Fresh voice of resistance: An interview with Lane Hirabayashi

In 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012) refused to obey the 8 p.m. curfew for Japanese-Americans established after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After turning himself in to the FBI, Gordon was sentenced to 90 days in prison, and appealed his case all the way up to the Supreme Court, with the help of Quakers and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). 

A Quaker and a pacifist, at 24 Gordon also resisted the mass removal of Japanese-Americans and refused to fill out a special questionnaire given only to Japanese-Americans that would have made him eligible for the draft.

Gordon’s convictions were finally overturned in the 1980s through a “writ of error coram nobis” appeal, and the U.S. government ultimately offered a formal apology for discrimination and a violation of his constitutional rights.

More than 50 years later, Gordon’s brother James together with his son Lane co-authored A Principled Stand: The Story of Gordon Hirabayashi v The United States,  featuring passages from Gordon’s diary and correspondence from the 1940s. Their book was published by the University of Washington Press in 2013.

I spoke with Lane Hirabayashi, a professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at UCLA, about his memories of his uncle Gordon, what he learned while writing this book with his father, and the role of the Japanese internment in the United States' history.

Madeline Schaefer (MS): Tell me about your relationship with your uncle Gordon growing up.

Lane Hirabayashi (LH):  We all really enjoyed the Hirabayashi extended family because my grandparents ran a nursing home for the elderly Issei who came out of camp and didn’t really have anywhere to go because of age or infirmity. It was a rambling old place with a lot of rooms and a huge yard. I actually lived there for a couple years. Then when I was four or five we moved out to the Bay Area. But every summer we’d drive up and reunite with the family at the Hirabayashi Nursing Home, and many times Gordon and his family would come down from Alberta and join us.      

But I didn’t really grow up around Gordon because Edmonton and San Francisco are so far apart. I certainly remember Gordon— later on we had family reunions in the 90s where I reacquainted myself with him—but he always seemed kind of professorial to me. We had very nice conversations but it wasn’t like I knew him really well.

When my father invited me to work on this manuscript with him, I started reading parts of Gordon’s diary from the 1940s, many of his letters. Certainly I’d read the speeches and publications Gordon had written as an adult, but what I came to find was the voice of the 24-year-old was both new to me and very fresh.

I was in my 50s when I starting to work on this with my dad in 2009, I gradually felt I was getting to know the 24-year-old in some depth, and that wasn’t the same person I was seeing as a teenager: i.e., a professor of sociology, a husband, father and established citizen, already an icon in Japanese-American circles. Then, in talking with my cousin Jay, Gordon’s son, and his sisters, I realized that I was becoming familiar with the 24-year-old Gordon and getting insights into his mental world, especially his spiritual life, that I’m not sure that even his children had quite the same access to. 

MS:  Especially someone you’re related to.  Did you know about his case growing up?

LH:  Oh absolutely.  And you know in a lot of Japanese families there are still feelings of trauma or stigma, even today, and people don’t want to talk about it. But the camp was an episode in our extended family’s experience that was openly discussed.  I can’t remember precisely when I found out that Gordon had been imprisoned for resisting but it was no secret.

MS:  Was there any tension between Japanese-American community and your family because of the publicity of Gordon’s case?

LH:  It was a time of great turmoil, great conflict but there was a lot of pressure being put on the Japanese-American community to demonstrate its loyalty. I don’t know about local chapters but I’ve certainly gone into the archives and seen statements by Mike Masaoka, one of the leaders of the JACL [Japanese American Citizens League], denouncing Gordon and Gordon’s case specifically because from the national leadership’s point of view it was just going to cause more trouble, more suspicion, and they didn’t feel that that’s what was needed…Gordon did, obviously. But I think he believed both at a constitutional level and a moral level that his stand was right and the fact that the JACL leadership and even the Supreme Court didn’t agree didn’t faze him. 

I expected to find in the diaries and the letters moments of despair or maybe depression as reality began to sink in, and I didn’t find that.  I was very pleasantly surprised that Gordon had an analysis—he felt his analysis about Fifth Amendment violations was correct—his lawyer was going to argue his initial case that way--and Gordon had confidence and expected that the Supreme Court was going to vindicate him.

But I also think that Gordon’s spiritual side was key too. I have to say that surprised me because I don’t remember Gordon as an overtly spiritual or religious person when I was a teenager and he was in his forties and fifties.  He never quoted the Bible, I never heard him talk about Jesus… that just wasn’t the way he manifested his spirituality.      

And yet in the course of reading the letters and the diaries, I think his spirituality was definitely something that sustained him.

MS:  Reading his diaries, that seems to me to have been one of the main motivators for his resistance. It was beyond the constitution and based on basic human rights.

LH:  I think it was a moral thing for Gordon, and also the visits that he gets from Quaker leadership and the support that folks like Floyd Schmoe–one of the leaders of the AFSC in the Seattle area–provided, really helped sustain him. And yet in terms of the Gordon I knew, I don’t remember any conversations we had that were specifically religious.

MS:  He has such a strong sense of American identity which is interesting given his background in the first-generation/Issei community. Did he feel any push and pull between the two worlds?

LH:  It’s something my father, the third eldest of the five kids, spent a lot of time talking to me about. He pointed out to me that my grandparents were unusual people; they were Christian in Japan before they came and that was fairly unusual.  And they belonged to this Mukyokai, non-church Christianity, that a Japanese Christian, Uchimura Kanzo developed and brought back to Japan.   So my grandparents were literate, they were Christians, they ran a Christian-style household.  But their English was very rudimentary and they were raised and socialized in Japan so their orientation was a kind of synthesis of Western Christian beliefs, rural Japanese roots, both of which were reconfigured in terms of a Japanese immigrant experience.        

Actually, the Japanese Americans in the Thomas area south of Seattle, where my dad grew up, was fairly integrated for the day.  The Hirabayashis carried out their religious pursuits in the context of the larger community which was made up of white folks and Japanese Americans--these Issei/Nisei families with immigrant parents and the American-born kids.  The way my father described it was that these were two separate worlds, linguistically and culturally and yet even in the ‘30s when the kids are growing up, it was a world that also had definite points of articulation.

So in that sense it wasn’t the highly segregated prewar community that sometimes you hear about maybe in San Francisco or other such communities before the war. Because the Thomas schools were not segregated, the Hirabayashi kids interacted with all the other kids in that area, and same on the religious front to a surprising extent— they worshiped together and shared a pretty fundamentalist reading of the Bible—no cards, no popular music, certainly no gambling or drinking.

It was that upstanding, fundamentalist Christian orientation that started to rub Gordon the wrong way in his teenage years and that sent him off looking for alternatives by the time he got to University of Washington.  That’s when he finds Quakers and goes “wow:” in terms of the Mukyokai circle, and the Religious Society of Friends, there were some real parallels.

MS:  There are very similar in the sense that each person has the possibility of direct linkage to the divine. 

LH: And both are non-hierarchical. Members went around in a circle and people could talk about their religious experience, directly, exactly as they felt it.  I don’t think it’s an accident that Gordon encounters the Religious Society of Friends at UW and feels an immediate kinship.

MS:  It also sounds like there might of been something of an activist, social justice aspect of his mother’s religious stance.

LH:  Yeah, according to my father, my grandmother was kind of unusual because she had to act within the norms and practices of the day that foregrounded men in the political sphere as well as in terms of representing the family to the outside world.  Grandma, from what I’ve heard, was quite intelligent, and didn’t necessarily accept the order of things.  She had a strong will.  I think Gordon commented somewhere that in another day and age his mom, Mitsuko, could have been something else than a housewife, like an editor, or maybe even a CEO. 

She apparently resented having to work so hard, to farm, on top of all the prejudice that the Issei faced.  Sure enough, the White River Garden, this property that the Katsuno family and the Hirabayashis managed to put their hands on south of Seattle, was escheated by the state of Washington after the state alien land passed in 1921. So the Hirabayashis had lost everything one time around well before the camps, and so by the time the camps came down, it was really stressful and kind of heartbreaking for Gordon’s folks. It’s funny I use those words because my grandmother had a heart condition and I never met her because she died right after the war. You never know for sure but my father always thought that the stress of being disenfranchised twice was probably more pressure on her already weakened heart than her system could bear.

MS:  Seems as if that might have inspired Gordon’s determination because he’d seen his parents face persecution by the state.

LH:  Yeah, Gordon recounts that he remembers the meetings of the families gathering at the White River Garden to talk about their court case.  They lost everything and my grandfather had to rent back the house that he built with his own hands from the state of Washington in 1922 because they had nowhere to go. And Gordon remembered that.

Just like his inclination towards Quakers, Gordon felt that the court was the appropriate place to take a complaint about injustice and rights and so forth; it was something that the family had done, and so in that sense he had an example to work from. 

MS:  How did the Quakers hear about his case?

LH: The University of Washington networks were tight not only within certain groups like the YMCA, YWCA, and the Religious Society of Friends, but there was also a growing student anti-war movement on the University of Washington campus.  Looking at the names that show up in these networks, there’s total overlap. Gordon is identified in the University of Washington campus newspaper of being one of the leaders in the anti-war movement on campus. And that’s how I think the UW community got a sense of Gordon’s activities because these were reported on in the campus newspapers, these articles naming him as one of the student leaders in the anti-war movement. He’s involved with the Friends, he’s involved with the Y, he’s involved in the anti-war movement, and there was a great deal of overlap in the student membership in these groups.

But I think a real critical person is Senator Mary Farquharson.  She was a Quaker and her husband was on the faculty at the University of Washington.  She’s the one who asks Gordon, “I understand you’re going to protest the curfew and the removal.”  When Gordon acknowledged that yeah, that’s the plan, she said, well, how about if we support you in this. 

MS:  One thing that I thought was really interesting was all the people he met in prison, both conscientious objectors and non-conscientious objectors. Do you have a favorite part of his diaries?

LH:  I do, and one of them is about the unordinary becoming the mundane.  Gordon notes that when he first got to prison and a cockroach ran across his plate, he’d throw the food away.  After a couple of months though he’d just brush the cockroach aside and keep right on eating.  I just thought that was kind of funny because I could imagine even jail life can become routine after a while.  And the thing about the cockroach made me smile because I don’t like cockroaches.

MS:  I thought to myself, wow that’s pretty bad. 

LH:  But it’s just very real and you can see that after a while a cockroach becomes just another part of the daily routine.

The thing that impressed me the most in terms of jail vignettes was the stint at McNeil Island Penitentiary where Gordon comes in and he’s put into this waiting area and they start segregating the prisoners, sending the blacks off to a separate block.  Gordon figures that out and starts to question it. First he brings it up with a guard who gets angry with him.  The guard sends Gordon to the warden; Gordon asks, “well, does this institution practice racial segregation?”  And the warden says “of course not.”  Gordon writes that then he knew he had the warden; Gordon starts saying well there’s this this this this and the warden says, “all right, let me look into this.” And so they start moving some prisoners around in response to Gordon’s challenge so it was no longer a situation of blatant racial segregation. 

That’s when it really struck me that when you have somebody who is a prisoner of conscience, and they’re doing time, I think they do that time differently than someone that’s in there for robbery or an assault.  Gordon was in the joint on a matter of principle.  It just struck me that even in jail Gordon was thinking about doing good, doing right, following his religious principles and his moral beliefs.

MS:  What was it like doing this project with your father?

LH:  I’ve had a forty-year discussion with my dad, who passed away about a year ago, about the Hirabayashi family.  Gordon’s story was something that really interested my father from a biographical and autobiographical point of view.  As we started working on this project in 2009, it was really like revisiting a lot of conversations we’d had over the decades. 

I’m down in L.A., my dad was up in Marin County north of San Francisco, but every summer and every Christmas, when I’d go up there, I’d inevitably go by the house and see how my dad was doing and he’d have a stack of things.  And I’d go over and spend an afternoon and he’d say, hey look at this and, oh I found that and I’d sit for a half hour or hour and read as fast as I could.  And we’d have some lunch or dinner, talk and I’d wind up borrowing files to read.  It was a great experience because we’ve worked on many things over the years and a lot of those have been framed by our work with the National Japanese American Museum here in L.A. but this was really the icing on the cake.

The book, in terms of featuring Gordon’s voice, was really my dad’s idea.  He said after finding Gordon’s personal papers in 2008, bringing them back to the States and culling through them, he felt that there was enough original material in there that no one had seen.  I don’t think anybody realized that those diaries were there. My dad read them and felt right away that there was enough material to really tell Gordon’s story in Gordon’s voice from the perspective of the 24-year-old student.

When he invited me to work on it with him I was really enthusiastic because there’s been a ton of stuff that’s been written about Gordon’s cases, but as I became familiar with the material I think my dad’s vision was really true—we had enough material there to really present something new in the sense of Gordon’s personal feelings and thoughts, written right as Hirabayashi v the United States took shape.

We’d finished a first working draft of the book, University of Washington press had basically accepted it for publication and then my dad’s health really started to decline.  He told me you’ve got to take it from here.   I think after the book was accepted it was probably a year and half and Jim was gone.  

It was tough for me, I’m still struggling with it, but I think once I get over the loss a little better, it hardly could have been any better. I spent a lot of quality time with Jim given that we’re a five or six-hour drive apart and we talked about things that were important to both of us.  I think we did our best to give Gordon his due with this, and I know this was something my dad really wanted to get done. He didn’t get to live to see it, but he knew it was as good as done. 

MS:  The jails and camps remind me of the ways that we still have of locking up people the government considers a threat or nuisance...

LH:  Definitely: Japanese Americans were subject to a penal system and there were different kinds of jails, actually. The first generation Issei, who were swept up right after Pearl Harbor were put in special internment camps run by the U.S. Justice Department.  These internment camps, where Japanese nationals were jailed, were separate from the War Relocation Authority camps that the Nisei, who were U.S. citizens, went in to. But the first generation Issei, almost 2,000, they went to DOJ camps that were much more high security, penal institutions. 

Many of us were horrified after 9/11 because the FBI and other intelligence agencies swept down on the Muslim and Middle Eastern American communities and picked up about 2,000 people, a number of whom were kept in detention without access to lawyers or the ordinary provisions that the Bill of Rights normally guarantees. 

The parallel of the government being able to do whatever it wants during times of national crisis wasn’t lost on the Japanese American community. I was very pleased that even organizations as conservative as the Japanese American Citizens League saw this and stepped up and said “Wait a second: this is eerily familiar and we’ve got to stop and think a second.” Because after the war there was not a single conviction in terms of sabotage or espionage on the part of anyone— Issei, Nisei; not one successfully prosecuted case of sabotage or espionage.  So all those people that got arrested may have seemed suspicious, but they weren’t doing anything, not at a level that would get a conviction.  I’m happy to acknowledge that there was probably some spying and there were definitely some people who sympathized with Japan, whether because they were Japanese nationals or maybe they were fascists; I don’t know.  But no one was blowing up bridges or bombing airports or any of the other stuff that the government thought was a rationale to detain all those people.

MS:  Right. And government officials explicitly said at the time that they didn’t need to detain all those people to remain safe.

LH:  And it was none other than J. Edgar Hoover who made that argument. Hoover was actually not in favor of mass removal and incarceration because he argued, at least before Roosevelt signed the Executive Order, that the FBI had picked everyone up who was suspicious or dangerous in the post-Pearl Harbor raids because they had lists and they knew who they were going after. So Hoover interestingly enough was against the policy of mass incarceration until February 19th 1942 when Roosevelt signed E.O. 9066.

MS: Wow, Roosevelt. So often he’s seen as a hero for Democrats and liberals everywhere.

LH:  He was a great president, a great leader, but not everybody’s perfect and in terms of the Japanese American issue he fell down. But when you step back and a look at his entire presidency, how does that weigh out?  Did he do more good than he did damage?  I think a lot of Japanese Americans can’t forgive him for the damage.  But I consider myself a historian so I’m willing to read Roger Daniels’s new book and rethink how it plays out. 

Racial prejudice and discrimination skewed the actions of many of the branches of the government—the officials in the President’s domain; in terms of Congress; and in terms of the Judiciary—all these officials swear to uphold the Constitution when they take office and all of them fell down. The president was convinced by misguided people in the War Department that this was necessary. Congress ratified and approved E.O. 9066; and then the judiciary didn’t want to review the constitutional issues.  So you can look at Roosevelt and say that’s where the buck stops, but I would have to point out that everyone else went along with it. There’s plenty of blame to go around. When the hostility against Asians generally in the country combined with the war crisis, things got out of hand.

MS:  What do you think that you’ve gotten out of this project the most?

LH: Again for me it was to get to know Gordon more deeply than I’d ever known him in person—getting to know the 24 year old.  Many of the perspectives he had, many of the stands that he decided to take, I found kind of amazing. Amazing in the sense that at 24 I was in graduate school and doing comparatively well intellectually compared to how I was doing in high school.  But I was not by any stretch of the imagination the person that Gordon was, and so a lot of the stands and lot of the things he was thinking…I couldn’t help but ask myself, what was I thinking at 24? I wasn’t thinking what he was thinking. And that gave me a certain understanding and a real respect for him. There was a depth to him that his personal writing revealed that I didn’t get out of the law articles or even from knowing Gordon personally.

And working side by side with my father on this, I had a lot of great conversations with him about the family.  My dad’s gone, so that’s it, but there’s a satisfaction of getting this out.  I really want to share it with people, and I think it contributes something to understanding who Gordon was, but also the context of his time.  Because Gordon didn’t do this alone and that’s a really important part; of a lot of different people contributed to the 1940s case, a lot of people contributed to the coram nobis efforts in the 1980s.  And that’s why the ending is as it is with Gordon saying, “well a lot of people say ‘Gordon this Gordon that’ but this really is a broader case; it’s the people’s case.” I think he is very sincere that this is a broader thing than just his rights and his conscience. Gordon believed in the Constitution but wanted it to work even when there is a crisis or if you happen to be a person of color. That’s in everyone’s interest.