Hirabayashi, dean of first ethnic studies school, dies


James Hirabayashi. file photo

James Hirabayashi. file photo

James Akira Hirabayashi, an emeritus professor of anthropology and ethnic and Asian American studies at San Francisco State University — where he served as the first dean of the first ethnic studies program in the country — passed away peacefully in San Francisco on May 23, 2012. He was 85.

“Jim’s passing was going to happen, but that it came so quickly was a surprise,” said son Lane Hirabayashi, who noted that his father died of “a very aggressive case” of bone cancer. “He was comfortable and, because he was at Kokoro, many of his old comrades and friends were able to visit him over the past two or three weeks.”

The elder Hirabayashi was in Kokoro Assisted Living in San Francisco’s Japantown “for about three and-a-half weeks,” son Lane said.

Born in Thomas, Wash. on Oct. 30, 1926 to first-generation Issei parents, Hirabayashi was raised in mukyokai or “non-church” Christianity. His parents led their hard-working farming family by example, teaching their children a sense of ethics and comportment that stayed with them for a lifetime, perhaps eventually shaping their quests for social justice, a family biography stated.

When he was a sophomore in high school, the Hirabayashi family was moved against their will to a camp in Pinedale, Calif. From there, the family was forced to move again, this time to the War Relocation Authority concentration camp at Tule Lake.

Within a year, he dropped out of high school and left for Weiser, Idaho with a family from a neighboring barrack. There, he picked sugar beets for a year. Hirabayashi often said that picking sugar beets was the hardest farm work he’d ever done, said the family biography.

Joined in Weiser by his father, Shungo, with money they saved from their labor, they were able to help resettle Mitsu, his mother, and his younger siblings to Spokane.

Meanwhile, his oldest brother, Gordon, had protested the mass removal and wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. Eventually convicted by the U.S. Supreme Court, Gordon spent much of the war serving time in jail for his resistance, as well as for his stand as a conscientious objector.

Gordon Hirabayashi was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — by President Barack Obama at the White House on May 29.

After returning to Seattle, with the help of the Quakers, the Hirabayashi family started a nursing home. Their mission was to provide a home for some of the elderly Issei who were infirm and/or had nowhere to go.


Jim Hirabayashi enrolled at the University of Washington, where he received his BA (1949), and his masters (1952) in anthropology.

In 1954, he received a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the University of Tokyo, as well as to conduct original fieldwork in Nagano Prefecture, where his parents hailed from.

In 1957, with a John Hay Whitney Foundation Scholarship, he began his doctoral studies at Harvard University in anthropology, receiving his Ph.D. in 1962 with a dissertation on Kaida mura, a Japanese mountain community.

As he was finishing his dissertation, Hirabayashi obtained his first teaching position at San Francisco State College in 1959. He moved his then wife Joanne, and his two children Lane and Jan to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he began a 30-year teaching and administrative career.

He and other professors risked their jobs when they went on strike in 1968, a historic social movement that led to the creation of the country’s first autonomous school of ethnic studies.

The groundbreaking movement was recalled by then-student Penny Nakatsu.

“In the fall of 1968, I and another SF State student, Masayo Suzuki, made a list of all faculty members who might be of Asian descent because we needed to find a faculty adviser for the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), a student organization which Masayo and I were forming,” Nakatsu told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Professor James Hirabayashi was then a member of the anthropology department. Although neither of us knew him then, Masayo and I went to Jim’s office and Jim welcomed us. In his characteristically thoughtful way, Jim listened to our pitch and immediately said that he would be the AAPA adviser.

“In the months ahead, AAPA became a member of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and joined the BSU (Black Student Union)-TWLF strike.”

Nakatsu said Hirabayashi could have easily turned the students down, in what were certainly turbulent times.

“Instead, he become the AAPA adviser because he believed in AAPA’s mission to increase Asian American participation in the struggle for civil rights, racial equality and self-determination.

“Jim will be missed for his great steadiness, personal warmth and quiet competence,” said Nakatsu, who retired as an assistant general counsel with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 2009.

Hirabayashi subsequently became the chair of Asian American Studies in 1969. In 1970 he was appointed the first dean of the School of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State, a position he held for six years.

Before he retired, Hirabayashi also served as the dean of Undergraduate Studies at San Francisco State, a position he held between 1985 and 1988. He became emeritus professor in 1988 and went on to pursue an active role for many years as a curator, advisor, and consultant to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Author, Hobbyist and Actor

The author and editor of a range of publications in anthropology and Asian American studies, his last work is a book edited with his son Lane, which revolves around the wartime prison diaries of his brother Gordon. The work, entitled “A Principled Stand: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. The United States,” will be published by the University of Washington Press in 2013.

Apart from his career, research, and publications, Hirabayashi was described as “a person of all seasons.” He traveled widely, many times for anthropological research, living in various countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

According to his family, he had many hobbies and interests including silver jewelry making, softball, cooking, and collecting ethnic cloth and folk arts. He also caught the acting bug in the 1980s and was cast in many productions staged by the Asian American Theater Company and others, also acting in film and television.

Lasting Impact

Hirabayashi was remembered by those who he touched.

“Jim Hirabayashi was my dean of Ethnic Studies when I was one of the instructors of the Japanese American department when it was established after the San Francisco State Strike,” recalled Steve Nakajo, executive director of Kimochi, Inc. a Japantown-based senior service agency. “Jim Hirabayashi was my friend who spent the time to educate me, cultivate my heart, mind and soul. .. to encourage me to help formalize the concepts and philosophy of Kimochi.”

The Ethnic Studies Strike and establishment of a school was echoed across Northern California, as student activists also started developing their own program in Sacramento.

“Hirabayashi’s leadership and shared vision of pushing for and helping to establish the first school of ethnic studies in the United States at SF State was an inspiration and beacon to all of us at Sac State trying establish our own ethnic studies center,” said recently retired California State University, Sacramento ethnic studies faculty Wayne Maeda, who helped to establish that university’s program. “His understated but unwavering stand for social justice and leadership will sorely be missed.”

“Dr. James Hirabayashi played an indispensable role at a historic moment in U.S. history, during the simultaneous revolutions to secure recognitions and equal rights for Nikkei and other Asian Americans, along with many other disenfranchised ‘minorities’ during the turbulent 1960s and 70s,” said Donald Teruo Hata, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history at the California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Hirabayashi wrote what Hata called “a pungent and persuasive article,” titled “Concentration Camp or Relocation Center — What’s in a Name?” and “exposed how misleading sugar-coated euphemisms had been purposely used by government propagandists to distort and divert attention away from the gross violations of basic civil rights.”

“Jim was one of first Nikkei scholars to publicly support a careful scrutiny of inaccurate terminology, and his authoritative voice supported earlier recommendations by a small minority of mainstream historians like professor Roger Daniels,” Hata told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Those efforts to address what he thought was widely misused terminology led to a recent movement to correct such usage.
“Jim Hirabayashi joined us at the 2009 Tule Lake Pilgrimage and we were fortunate that he and Don Hata agreed to organize a workshop on terminology,” Barbara Takei of the Tule Lake Committee told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Since that workshop, various movements were launched to address terminology relating to the Japanese American experience.

From Father to Son

Above all, Hirabayashi was described as “a devoted father and friend, and he will be deeply missed by his three children and a host of friends from the university, the community.”

“Jim had a huge impact on me, especially once I decided to go into Asian American studies,” said son Lane, who teaches in the Asian American Studies Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

But while Lane would follow in his father’s footsteps to a degree, his father had faith in him to do “whatever I felt was right.”
“What was great about Jim was, once I became committed to ethnic studies, he pretty much let me do my own thing, my own way,” son lane recalled. “Often, if I wanted feedback, I’d have to beg him for commentary.”

The elder Hirabayashi also had a lasting impact on countless others.

“The other thing that has impressed me about Jim is how many students of color have come up to me and told me that Jim really encouraged them in terms of getting their degrees at some pivotal moment in their lives,” son Lane said “I personally find that legacy very significant, very moving.”

Hirabayashi was preceded in death by his first wife, Joanne, and his last wife, Christine. He is survived by his sister Esther Toshiko Furugori, and his children Lane R. (Marilyn Alquizola), Jan M. (Steve Rice), and Tai-Lan C. Hirabayashi. A reception is being planned although no details are available as of yet.

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