One man’s pursuit of his civil rights amid wartime hysteria

A Principled Stand2

A Principled Stand: the Story of Hirabayashi v. United States

A Principled Stand: the Story of Hirabayashi v. United States
By Gordon K. Hirabayashi, with James A. Hirabayashi and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi
(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013, 232 pp., $29.95, hardcover)

Note: This review is adapted from an unpublished report the review author did on an earlier version of the manuscript of this book.

This work covers the celebrated wartime case of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Nisei student at the University of Washington who insisted on his citizenship rights in the face of official restrictions on Japanese Americans, and who was tried and imprisoned for refusing to obey Army orders for a curfew and registration for “evacuation.” His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled against him (the government officials responsible for his prosecution concealed and manipulated relevant evidence in making the case against him, a pattern of fraud that led to his conviction being overturned in federal court in 1986). There have been various published accounts of the Hirabayashi case, most notably Peter Irons’ “Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese-American Internment Cases” (1983), but “A Principled Stand” offers a special contribution in that it uses Hirabayashi’s own writings to retell the story of his wartime experience.

(Gordon’s late brother James Hirabayashi, a pioneering Asian American studies scholar, and James’s son Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, an eminent professor of Asian American studies at UCLA, prepared the diaries for publication.)

The structure of the work is largely chronological. The first chapters detail Hirabayashi’s family history, including his parents’ arrival in the United States and their brave effort to buy property and retain it following a challenge to their ownership under racist alien land laws. Hirabayashi explains how he was inspired by his parents’ beliefs and became active with Quaker and Christian pacifist groups, though he rejected religious fundamentalism. After Pearl Harbor, his attachment to democratic principle led him to the conclusion that he could not cooperate with laws he considered unjust and wrong, including military conscription and Japanese American exclusion.

Hirabayashi recounts his imprisonment and his trial, then his somewhat Kafkaesque experience of being forced to hitchhike to a prison work camp because the government refused to pay his transportation (at first invited to go home by baffled prison officials, he compromised by spending a day in town at the movies so they could take time to obtain and process his paperwork). Hirabayashi also touches briefly on his refusal to register for conscription after it was imposed on Japanese Americans in early 1944, and his second prison experience as a draft resister at McNeil Island. An interpolated chapter tells the story of Hirabayashi’s romance with Esther Schmoe, the daughter of Hirabayashi’s supporter Floyd Schmoe, and the hostile media attention sparked by their interracial union.

The project has numerous strengths. Gordon Hirabayashi is one of the most well-known modern Washingtonians, but he remains an enigma: What was behind his challenge to Executive Order 9066? The authors wisely center on the question of his state of mind during the war years. Thanks to surviving letters and to generous excerpts from the previously unknown diary Hirabayashi kept during his imprisonment, the manuscript provides direct evidence as to his daily life experiences. Through his writings, we have a unique opportunity to hear the young Hirabayashi’s voice: sincere and thoughtful, with earnestness leavened by a side of ordinary college-boy interests and humor (he mentions in one diary entry that Esther Schmoe, his future wife, is vexed by his constant teasing of her).

Hirabayashi’s descriptions of prison life and of people (notably his relations with African Americans) reveal an observant and thoughtful man. In particular, the work hints at Hirabayshi’s complex relations with the Japanese American Citizens League, whose leaders at first refused to back his case or that of fellow protester Minoru Yasui, before offering their support once the cases went before the Supreme Court — it is interesting to note both Hirabayashi’s familiarity with Yasui’s case, and his cordial visit with JACL leaders in Utah while en route to prison.

At the same time, the text provides useful insight into a larger question: what leads a person to challenge established authority and risk prison, and what are the variables and circumstantial factors that govern these decisions? The diaries speak eloquently about the pressures on the young activist, and the role of his family — we learn of Hirabayashi’s concern for his parents and where they will be able to stay if they are called as witnesses during his trial (When Hirabayashi’s father arrives, he is confined in the same holding center as his son, who is initially unable to recognize him because he has been changed by his Assembly Center experience.) Conversely, it is fascinating to discover that another Nisei, who shared Hirabayashi’s views, was dissuaded from bringing a legal challenge by parental pressure to keep the family together in the war emergency. The reader discovers his complex mix of moral certainty and doubt. While in prison, he half-expects to be taken bodily by guards from the prison and thrown into an assembly center.

The work is not without flaws. The primary weakness is that, aside from a glossary of names, the explanatory passages accompanying the text are limited. More historical notes would have been helpful. For example, Hirabayashi refers repeatedly to the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee as his supporters. Left unexplained is the difference between these allied but distinct organizations. It would have been useful to add information about the fates of other incarcerated Japanese Americans who appear in the diaries, such as Ted Takahashi (convicted of selling scrap metal to Japan) or Kenji Ito and Thomas Masuda, lawyers tried as propagandists for Tokyo (and later acquitted), so readers are not left wondering. Similarly, a capsule biography of the jailed Nisei pacifist George Yamada, mentioned in the text, would have shed light on both the unique and less unique features of Hirabayashi’s case.

Such gaps notwithstanding, the text makes a real contribution to our knowledge of Nikkei history. There are still relatively few published works that feature contemporary writings by wartime Nisei. These starkly reveal the impact of wartime exclusion and uncertainty on individuals or communities. The voice of Gordon Hirabayashi lends perspective on the problems of minorities whose rights are threatened by wartime hysteria, and how the voice of conscience can lead them to protest.

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