Book adds valuable context to painful chapter in Japanese-American history

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 22, 2013 

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court case known as Hirabayashi v. United States, in which the Court affirmed unanimously that American citizen Gordon Hirabayashi was guilty of defying curfew and exclusion orders that targeted people of Japanese heritage. Forty-four years later, the Supreme Court would vacate that conviction.

"A Principled Stand," recently published by University of Washington Press, traces Hirabayashi's tortuous story.

Born into a hard-working farming family in Auburn, and raised as a Christian and a Boy Scout, Hirabayashi had been an enthusiastic student of civics at Auburn High School.

In 1937 he enrolled at the University of Washington and he was working his way through school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Less than three months later, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

Hirabayashi, by then a Quaker, felt that the order was unconstitutional. It mandated that "all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien" were to be evacuated from their West Coast homes and confined in remote internment camps in the American desert interior.

But Hirabayashi pointed out that non-aliens of Japanese ancestry were in fact American citizens. He protested that this order was discriminatory and unjust, and he put his own liberty on the line in refusing to comply.

"A Principled Stand" draws on Hirabayashi's extensive prison journals and letters to tell, in his own words, what it was like to live in accordance with his pacifist and civic ideals in the days, months, and years following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The immediate consequence was confinement in the county jail - and even behind bars, Hirabayashi found opportunities to study and learn new perspectives, marveling that "Anything under the sun is discussed in this place."

He had numerous visitors (the sheriff declared that "This boy has more friends than anybody I ever saw"), including several ministers and lifelong peace activist Floyd Schmoe.

Hirabayashi even had time for courtship: one of Schmoe's daughters, Esther, later became his wife.

"A Principled Stand" offers remarkable glimpses into a dubious chapter in American history, and the curious justifications and distortions of law that were undertaken by the government during wartime.

One example: When Hirabayashi was scheduled to serve his sentence at a prison work camp in Arizona, but the government didn't have funds to send him there due to wartime exigencies, Hirabayashi volunteered to hitchhike, and his offer was accepted!

This memoir includes wonderful family photographs and archival documents that take readers from Hirabayashi's childhood through his eventual vindication at the Supreme Court in 1987. A graphic timeline would have been a helpful addition in telling the story of this remarkable man.

Ultimately, Hirabayashi became a world citizen, earning his doctorate in sociology and teaching in the Middle East before settling in Canada, where he died just last year.

"A Principled Stand," edited with the assistance of Gordon's brother James A. Hirabayashi and nephew Lane Ryo Hirabayashi (both professors of Asian American Studies), provides valuable lessons in adhering to one's conscience.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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