Gordon Hirabayashi, civil rights icon who resisted wartime incarceration, dies


Gordon Hirabayashi in the fall of 1983. photo courtesy of the Hirabayashi family

Gordon Hirabayashi in the fall of 1983. photo courtesy of the Hirabayashi family

Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, one of three wartime litigants who challenged wartime curfew or exclusion orders and whose legal convictions were vacated four decades later, died on Jan. 2, 2012 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, his family said. He was 93.

“Dad was slowly declining in health after living 10 years with Alzheimer’s disease, and a couple of days ago had a bout with the flu that evidently was enough to weaken him to the end of his life,” his son Jay Hirabayashi told the Nichi Bei Weekly on Jan. 2. “Even with his loss of memory, I thought he retained the sense of quiet dignity that he carried throughout his life.”

Gordon Hirabayashi’s ex-wife, Esther Hirabayashi, also passed away about 10 hours later at the age of 87.

“Although my parents were divorced, they somehow chose to leave us on the same day,” Jay Hirabayashi told friends in a Facebook message. “I am missing them a lot right now.”

Across the country, many remembered the civil rights icon’s influence.

“Gordon’s stance represents the highest principles our country values: loyalty and principled dissent,” said Bay Area-based Sansei attorney and activist Dale Minami. “That he would stand up to the greatest country on earth, challenge its authority on the basis of the principle of equality and risk imprisonment for an unknown period of time, will be a lasting inspiration to all of us who believe we must follow our consciences.”

“I am greatly saddened to learn that a leading champion of civil liberties is no longer among us,” said Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga of Gardena, Calif., a noted researcher of Japanese American history, whose discovery of certain documents eventually led to the reopening of the cases of Hirabayashi, Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu some 40 years after they were convicted. “Gordon Hirabayashi was a man of unmatched righteous convictions and principles, a man of unquestioned integrity.”

Herzig-Yoshinaga worked on the coram nobis cases of the 1980s that helped to vacate the convictions.

“He was just a gentleman of peace who kept to his principles and convictions to keep vigilant to protect the Constitution,” said Rod Kawakami, a Seattle-based attorney who was the lead counsel for Hirabayashi’s legal proceedings held from 1983 to 1987. “He was an inspiration to not only the Japanese American community, but also the general society. He was consistent and persistent.”

While he may be viewed as a civil rights icon in the American mosaic, the younger Hirabayashi will remember his father on a more personal level.

“He was an American hero besides being a great father who taught me about the values of honesty, integrity, and justice,” said son Jay, who is the executive director of Kokoro Dance in Vancouver, Canada.

“Dad was never a militant radical — he just never waivered in his belief that all people deserved to be treated equally, and he worked quietly but steadfastly to right the wrongs that derived from ignorance and prejudice,” Jay Hirabayashi told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

“Gordon believed very strongly that his wartime Supreme Court case, and his 1980s coram nobis case, were both the JA community’s and the larger American public’s cases,” said nephew Lane Hirabayashi, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “He never felt that these were somehow exclusively his own. He believed that the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling in his coram nobis appeal, vacating his conviction after more than four decades, was a victory for everyone.”

Lane Hirabayashi and his father, Gordon Hirabayashi’s brother Jim — the first dean of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University — are writing a biography of the civil rights figure, to be published by University of Washington Press.

Resisted Curfew, Exclusion

Hirabayashi was born on April 23, 1918 in Seattle, the son of Japanese immigrants. His father ran a fruit and vegetable stand.

A little more than two months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, which set the wheels in motion to forcibly remove some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.

A month later, a curfew was imposed upon those of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, and in May, the military ordered them moved to inland camps.

A senior at the University of Washington at the time, Hirabayashi adhered to pacifist principles. While fellow Yasui challenged the curfew order, and Korematsu challenged the order to forcibly relocate, Hirabayashi had the distinction of violating both orders.

He contended that the government’s actions were racially discriminatory, and was sentenced to concurrent three-month prison terms. His appeal went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court unanimously upheld the conviction in its 1943 ruling.

Hitchhiking to Incarceration

When Hirabayashi was sentenced for violating the exclusion orders, he was told to find his own ride from the Pacific Northwest to the federal labor camp near Tucson, Ariz.

“As he asked to be incarcerated in 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,” wrote historian Greg Robinson, author of “Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” in his Nichi Bei Weekly column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great.”

“The story of Hirabayashi having to hitchhike his way to prison is iconic, and a great illustration of the absurdity of the relocation,” said Mary Farrell, a former forest archaeologist for the Coronado National Forest. “When this young man defies those orders because he considers them unconstitutional, he’s sentenced to prison near Tucson, Arizona. But he is apparently not really a threat to national security after all, because he’s set free to find his own way there, and he hitchhikes!”

According to a historical account by the Coronado National Forest, dessert dwellers wanted a road up the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains as an escape from the summer heat. However, building a road through the steep and rocky terrain was an expensive venture. To cut costs, it was decided that federal prisoners would supply most of the labor.

A minimum security “Federal Honor Camp” was established in 1937 to house the prisoners, who constructed 24 miles of road through the Coronado National Forest over two decades — from the base of the mountain at 2,800 feet in elevation to more than 8,000 feet in the cool pines. The Catalina Highway was completed in 1951.

Hirabayashi served out his 90-day sentence at the Federal Honor Camp near Tucson.

Contending that a so-called “loyalty questionnaire” sent to Japanese Americans was racially discriminating, he refused induction into the armed forces, and spent a year in a federal prison on McNeil Island in Washington state for resisting the draft.

The Road to Vindication

Herzig-Yoshinaga informed legal scholar Peter Irons of her finding of the so-called “Dewitt Report,” and Irons utilized a seldom-used legal procedure known as the writ of coram nobis to reopen the wartime cases, citing that the government suppressed evidence in the three wartime cases.

“The right document fell into the hands of the right person,” said Rod Kawakami, the lead attorney in the Hirabayashi case. He noted that other attorneys, including himself, may not have known what to do with it.

With the revelation of the documents came a movement to reopen the cases in 1983, utilizing many young Sansei attorneys, which ultimately led to the community’s vindication. It also helped to put a spark into the growing movement for Japanese American redress.

The initial hope was a consolidation of the three cases, Kawakami said, but that didn’t happen. The Korematsu case was filed in San Francisco, the Yasui case in Portland and the Hirabayashi case in Seattle.

Of the three coram nobis cases, however, the Hirabayashi case was the only one to have any rulings based upon presented evidence, Kawakami notes. “Gordon’s case ended up to be the longest running case,” Kawakami said.

The Yasui and Korematsu cases were vacated by their respective judges, while the Hirabayashi case went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after a split ruling on the curfew and exclusion cases. According to Kawakami, the exclusion order in Hirabayashi’s case was vacated, while the curfew order was upheld.

In March of 1987, four years after his journey for vindication began, Hirabayashi finally saw the legal victory he had waited four decades for.

“Personality wise, he wasn’t the type to jump and yell,” recalled Kawakami. “But he had been waiting 40 years for this to happen.”

According to Kawakami, Hirabayashi was ever optimistic that the day would come.

“He had more faith in the justice system than others,” Kawakami said. “He always kept faith that eventually the wrong would be righted.”

A 25th anniversary of the Hirabayashi case victory is being planned for Feb. 11 at Seattle University.

Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site

photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

In the late 1990s, Farrell was involved in the Forestry Department’s movement to rename the former labor camp site after its most famous inmate, who served a 90-day sentence at the camp in 1943 for violating the curfew and refusing to obey the exclusion order.

Her husband Jeff Burton, a National Park Service archeologist at the time, suspected that the prison near Tucson was located in the Coronado National Forest, where she worked.

“At a conference in Phoenix, Dr. Hirabayashi confirmed it for us,” she recalled. “The new campground being developed at the former prison site seemed like a good place to tell the story, not only to honor Dr. Hirabayashi and others who stood up for their Constitutional rights, but to generate discussion about the Japanese American internment and the fragility of civil rights.”

Thus began a movement to uncover the history behind the long and winding road up Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Then came another revelation.

“In our public outreach we also learned that Gordon Hirabayashi wasn’t the only one serving time at the Catalina prison camp for opposing the relocation: some 45 ‘resisters of conscience’ were sent there, too,” Farrell told the Nichi Bei Weekly, referring to the Nisei draft resisters sentenced there from other camps, mainly the Granada (Amache) concentration camp in Colorado. “Their stories greatly enhanced the significance of the site, and its educational and interpretive potential.”

Two of those Nisei draft resisters were Ken Yoshida, who was sentenced out of the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp, and Susumu Yenokida, who was sentenced to the labor camp out of the Granada (Amache) concentration camp along with three of this brothers.

“When it came to induction, I said ‘why should I go to the Army, when we had no civil rights,’” said Yenokida, now 86, of Galt, Calif. “I said the hell with it.”

“Because I was in a concentration camp, I said ‘forget it,’” said Yoshida, 88, of San Mateo, Calif. “I would have went in the service if I wasn’t in camp.”

Unlike Hirabayashi, both Yenokida and Yoshida arrived at the labor camp in handcuffs, with Yenokida being shackled by a 25-pound iron ball.

Yenokida and Yoshida returned to the site in 2001, along with Hirabayashi himself, at the dedication of the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.

Organizers of the movement saw the vast potential for education in the site renaming.

“Millions of people drive up the Catalina Highway every year, and I’d guess the great majority of them are unaware of Gordon Hirabayashi and only vaguely aware of the Japanese American internment during World War II,” said Farrell. “We wanted them to see the name on the sign, juxtaposing a Japanese and an Anglo name, and become intrigued. We wanted to draw them along an inviting trail, which passes some of the rockwork that the prisoners built, to the interpretive kiosk, where they could learn about the Japanese American internment.

“We wanted to honor those who were imprisoned at the camp for their principled stand against internment,” she added. “And we hoped to generate discussion about the Constitution and civil rights, and the role citizens can play in upholding the Constitution.”

Hirabayashi became personally involved in the project, Farrell said.

“He agreed to let us use his name, and to participate himself, only if the Forest Service told the story of the resisters of conscience who were imprisoned there, too,” she disclosed.  “He admired their strength and courage and felt a great camaraderie with them, and appreciation for their own stand for civil rights.

“Above all, he provided inspiration: he was such a renowned figure, so important in civil rights history and so accomplished in his career, yet he was humble, gentle, kind and funny,” she said. “He made me see that his struggle, and our struggle, is about respect and love as much as about truth and justice.”

This wasn’t the first time the shared legacy of Hirabayashi, himself a Nisei draft resister, and the other resisters converged. In 1994, he was the keynote speaker at the Time of Remembrance program organized by the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. At that program, the Florin JACL honored the local resisters with their Daruma Civil Rights Award.

“His courage to resist the curfew and evacuation orders has become the inspiration for the younger generation to ‘speak out and stand up’ for the rights of others, a perfect fit for featuring the Nisei draft resisters,” said Christine Umeda, an organizer of the Florin JACL commemoration.

“(He) is an inspiration for what good people can do when faced with injustice and backlash, an invaluable lesson in our post-9/11 Islamophobic world of today,” said Andy Noguchi, the Florin JACL Civil Rights co-chair.

‘Stood for So Much More’

While Hirabayashi’s legacy will always be tied to his Supreme Court challenge during World War II and his coram nobis case in the 1980s, he “stood for so much more,” said Cherstin Lyon, a professor of history at California State University, San Bernadino and author of a new book on Hirabayashi and the “Tucsonian” resisters, “Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience, and Historical Memory.”

“He was an active Quaker, becoming a member after spending a summer in New York during 1940 and listening to the debates he heard there about isolationism and nonintervention,” Lyon said. “He was committed to pacifism and to upholding the values of the U.S. Constitution.”

According to Lyon, he realized that he could not cooperate with any aspect of the war.

“If he were to remain true to his pacifist principles, he had to refuse all cooperation with Selective Service,” Lyon told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “He had his chance shortly after his release from Tucson. First, he refused to complete what has become known as the ‘loyalty questionnaire’ that was sent to him from his draft board. He read the title, ‘Statement of United States Citizen of Japanese Ancestry,’ and he realized that just like curfew, this was a form only sent to Japanese Americans. It was racist in its very nature and so he returned it blank.”

Hirabayashi decided to defend himself in court, Lyon said. “The judge was impressed with the way Hirabayashi handled himself and with his commitment to pacifism as a Quaker and gave him the lightest sentence he could — a one-year sentence to McNeil Island.”

Robinson asserts that Hirabayashi differed from his fellow Supreme Court litigants in “several important respects.”

“First, he was the only litigant who acted out of explicitly religious and activist motives,” said Robinson. “In addition, Hirabayashi was the only one of the Supreme Court litigants who was also a draft resister — Minoru Yasui, who had also invoked the constitutional rights of Nisei against the curfew imposed on Japanese Americans, joined the JACL to press the draft resisters to abandon their cause.”

For this, he served a second jail term.

Robinson said Hirabayashi was one “who explicitly associated himself with the nascent redress movement and with the larger Asian American political movement, even before the decision to bring about the coram nobis petitions.

“As early as 1976, he was making public presentations and using his moral authority in favor of reparations and re-examination of the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans.”

Beloved in Canada

As renown as he was in the United States, Hirabayashi was also revered in his adopted country of Canada, said Robinson, a professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal who has written several books on the Japanese American experience.

According to Robinson, Hirabayashi wrote a regular column for the Seattle Japanese American newspaper Northwest Times in the early 1950s.

Thirsting for international experience, he took an assistant professorship in sociology at The American University in Beirut, Lebanon in 1952, Robinson said, and after three years he moved to The American University in Cairo, Egypt, from 1955-56.

He returned to North America in 1959, accepting a position as professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada, where he remained until his retirement in 1983.

According to Robinson, Hirabayashi worked as a specialist in race relations, especially on the subject of mixed race native peoples.

“In addition to being a pioneering scholar of Canadian ethnic studies, he was a stalwart champion of redress for Japanese Canadians confined during World War II,” said Robinson. “His activism further demonstrated his attachment to principle, since he did not stand to benefit personally from any Canadian redress settlement.”

In 1977, Hirabayashi agreed to direct events in Alberta for the centennial of Japanese Canadian settlement.

Lasting Legacy

Hirabayashi, the last surviving coram nobis litigant, leaves a lasting legacy of conviction and courage.

“I have always had the highest admiration for Gordon, who inspired us for decades to not only speak out but to take action to pursue justice,” added Herzig-Yoshinaga.

“I think we have learned that we should never equate dissent with disloyalty and that dissent is our political birthright, our duty to challenge unfair and racist laws,” said Minami, the lead attorney on the Korematsu coram nobis legal team. “Had more Americans dissented against the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, JAs would not have gone to prison without the right to notice of charges, the right to an attorney or the right to trial. We would not have experienced this massive civil rights disaster.”

On Friday, Jan. 6, 1 p.m., there will be a Quaker Memorial Meeting for Worship at the Edmonton Japanese Community Association in Alberta, Canada, open to the public. Donations in lieu of flowers can be given to the Capital Care Lynwood, where Hirabayashi was cared for almost three years, to the Gordon K. Hirabayashi Scholarship Fund within the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta, or to the Gordon K. Hirabayashi Endowment Fund at the University of Washington. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Esther Hirabayashi’s memory to the Canadian Association of Medical Teams Abroad, c/o 103 Laurier Drive, Edmonton, AB, Canada T5R 5P6.

2 responses to “Gordon Hirabayashi, civil rights icon who resisted wartime incarceration, dies”

  1. […] Gordon Hirabayashi, Civil Rights Icon Who Resisted wWartime Incarceration, Dies – Nichibei […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP ( and so is spam.

  2. […] Gordon Hirabayashi, Civil Rights Icon Who Resisted Wartime Incarceration, Dies – Nichibei […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP ( and so is spam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest