Gordon Hirabayashi’s civil disobedience during World War II elevated him to a prominent place in American civil rights history and earned him posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Hirabayashi’s resistance to what he believed were unconstitutional, racially written and motivated laws establishing curfew and later exclusion for Japanese Americans during World War II was rooted in his family upbringing, his pacifist religious ideals and his education at the University of Washington and at a summer YMCA leadership workshop at Columbia University.
Gordon’s parents, Shungo and Mitsuko Hirabayashi, both came from a farming community in Nagano prefecture in Japan. Gordon’s father, Shungo, immigrated to the United States in 1907 with seven classmates, some from his extended family. Seven years later, Shungo was paired with Mitsuko in an arranged marriage. She joined him in the United States in 1914, and in 1915 they had their first son, who died at young age. Gordon was born three years later on April 23, 1918, in Sandpoint, Washington and would be the Hirabayashi’s oldest living son.
Both of Gordon’s parents studied at the Kenshi Gijuku academy in Japan to learn English before coming to the United States, and it was there that both converted to Christianity. Rather than joining a denominational church, they became followers of Kanzo Uchimura, who founded the Mukyokai movement in Japan. Uchimura had studied theology at a Boston seminary. He believed that Christianity would fit better into Japanese lives without the formal rituals practiced by Western churches. The Mukyokai movement that he inspired was dedicated to pacifism and a goal of the “oneness” in belief and behavior. Gordon Hirabayashi credited his parents and their religious beliefs with inspiring him to live his life based on his conscience.
Hirabayashi’s parents purchased land with three other families through a white intermediary and the formation of the White River Garden Corporation, because the Washington State legislature had adopted an alien land law as a part of its 1889 state constitution. In 1921, Washington strengthened its law, adding measures making it illegal for aliens ineligible for citizenship to hold major shares in a corporation holding property or to hold any major interest in agricultural lands. Even though Shoichiro Katsuno, primary stockholder in the White River Garden, transferred his 1,997 shares of stock (the vast majority of the shares for the company) to his Nisei daughter, Yoshiko, the corporation lost its case before the Washington State Supreme Court. The farmland was escheated to the state, but the families were allowed to rent the property back from the state and remain on their land. This experience taught Hirabayashi’s parents that even the rights of U.S.-born citizen children could be limited in the state’s attempt to limit the rights of Japanese immigrants in the United States.
Hirabayashi left home after finishing high school and enrolled at the University of Washington, where he became active in the YMCA. He earned a fellowship to attend a leadership conference at Columbia University in the summer of 1940, where he became aware of both isolationist and pacifist arguments against United States involvement in the growing conflicts in Europe and the Pacific. When he returned to Seattle, he registered with the Selective Service as a conscientious objector and joined the Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Nikkei living on the West Coast became subject to a growing list of restrictions on their freedoms. Still Hirabayashi was confident that as a citizen, his rights would be protected. When it became clear that Executive Order 9066 would allow the military to exclude all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, Hirabayashi quit school and volunteered with the American Friends Service Committee to assist families arrange for storage of their belongings prior to their incarceration.
Even though Hirabayashi was initially confident that his citizenship rights would be protected even during wartime, he realized quickly that this was not going to be the case. When confronted with an order to comply with a law that conflicted so clearly with his understanding of the Constitution, he decided that he must resist. First, he refused to follow curfew, and went about his business in a normal fashion, living and moving about freely as a law-abiding citizen. When it came time to register for “relocation,” he instead turned himself in to the FBI with the intention of creating a test case of the government’s right to incarcerate Japanese Americans without due process of law. He was represented by Arthur Barnett, and was supported by a defense fund organized by Mary Farquharson, lawyer for the University District of the ACLU and politician. Law partners Arthur Barnett and John Geisness later transferred the case to Frank L. Walters, believing that Walters’ membership in the American Legion and his strong record of “Americanism” might dissuade the judge from dismissing the case as a leftist attempt to undermine America’s war effort. Also supportive of Hirabayashi’s case was Floyd Schmoe of the American Friends Service Committee, and Norman Thomas of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Upon Hirabayashi’s arrest, FBI agents discovered his diary that contained entries in which he discussed his decision not to obey curfew. Based on this evidence and his stated intention of refusing the exclusion order, Hirabayashi was indicted on May 28, 1942 for violating Public Law No. 505, which made violating Civilian Exclusion Order No. 57 and curfew a federal crime. Hirabayashi was arraigned on June 1, 1942, at which time he entered a plea of “not guilty” on the basis that both the exclusion law and curfew were racially prejudiced and unconstitutional.
Hirabayashi assumed that he might lose his case initially, and he did. When Hirabayashi received his sentence, he requested that he be sentenced to serve out his term in a road camp. Judge Black informed him that in order to qualify for a road camp, his sentence would have to be increased from 60 days to 90 days. Hirabayashi agreed, and Judge Black sentenced him to 90 days at the Dupont road camp outside Tacoma, Washington, to run concurrently for both convictions—for violating curfew and for refusing to comply with exclusion orders.
When Hirabayashi’s team of lawyers appealed his case to the Supreme Court, it was the concurrent sentence that allowed the court to choose only one of his convictions for consideration. Instead of ruling on the issue of the constitutionality of exclusion as Hirabayashi had hoped, the court only considered his conviction for disobeying curfew. Even though Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy had originally intended to dissent, he joined the rest of the court in a unanimous ruling in Hirabayashi v. United States, (320 U.S. 81) upholding Hirabayashi’s conviction on June 21, 1943.
Hirabayashi was living in Spokane, Washington, working for the American Friends Service Committee when two FBI agents picked him up and delivered him to District Attorney Edward Connelly’s office to begin his ninety-day sentence. D.A. Connelly informed Hirabayashi that because Dupont was located inside the exclusion zone, he would have to serve his sentence out in the Spokane County Jail. Distraught at the possibility of serving more time in such confinement, Hirabayashi asked if there was not another road camp he could be assigned to as he had accepted an extra long sentence with the understanding he would be allowed to serve his sentence outside. When the D.A. mentioned that the government could not provide transportation to the nearest road camp, the Tucson Federal Prison, otherwise known as the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, Hirabayashi suggested that he could get himself there. D.A. Connelly agreed, and Hirabayashi set off on his next big adventure. He hitchhiked over the next several weeks from Spokane, through Weiser, Idaho, to visit his parents, through Salt Lake City, Utah, where he visited Pacific Citizen editor Larry Tajiri, and on down to Tucson, Arizona, where he had to convince officials he had a legitimate order to be accepted into the prison.
In Tucson, Hirabayashi became acquainted with a number of other wartime federal prisoners: Hopi draft resisters, Jehovah’s Witnesses, conscientious objectors who refused alternative service in a CPS (Civilian Public Service) camp, along with ordinary non-violent federal offenders, such as immigration violators, bank robbers, and individuals convicted of selling liquor to Native Americans. Hirabayashi called his time in Tucson “truly inspiring,” and he committed to become even more resolved to live by his Christian pacifist values and uphold the Constitution in all of his actions.
Hirabayashi faced another challenge while living in Spokane, Washington, after his release from Tucson Federal Prison. He received what has become known popularly as the “loyalty” questionnaire, or Selective Service Form 304A, “The Statement of United States Citizens of Japanese Ancestry” from his local draft board. Based on his previous decision to disobey curfew and the exclusion order, Hirabayashi refused to comply with the draft board and returned the blank form along with a letter, which explained that the title of the form indicates that only Japanese Americans are required to answer additional questions in the Selective Service process, and since this was a requirement that singled out Japanese Americans on the basis of race alone, he could not comply. After getting authorization from the War Department, the local draft office ignored Hirabayashi’s refusal and proceeded to instruct him to appear for his pre-induction physical. Even though he refused to appear, he was instructed further to appear for induction in a CPS camp based on his status as a conscientious objector. He refused induction. When charged with Selective Service violations, Hirabayashi decided to represent himself in court, earning himself a relatively short one year sentence at McNeil Island Penitentiary.
After the War
After the war, Hirabayashi continued his education at the University of Washington, earning his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in sociology. He taught initially in Beirut, Lebanon, and Cairo, Egypt. In 1959 he joined the faculty at the University of Alberta where he served as the chair of sociology from 1970 to 1975, and retired in 1983.
Shortly after retirement, Hirabayashi received a call from Peter Irons inviting Hirabayashi to allow a team of lawyers to re-open his wartime conviction on the basis of governmental misconduct. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hirabayashi’s coram nobiscase, vacating his personal conviction in 1987.
In 1999, the Coronado National Forest renamed the site where the Tucson Federal Prison once stood in honor of Gordon Hirabayashi. In 2002, the Forest unveiled an interpretive kiosk at the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site telling the history of Japanese Americans during World War II, of Gordon Hirabayashi’s resistance and Supreme Court case, and of the forty-one Nisei draft resisters who also served time in the prison a year after Hirabayashi. Hirabayashi died on January 2, 2012, at 93 years of age. In May of the same year (2012) he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, the highest civilian honor awarded.
This text about Gordon Hirabayashi is from Densho, authored by Cherstin M. Lyon, California State University, San Bernardino.