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


Note: This is the second of a two-part column.

In 1951 Gordon Hirabayashi defended his doctoral thesis in sociology. His subject was the adaptation and status of the Doukhobors in British Columbia’s Slocan Valley. It was an intriguing choice of subject. Members of this sect of pacifist Christians from Russia, who believed in holding land communally and who refused to serve in the military, had faced persecution in the old country. They had migrated to Western Canada at the turn of the 20th century in search of freedom, but faced continuing government persecution there as well because of their refusal to assimilate (they attracted further opposition by their practice of staging mass nude protest marches against policies they opposed).

Although Hirabayashi seems not to have had a deep knowledge of Doukhobor culture, he was no doubt impressed by the parallels between their treatment and the experience of Japanese Americans (more so as many Doukhobors had formed friendly connections with the Japanese Canadians who were removed from the West Coast and confined in the Slocan Valley during World War II). Ironically, in 1953, barely a year after he completed his study, British Columbia’s government would seize 150 children from a radical Doukhobor faction, the Sons of Freedom, and forcibly intern them in residential schools.

Following the completion of his doctorate, Hirabayashi began his career as a professor. (One odd legacy of the wartime Japanese American cases is that Gordon Hirabayashi was able to become a professor and Minoru Yasui to retain his license to practice law without hindrance. Conversely, their fellow defendant Fred Korematsu was barred from obtaining a license as a real estate broker in the postwar years, because the conviction on his record rendered him ineligible for the required “good character” citation. This was not because academics and lawyers have lower ethnical standards than real estate agents, but a product of the odd fact that Hirabayashi and Yasui’s offenses were misdemeanors, while Korematsu’s was a felony). In 1952, Hirabayashi headed to Lebanon with his family to take up a position as assistant professor of sociology at The American University in Beirut. He later explained that he wanted to get some international experience, and that this was the first job offered him. He remained in Lebanon for three years, and then moved to The American University in Cairo, Egypt in 1955-56. (When war threatened in the region and Hirabayashi was invited to evacuate, he retorted that as a Japanese American he had always refused to “evacuate” his home!) During his time in the Middle East, he published his first scholarly articles, on communication networks and political awareness in Egypt, social change in Jordan and Lebanese village networks.

In 1959 Hirabayashi returned to North America and accepted a position as professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada. He later explained that his return was largely for family reasons, as he thought his children could get better secondary education in North America. Hirabayashi remained at University of Alberta until his retirement in 1983, and served as department chair from 1962 to 1970. During his years in Alberta, Hirabayashi worked as a specialist in race relations, especially on the subject of mixed race native peoples. He also helped establish the new field of Asian Canadian studies. His most important contribution in this area was the 1980 anthology he co-edited with Victor Ujimoto, “Visible Minorities and Multiculturalism: Asians in Canada.”

In the years following his retirement, Hirabayashi became an icon to the activists of the Japanese American redress movement. His name and his wartime challenge to Executive Order 9066 gained renewed national attention when he authorized a petition to overturn his original conviction on the grounds of official misconduct and overreaching, by means of the seldom-used writ of coram nobis. His legal team, headed by Rod Kawakami, Camden Hall and Kathryn Bannai, drawing on research by Peter Irons and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, presented evidence of fraud and manipulation of essential evidence in the original Supreme Court case. Federal District Judge Donald S. Voorhees, who scheduled a full evidentiary hearing, heard the case. The case was heard in June 1985 in the federal courthouse in Seattle, the site of Hirabayashi’s original trial 43 years earlier. Following an inconclusive ruling by Voorhees, both sides appealed. In September 1987, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a unanimous opinion by Judge Mary M. Schroeder, declared that Hirabayashi and his counsel had presented convincing evidence that the government had doctored the record in appeal in his case, and ruled that his convictions on all counts were vacated. Hirabayashi’s victory in his case, along with that of the other coram nobis petitioners, may well have been decisive in persuading Congress to enact the Civil Rights Restoration Act the following year, granting redress to all the West Coast Japanese Americans who had been affected by Executive Order 9066.

However, if this was Hirabayashi’s most celebrated contribution to redress, it was by no means his only one, nor was his involvement confined to the essentially symbolic role he took on in the coram nobis case. Rather, even before his case was retried, Hirabayashi expressed interest in the developing redress movement. In a speech before a Japanese American Citizens League council in 1972 (one in which he urged Japanese Americans to attack problems of inequities facing all social groups) he noted that a legal subcommittee was discussing reopening his case. While he admitted that such an action was unlikely to succeed, he noted, “I fully endorse this effort and hope the opportunity can be had to correct the records as a continuing precedent and national embarrassment.” The JACL Pacific District Council honored him at a dinner in Los Angeles in February 1976, for example. He used the opportunity to urge Nisei to work for reparations as compensation for their loss of freedom during the war. While any successful movement, he affirmed, would require a massive public education effort, it was worth the trouble to make America “A little better symbol we can identify with.” At a Seattle JACL dinner shortly afterward, he added that the success of reparations would not only raise public awareness of wartime injustice and avoid such a thing happening again, but would permit Nisei to stop aping whites. “We need to be ourselves and take stock of our unique aspect of American citizenship.” Conversely, during an interview in New York, he deplored the apathetic response of most Nisei to redress proposals, a point that made him fear that they would go along if the government decided to order mass confinement again. In the period that followed, he remained an active supporter of political campaigns for redress. When disagreements arose over the form of such restitution, and a set of advocates (most notably Mike Masaoka of the JACL) suggested renouncing individual payments in exchange for a large trust fund for community assistance and human rights projects, Hirabayashi publicly deplored such ideas as irresponsible. “If injustice is to be admitted, then justice should follow with some kind of direct compensation to the victims.”

In addition, Hirabayashi took action on behalf of Japanese Canadians. In 1977, two years after he became a Canadian citizen, he agreed to direct events in Alberta for the centennial of Japanese Canadian settlement. Although he stated that year that, “Political participation by Japanese Canadians is still a generation away,” he threw himself into the developing redress movement in Canada. It was an act of great generosity, as unlike in the United States Hirabayashi did not stand to benefit personally from any redress award. While a complete history of Hirabayashi’s involvement in Canada’s long redress struggle — a movement that sparked strong divisions among various activists and organizations in the Japanese community — still remains to be written, it is clear that he served on numerous committees and attended countless meetings, notably as president and spokesperson of the Edmonton Japanese Community Club and a member of the National Association of Japanese Canadians. As in the United States, he repeatedly urged payment of reparations directly to individuals. In 1977, he served as one of three persons appointed by the National Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association to a Reparations Committee, for which he drafted a report strongly endorsing individual reparations. As he put it in 1985, at a time when many Japanese Canadians urged settling with the government for a lump sum payment to the community, redress meant “establishing a meaningful, significant figure which would be granted across-the-board to all victims.” Hirabayashi’s prestige may have helped persuade Japanese Canadian leaders to hold out for such payments, which were granted in the final redress package in 1988. In recognition of his contributions, in 2003 he was awarded the biennial award of the NAJC, which celebrates an outstanding member of the community.
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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