The name of Gordon Hirabayashi is familiar to those informed about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. By challenging the government orders put into place by President Franklin Roosevelt to put all West Coast Japanese camps, Hirabayashi landed in the history books because his case was carried all the way to the Supreme Court. Though it was ultimately decided on the narrow grounds of a curfew violation, Hirabayashi v. United States became a test and symbol of the government’s rights to violate the constitution in wartime, in this case, incarcerating a group on the grounds of racial and ethnic descent. His stand as a resister gave him the status of a hero to fellow Japanese Americans and ultimately to the American public.
Most of the existing literature on Hirabayashi concerns his case and the legal aspects of his struggles. Now, in A Principled Stand, his younger brother James and nephew Lane put the focus on him as a person by combing through his personal papers and selecting writings that reveal the flesh and blood being who lived through the experience.
“We Nisei are a peculiar people. We adapted to two Americas, coping with and minimizing one in order to preserve the other, to which we had subscribed wholeheartedly,” he says and so, early on, Hirabayashi acknowledges the difficult position that Nisei were cast into because of the war with Japan. Moreover, he was raised in a Christian family that took Christian values very seriously, so he was confronted by multiple value systems.
Out of this mix of conflicts, Hirabayashi determined that the values embodied in the American constitution were the ones that were basic to his thinking. And out of such convictions came his decision to fight against the illegal roundup and detention of the Japanese American West Coast population. His was a truly principled stand, and he took his rights as a citizen and his pacifist ideas with him throughout his life.
This volume is not meant to be a definitive summation of Hirabayashi’s life, but it provides much insight into his thinking, his beliefs and his experiences throughout his ordeals, including jail time. Although he became an academic in later life, his attitude and firm beliefs served him well through thick and thin, the ups and downs that might have brought down a weaker man.
That he survived, prospered, and lived to see his conviction vacated must have been a huge satisfaction for him, validating all that he had done and faced because of who he was. There is much that is enlightening, engrossing in these stories and thoughts selected from his diaries and journals. His humanity comes through in these pages illustrated by his interactions with his jailers, his fellow inmates. Always thoughtful and helpful, cerebral though he may have been, he’s also a pretty warm person and as an example, he is a true hero.
A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi V. United States
Gordon K. Hirabayashi with James A. Hirabayashi and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi
217 pp., University of Washington Press, 2013