Lane Hirabayashi, scholar of Japanese American history, dies

Lane Hirabayashi. file photo

Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, a prolific scholar whose work expanded the research of the Japanese American experience, died earlier this month in Southern California after a bout with cancer. He was 67.

His lifelong commitment to Japanese American history followed “in the footsteps of his uncle Gordon Hirabayashi who defied curfew and evacuations orders during World War II and his father James Hirabayashi, the first dean of Ethnic Studies in the country at San Francisco State University,” said friend Akemi Kikumura Yano, the former CEO of the Japanese American National Museum.

“In addition to his landmark research, he organized countless terrific programs and events on campus and in Little Tokyo. He was brilliant, inspiring and generous,” UCLA Asian American studies professor Valerie Matsumoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Lane helped advance our thinking about the wartime confinement by insisting on the use of precise terminology instead of euphemisms.”

According to Densho, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi was born on Oct. 17, 1952 and grew up mostly in Mill Valley, Calif. with his younger sister Jan and his parents James and Joanne after his Nisei father took a faculty position at San Francisco State University. He earned his bachelor’s degree from California State University, Sonoma in 1974, followed by his master’s degree in 1976 and Ph.D. in 1981 in anthropology from University of California, Berkeley.

He was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA in 1981.

In 1983, he accepted a position in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. In the 1990s, he became an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and from 2003-2005, at UC Riverside.

“In 2006, Hirabayashi returned to UCLA as the inaugural holder of the George and Sakaye Aratani Endowed Chair on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community — the first endowed chair in the country to focus on the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans,” wrote Matsumoto, who succeeded Hirabayashi.

Hirabayashi served as the chair of the Asian American Studies Department from 2007-2010 and taught a range of courses, Matsumoto wrote.

“Lane was a leader in drawing scholarly attention to the histories of and linkages among communities of the Japanese diaspora throughout the Americas,” Matsumoto added. “He launched the ‘George and Sakaye Aratani Nikkei in the Americas’ book series with the University Press of Colorado. … Also, he and his wife, literary scholar Marilyn Alquizola, collaborated on a series of articles about Carlos Bulosan, including the forward to the reissued 2014 edition of Bulosan’s classic ‘America is in the Heart.’”

He retired from UCLA in 2017, but his research calendar remained full, Matsumoto said.

His Research ‘Opened Doors’
University of Washington Emeritus Professor Tetsuden (Tetsu) Kashima called Hirabayashi’s passing “a very sad occasion for anyone who knew him,” while noting their decades-long association. “I first met him when he was but 8 or 9 years old,” Kashima said. “Lane was a wonderful person. He was gracious, affable, warm-hearted, kind and ever positive in his outlook. He epitomized the Hirabayashi family traits of concern for others with a deep respect for the basic rights of each and every individual.

“In his research and writing Lane opened so many insightful doors for us,” Kashima said. “Lane has done so much for us; but he was not yet finished,” Kashima added. “We can now only appreciate what he has left for us — both in scholarship and in his probity. Thank you, Lane!”

Joint Researcher
Kikumura Yano first met Hirabayashi in 1981, as they shared a visiting scholars office at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. Years later, in 1998, their joint researching relationship started with the International Nikkei Research Project at JANM. She said the project ultimately produced several groundbreaking works, including “New Worlds, New Lives: Globalization and People of Japanese Descent in the Americas and from Latin America in Japan” (2002); “Common Ground: The Japanese American National Museum and the Culture of Collaboration” (2005); and “The Encyclopedia of Japanese Descendants the Americas” (2002).

“Lane was the lead editor for ‘New Worlds, New Lives,’ which was translated into Japanese and had won awards and recognition for groundbreaking global Nikkei research,” she added. “The ongoing impact of the research project’s output and Lane’s research contributions was the creation of JANM’s Discover Nikkei Website that continues to build connections with Nikkei worldwide.”

‘Consummate Scholar’
Kikumura Yano called Hirabayashi a “consummate scholar” of Asian American and ethnic studies, having written or edited “countless publications, many of which focused on the Japanese American concentration camp experience.” One of his latest works, which he edited, was the “NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations” (2018).

“Many of his students and colleagues will remember him as a truth-seeker/speaker, who was generous with his time, expertise and knowledge,” said Kikumura Yano, who called the guitar player a “gifted musician.”

Hirabayashi was an advocate for the little-known and once-ostracized resistance at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, notes Barbara Takei, a Tule Lake Committee board member. “Lane’s continuing support — using the imprimatur of academe on these community programs about Tule Lake’s dissenters — gave important validation to Tule Lake’s civil rights heroes,” Takei added.

Art Hansen, director emeritus of the California State University, Fullerton Japanese American Oral History Project, recalled meeting Hirabayashi at an Asian American studies conference in San Francisco in 1987, “when he was young enough to call me Professor Hansen.” Hansen said the two became friends and peers. “Subsequently, after Lane held professorships at San Francisco State, the University of Colorado, and the University of Los Angeles, and had turned out many more superb books and articles, he became my mentor, and I became his mentee,” said Hansen, JANM’s former senior historian.

The process of writing an evaluation of Hirabayashi in 2010 permitted Hansen to read “virtually everything that he had written” over his career. “I came to realize that Lane’s most important legacy as a teacher and scholar was that he redeemed in full measure the promissory note floated by the ethnic studies movement to serve not oneself or academia, but rather one’s racial-ethnic community.”

“Lane has had enormous impact as a scholar, teacher, and activist,” said Matsumoto. “He contributed important dimension to our understanding of Japanese American history, particularly illuminating World War II incarceration and postwar resettlement, the redress movement and the growth of Japanese diasporic communities in the Americas.

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