent of respondents would not invite an African American into their home for a social evening, and 75 percent would oppose permitting their children to date one.

Meanwhile, Hirabayashi’s work on the surveys put him into contact with the late journalist Budd Fukei, editor of the fledgling Seattle Nisei newspaper Northwest Times. Fukei invited Hirabayashi to discuss his survey in the newspaper’s New Year’s 1949 issue. When the article was received favorably, Hirabayashi was engaged as a regular feature writer, producing columns in rotation with Fukei’s own. Although they were contemporaries, Fukei and Hirabayashi made an odd pairing. Fukei was a veteran newspaperman who had gained experience working for the Japanese press before the war, while Hirabayashi, despite his academic credentials, was a journalistic neophyte. Furthermore, Fukei was a staunch supporter of the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd and later the editor of the Nisei Veterans Committee newsletter, and an unlikely champion of the pacifist and draft resister Hirabayashi.

Hirabayashi inaugurated his weekly column, “Just Among People,” in February 1949. He would continue producing the columns, with some pauses, through the middle of 1951.

The columns revealed both his sensitive character and his talent as a writer. In one column, for example, he spoke with admiration of a set of married women students in his class who bravely pursued their education, though it meant continually juggling childcare schedules and family finances to do so. “And I thought I had a tough row to hoe,” he concluded. In another, he expressed relief that a bill in the Washington State Legislature to grant release time in public schools for religious instruction had been defeated.

Hirabayashi insisted that even a supposedly voluntary program of religious education would lead to pressure for conformity and stigmatization of minorities. He illustrated the point with a homey allusion: “Children are all too anxious to pick on differences. Remember the red-haired kid in the class? What about the skinny tall one or the big fat blonde? What about the Japanese kid who brought onigiri for lunch instead of sandwiches like the rest of the kids? He was made fun of so heartlessly that he ran home crying. Kids exercise little discretion: somebody else’s differences are their jokes and fun.”

In his columns he regularly drew insights from his own experience, including his wartime confinement and his interracial marriage, though he softened such discussions by means of humor (often self-deprecating): “When I look at my economic standing, I see ‘red’; my occupation is merely part-time instructor because I’m so busy. I’m only a part-time parent. I seem to be only half-baked in no matter what category I consider myself. About the only thing I have done fairly thoroughly appears to be ‘in-mating’ at seven different institutions of ‘correction’ (University of Washington excluded).”

One of his best pieces told of a class trip he led to McNeil Island, where he had been imprisoned during the war. He noted facetiously: “The last time I visited the island penitentiary, I was given a free trip, awarded a room and board scholarship, and didn’t take the return trip for a year. This was my second trip, and I made sure that I returned the same day.”

Hirabayashi did not shy away from controversial issues in his columns. In one of his first contributions, he argued on behalf of a National Health Insurance bill (60 years before the Obama administration!) He also opposed racial restrictive covenants — not just because they restricted the rights of minorities, but also those of whites. However, while he was progressive-minded, he was equally ready to question liberal pieties. For example, he insisted that “discrimination,” in the sense choosing one’s associates and expressing preferences, was perfectly normal and indeed essential, provided such choices were not founded on irrational grounds such as race or religion. Similarly, when he attended a program of speeches on democracy, he remarked with asperity that it was too easy to talk about democracy rather than actually doing something about it: “What use are good intentions if we lack the techniques to implement them?”

Editor Fukei seems not to have interfered with his contributor’s outspoken commentary. However, that changed in summer 1950, following the outbreak of the Korean War. Hirabayashi expressed opposition to military conflict and called for negotiation and accommodation with the Soviet Union to prevent war. Fukei agreed to publish the piece, but added a disclaimer stating that Hirabayashi’s views did not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. His position did not seem to excite any opposition or hostile mail in the Northwest Times. Presumably, Nisei readers were well aware of his position on war.


Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at

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