By Stephanie Siek, CNN
(CNN) – Twelve years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided separate was inherently unequal, and five months after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gordon Hirabayashi took a stand that he believed would validate his rights as a citizen of the United States.
The son of Japanese immigrants, Hirabayashi lent his name to a landmark court case that challenged the U.S. government’s policy of treating anyone of Japanese descent as a potential enemy during World War II. Hirabayashi, 93, died January 2 in Edmonton, Alberta, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years, according to his son. Hirabayashi’s former wife, Esther, died hours later at a different medical facility in Edmonton. Hirabayashi was cremated, and a Quaker memorial meeting for worship is scheduled for Friday at the Edmonton Japanese Community Association.
“It’s a sad day, but I think all of us in the family are happy to see the recognition Gordon’s getting,” said his nephew, Lane Hirabayashi, a UCLA anthropologist who is co-authoring a biography of Hirabayashi with his father, Hirabayashi’s brother. “This can also be a time that people reflect on what happened. That’s really important.”
Hirabayashi resisted a government policy that treated people of Japanese descent as second-class citizens with fewer rights. He was a 24-year-old student at University of Washington when he defied an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt that mandated an 8 p.m. curfew for all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. The curfew was a precursor to the roundup of 120,000 Japanese-Americans and legal residents for transportation to internment camps.
Hirabayashi, an American citizen, intentionally violated the curfew and turned himself in to the FBI. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to serve 90 days in a prison camp in Arizona. However, the local government told him that they lacked the money to transport him there from Washington state. Intent on serving his time, Hirabayashi hitchhiked to the facility instead.
He took his 1942 challenge of World War II-era restrictions on Japanese-Americans all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of Hirabayashi v. United States. But in 1943, the court unanimously ruled that military necessity justified imposing an ethnicity-specific curfew. Hirabayashi served time in prison and in a work camp before being granted a pardon in 1947.
It would take until 1986 for a U.S. district judge to rule that Hirabayashi’s conviction was tainted by the U.S. government’s withholding of evidence that would have proved Japanese-Americans were not a threat. It took until 1987 for his curfew conviction to be overturned.
“He certainly instilled in me a strong belief in the values of integrity, and honesty, and justice,” said Jay Hirabayashi, his son. “And sticking up for what you believed in, guiding your life by principles of respect for all kinds of people regardless of race or beliefs or religion, or sexual orientation. He was totally an enlightened man in that way.”
In 1944, he married his girlfriend Esther Schmoe, who was white, shortly before serving a one-year prison term for resisting the military draft. A devout Quaker, Hirabayashi had earlier registered as a conscientious objector, citing his pacifist beliefs. But when the military asked him and other draft-eligible Japanese-American men to sign a discriminatory pledge forswearing allegiance to the Japanese emperor – to whom, as U.S. citizens, they had never had allegiance to in the first place – Hirabayashi refused. His twin daughters were born while he was in jail.
After being released, Hirabayashi went on to earn his Ph. D. in sociology at the University of Washington, and taught at American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo before moving to the University of Alberta in Canada in 1959. He remained there, eventually becoming a department chairman before his retirement in 1983. Much of Hirabayashi’s professional work focused on minorities and their integration as well as social change in the Middle East.
“He was a great lecturer, so whenever I did something wrong, like get in trouble with school – he was a pacifist, so he never used any physical punishment, it was all words,” Jay Hirabayashi said. “He’d lecture me, sometimes for hours. In the beginning I’d be sullen and angry, but after a few hours I’d be in total agreement with him.”
In addition to his son and nephew, Gordon Hirabayashi is survived by his wife, Susan Carnahan, daughters Sharon Yuen and Marion Oldenburg, all from his marriage to Esther, brother James, sister Esther, also known as Tosh Furugori, nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
In telling his story to researcher Peter Irons, in the book “The Courage of their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Fought Their Way to the Supreme Court,” Hirabayashi said the 1980s re-trials were a form of vindication.
“When my case was before the Supreme Court in 1943, I fully expected that as a citizen the Constitution would protect me,” Hirabayashi said. “Surprisingly, even though I lost, I did not abandon my beliefs and values. And I never look at my case as just my own, or just as a Japanese American case. It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental human rights of all Americans.”
Thank you Gordon Hirabayashi! Without you, there would never have been an public apology and restitution to those who were wrongfully relocated during WWII (INCLUDING MY MOM!!) just for being of Japanese descent!
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