Gordon was hot, sweaty, and impatient. He didn’t mind helping out in his family’s fields. He’d being doing that since he was five. The coolness of the packing shed would be better than the heat and glaring sun But, he was late for a Boy Scout event. As a patrol leader, he was expected to be on time. His buddies counted on him.
Gordon threw the last heads of lettuce into the wagon, ripping off the outer leaves. His father, Shungo, was insistent on the quality of his produce. His business reputation had been built on quality and integrity. His White River Garden partners and the Japanese community called him “baka sojiki” or “stupidly honest.” Gordon was have him as a model. Although there were tensions between him and his parents over Japanese and American ways, Gordon had found the value of integrity a bridge between the two. He was proud to be Japanese, but was sensitive to the seeming second-class citizenship of his community. When he repeated the Boy Scout oath or promise, he was proud to be an American and saw the importance of being seen as one.
Gordon Hirabayashi’s parents had been born in the same farming region of Japan. His father had come to the United States in 1907 when he turned 19. His mother, Mitsuko, had come seven years later, Shungo’s intended bride. At 19, she, like his father, had converted to Christianity while taking English classes prior to coming to the Seattle area. They settled near Auburn, Washington, and joined with several other families to form a farming cooperative and start a family. Gordon was born in 1918 and grew strong on the farm with a love for the outdoors. He and his siblings were influenced by the pacifism and the unity of faith and works of their religious community. While church rituals were not emphasized, the Bible was read daily and habits such as drinking, smoking, and gambling were strongly discouraged. Youth from most of the churches came together for activities and schools were integrated. At home, there was much discussion. Shungo was quiet but solid in his beliefs. Mitsuko was warm, articulate, sometimes a bit feisty, and active in the community. She encouraged her children to think through problems and stand up for their beliefs.
When Gordon was about seven, his family’s cooperative farm lands had been taken by the state government. The families had been accused of falsely putting the land title in the name of one of the children, a U.S. born citizen. None of the parents could own land because of the Alien Land Law of 1921. They fought in court but lost and had to rent the land from the government in order to stay there. Still, the parents remained patriotic and continued to work hard. This injustice, however, weighed on Gordon as he became a teenager.
Gordon graduated from high school in Auburn and enrolled at the University of Washington (UWA). He lived in a YMCA dorm and met and became friends with African American, Jewish, and international students. He was a good student, loved debating, and developed leadership skills. The college YMCA sent him to a national conference in New York City, where his ideas on pacifism broadened, he became more politically aware, and he felt no one was looking at his ethnicity.. Returning to Seattle, he and a friend discovered the University Friends Meeting. The silent worship gave him space to reflect. The social action and pacifism spoke to him. The members and attenders welcomed him and listened to his thoughts. He joined them in protesting the growing calls for U.S. involvement in the war especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He applied for conscientious objector status and received it.
When Executive Order 9066 was issued in February, 1942 for relocation of all Japanese in the West Coast region and a curfew was set a month later, Gordon was sure that he and others who were citizens would be protected by the Constitution. Almost 3/4 of those affected were U.S. citizens. He quit school and worked with the AFSC, helping his family and others pack their goods, safeguard or sell their assets, and travel to the mandated detention centers. At first he followed the curfew, but after a week of clockwatching and reminders, he refused. “Am I not an American” he declared and went about his life as usual. Though his mother tried to convince him to come with them to be relocated, he refused and reminded her that she had always taught him to stand up for his beliefs. These government actions were wrong.
He continued to work for the AFSC in Seattle and then Spokane. Accompanied by a Quaker lawyer, supported by his Friends meeting, and armed with a four page statement of his reasons for refusing to obey the curfew and report for relocation, he went to the FBI Office. He was arrested for violating the curfew and jailed. He refused to pay bail, sure he had done no wrong. He was tried and sentenced to 60 days by a judge who instructed the jury to find him guilty. His lawyers appealed all the way to the Supreme Court on the basis that the curfew and the relocation order were racially based. In 1943, the court, based on information from the Justice Dept. that the Japanese were dangerous and a threat to national security, ruled against him.
Gordon did not want to serve his sentence in a jail cell so asked that the sentence be changed to 90 days, making him eligible to serve at a work camp. The judge agreed. The authorities had no money for transportation to the camp in Arizona. He refused to use his own money, so he hitchhiked. He went by to see his parents at their incarceration site and a journalist friend in Salt Lake City. When he arrived at the Catalina Federal Honor Camp near Tucson, his papers could not be found. He was told to cool off at a movie, get something to eat, and return in the evening. He followed these suggestions, returned to find the papers had been found, and started his sentence. There he helped build roads, met other COs and people he’d not have met otherwise, and returned to Spokane after his 90 days. He was stronger from the physical work and more convinced from the many discussions in the camp that he was right.
Back in the Northwest, he courted and in 1944 married Esther Schmoe, daughter of Floyd Schmoe, one of his Quaker supporters. He was called to report for military induction but refused to report or to fill out the Selective Service Form 304A; he considered it a “loyalty oath” aimed primarily at Japanese. He was sentenced to a year at the McNeil Island Penitentiary in Puget Sound. While he was there, his twin daughters were born and a year and a half later a son. When he was released, he went back to school, finished his B.A. degree, and got two graduate degrees in sociology. With no jobs available in the U.S., the family moved first to Beirut, Lebanon and then to Cairo, Egypt where he taught. When they returned to the U.S., Gordon was offered a position at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where he taught and was a member of the local Friends Meeting until his death in 2012. Esther taught high school and then served as a counselor at Alberta College. In 1970, they divorced. Both continued their activities in Alberta. In his last years, Gordon, who had married a woman from the Edmonton Meeting in 1984, Susan Carnahan, suffered from dementia. When he died on January 2, 2012, his death was followed by Esther’s some ten hours later. His son Jay described him as a quiet, principled man, a thoughtful conversationalist, and a loving father.
If that were the end of Gordon Hirabayashi’s story, it would have been a good one but incomplete. Gordon was disappointed when the Supreme Court ruled against his appeal in 1943. He continued to believe in the U.S. Constitution and hoped for exoneration in the future. When in 1981 Peter Irons, a professor and author was researching for a book, he and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga found the original draft of a report by General John L. DeWitt on the dangers of Japanese Americans and noted differences between it and the final report. Subsequent research found specific evidence that the Justice Department memo to the Supreme Court justices at the time of the 1943 trial had given erroneous information about relocation being the only alternative to protecting the U.S. from potential harm from Japanese living along the West Coast. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover and others in government stated specifically that there was no such threat. In reality, no Japanese American, citizen or not, was ever tried for a direct action against the U.S. mainland. Armed with this information and having recruited several Japanese American lawyers, Peter Irons and a legal team submitted a writ of error coram nobis entitled “Gordon Hirabayashi vs. U.S.” The Court ruled in Gordon’s favor, his convictions on both violation of the curfew and failure to report for relocation were vacated on September 24, 1988, just after the August 10, 1988 passage of the Civil Liberties Act. The Act awarded reparations of $20,000 for each internee still alive.
Gordon stated clearly how he felt. “Why did I cling to the constitutional values in spite of the wartime injustices? It wasn’t the Constitution that failed me. It was those entrusted to uphold it who failed me.” President Reagan publicly apologized to the Japanese American population. In 2012, shortly after Gordon’s death, President Barack Obama presented a Congressional Medal of Honor to his family.
Questions to ask:
- How do you resolve tensions when your friends and you have a conflict of values? your parents and you? your teachers and you?
- What does “speaking your truth” mean to you? If it always possible?
- Shungo Hirabayashi was called “stupidly honest.” Christopher Fox, George Fox’s father, was called “Righteous Christer.” What do you think these names mean? We often hear the story of Abraham Lincoln’s walking miles to return a few pennies to a customer he’d overcharged and call him, “Honest Abe.” Can you tell a story of someone who has shown so much integrity that the person gets a similar nickname.
- Was $20,000 to each living internee a large enough reparation payment? Why or why not?
- How would you compare and contrast the incarceration of JA children in WWII camps with that of immigrant children in border camps in 2019?
Books to read:
- A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi V. United States by Gordon K. Hirabayashi with James A. and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi.
- The Bracelet by Yoshiko Uchida
- Journey to Topaz by Yoshiko Uchida
- A Child in Prison Camp by Shizuye Takashima