A young Gordon HIrabayashi.
A young Gordon Hirabayashi.

UPDATE: The May 30 event as previously mentioned in this article has been postponed to July 2. This will be a festive event on Thursday, July 2, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Impact Hub (220 2nd Ave South) planned to coincide with the Pioneer Square First Thursday art walk and will feature a talk by artist Roger Shimomura and full scale design sketches of the various education and art installations, including commemorative pavers.

I’ve heard it said that “heroism is something done by ordinary people responding to extraordinary things” which rightly defines the lasting and timely legacy of Gordon Hirabayashi, a true American hero.

Born in Seattle on April 23, 1918, Hirabayashi’s life was not unlike that of many ordinary Americans, growing up on a rural farm in Auburn’s White River Valley, graduating from Auburn High School and becoming a student at the University of Washington.

December 7, 1941 was an extraordinary day that forever changed his life. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and months later, Hirabayashi and his family became among the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were stripped of their constitutional rights and liberties, forcibly exiled and incarcerated from the west coast during World War II.

Despite this shameful exclusion and incarceration by our government, powerful and evocative stories emerged of selfless contributions by ordinary Japanese Americans—many giving the ultimate sacrifice—doing extraordinary things to prove their honor, loyalty, and love for America.

Some tirelessly labored on farms saving valuable crops to feed a hungry nation, while others bravely fought in the European and Pacific Theaters in the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team/100th Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service.

Gordon Hirabayashi courageously chose an extraordinarily different—and very controversial—path to prove his loyalty and patriotism.

To protest the loss of constitutionally protected rights, freedoms and liberties resulting from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Hirabayashi, now a senior at the University of Washington, deliberately stayed out past the federally imposed curfew, turned himself in to local police and demanded that he be arrested. The police officers knew him and told him to go home, but Hirabayashi persisted and was eventually arrested by the FBI, tried and found guilty of violating the curfew.

Hirabayashi spent nearly two years in different prisons while appealing his curfew verdict, first serving nine months in the King County jail and then sentenced to serve time in Arizona. However, the government did not provide Hirabayashi any money or transportation to Arizona, and refusing to pay out of his own pocket to go to prison, he decided to hitchhike.

Eventually in 1943, his case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court that unanimously ruled against him.

Hirabayashi’s principled stand was both unusual and lonely. Hardly anyone stood up for civil rights in the 1940s like they did in the 1960s, and most people in the Japanese American community—let alone the nation at large—disagreed with his views as being unpatriotic and criticized him for making things harder by “rocking the boat.”

Forty years after his Supreme Court verdict, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned Hirabayashi’s conviction. Blockbuster evidence was uncovered that the federal government deliberately withheld important military documents from his Supreme Court case, disclosing that racial reasons and not military necessity were used to justify the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans.

About this same time, a bi-partisan federal commission released an exhaustive report that unanimously concluded that exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was not caused by concerns over national security or military necessity, but that it “was caused by fear, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

After the war, Hirabayashi earned his masters and doctorial degrees in sociology from the University of Washington, enjoyed a successful academic career and received many awards including our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Hirabayashi died on January 2, 2012. To ensure that his extraordinary story lives on and inspires generations to come, the permanent Legacy of Justice installations of public art and interpretive elements will be the cornerstone of Hirabayashi Place, InterIm CDA’s affordable housing project under construction at 4th and Main that will be completed by the end of the year, becoming a high-visibility gateway location for Nihonmachi, Seattle’s historic Japantown.

The Legacy of Justice at Hirabayashi Place will be Seattle’s first permanent outdoor memorial dedicated to the history of the Japanese American community and commemorating the injustices committed during and after World War II.

The memorial will serve as a timeless beacon of hope for current and future generations to both learn from and vow to never repeat the painful lessons of the past, and that in our current climate of deplorable religious intolerance, irrational fears, racial bias, and sexual prejudice to be inspired to protect everyone’s basic constitutional rights, liberties, and pursuit of happiness.

To embody and honor Hirabayashi’s legacy and the Japanese American experience, the Legacy of Justice exterior features permanent educational and artistic elements that include:

  • Street-front columns with back lighted historic photos, images and informative plaques
  • Sidewalk-level pavers at the base of the building inscribed with inspirational quotations from Gordon Hirabayashi
  • Entry area featuring a dramatic 10’ tall x 8’ wide mural by Roger Shimomura depicting Hirabayashi’s life, along with a plaque engraved with the poem “Man From White River” by Larry Matsuda that can be seen by all who pass by

The interior elements of the Legacy of Justice includes interpretive historical exhibits to explore the issues and themes of Gordon Hirabayashi, as well as interactively encouraging everyone to “Stand Up for Justice” by folding origami cranes and bowties, upon which they will be asked to write a wish or promise for social justice, which will all be combined into a large “Stand Up for Justice” mobile that will hang in the lobby.

Funding is still needed to complete the Legacy of Justice project and the cost of installation.

There will be a festive event on Thursday, July 2, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Impact Hub (220 2nd Ave South) planned to coincide with the Pioneer Square First Thursday art walk and will feature a talk by artist Roger Shimomura and full scale design sketches of the various education and art installations, including commemorative pavers.

“I never looked at my case as my own, or just as a Japanese American case,” Hirabayashi said in reference to his overturned conviction. “It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental human rights of all Americans.”

Previous articleColumn: Uncle Thoi’s story—Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Family
Next articleCity University of Hong Kong announces closure of MFA writing program, authors protest decision