Gordon Hirabayashi dies at 93; opposed internment of Japanese Americans

Gordon Hirabayashi, who was convicted for defying the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II and, four decades later, not only cleared his name but helped prove that the government had falsified the reasons for the mass incarceration, has died. He was 93.

Hirabayashi, who had Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments, died Monday in Edmonton, Alberta, where he had lived for many years, said his son, Jay.

The elder Hirabayashi was one of only three Japanese Americans who refused to comply with Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942. The order gave military authorities the power to restrict the freedom of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor two months earlier.

Opposing his family’s wishes and incurring criticism from other Japanese Americans for “rocking the boat,” Hirabayashi resisted the order and was arrested and convicted in 1942 for violating a curfew and refusing to enter a relocation camp. He spent more than two years in several prisons and took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1943 ruled against him and upheld the government’s argument that the restrictions were a military necessity.

He never portrayed himself as a hero, his son said. Nor did he view himself as a radical. “I was not one of those angry young rebels, looking for a cause. I was one of those trying to make some sense of this, trying to come up with an explanation,” he told the Associated Press in 2000.

It took more than 40 years to reopen his case, but Hirabayashi eventually savored victory.

“What Gordon should be most remembered for is taking a stand on a matter of principle at a time when hardly anyone — not only within the Japanese American community but the nation at large — sided with him or sympathized with him,” said Peter H. Irons, a retired UC San Diego political scientist whose research in the 1980s helped lay the legal foundation for the overturning of the convictions. “It wasn’t at all like the civil rights movement where thousands of people engaged in demonstrations and civil disobedience. It was a very lonely stand.”

Hirabayashi was the last surviving member of the trio of men who were convicted of violating the federal order. The other two were Minoru Yasui, who died in 1986, and Fred Korematsu, who died in 2005. Hirabayashi was also the only one of the three to receive a full trial when the cases were reopened in the 1980s.

Born in Seattle on April 23, 1918, Hirabayashi was the son of an immigrant truck farmer who arrived from Japan in 1907. His father, a pacifist who converted to Christianity in Japan in a sect influenced by the Quakers, instilled in him the importance of standing up for his beliefs.

He was a senior at the University of Washington in 1942 when the curfew and evacuation orders were imposed. At first he obeyed the 8 p.m. curfew. But one night, as he left his Caucasian classmates at the library to hurry back to his dorm, the injustice of the restrictions suddenly hit him. That realization deepened when the evacuation was announced. He opposed it on the grounds that it violated the 5th Amendment, which prohibits the seizure of property and rights without due process of law.

After his conviction, he hitchhiked to one of the prisons, in Arizona, when the government said it could not afford to transport him there, his son said. In 1999, the area once occupied by the prison in Arizona’s Catalina Mountains was named the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.

After the war, Hirabayashi returned to the University of Washington, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology. He taught at American University in Cairo for a few years before moving to Canada in 1960 to join the University of Alberta faculty. He chaired its sociology department for seven years and retired in 1983.

By then Irons, who was a lawyer as well as a professor, had launched a campaign to press for rehearings of the cases against Hirabayashi, Korematsu and Yasui. The latter two men were cleared in separate court actions in 1983 and 1984.

In 1986 Judge Donald G. Voorhees of the U.S. district court in Seattle ruled that the government had withheld from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 critical information that might have led the high court to strike down the legal foundations of the internment. Specifically, he found that the government suppressed a report by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, who was in charge of the internment, stating that racial reasons made it impossible for military authorities to determine who was loyal and disloyal. In finding federal misconduct, Voorhees invalidated Hirabayashi’s 1942 conviction.

In the wake of Voorhees’ ruling, Congress approved legislation providing $1.2 billion in reparations to Japanese American internees.

“As fine a document as the Constitution is,” Hirabayashi told The Times on the eve of his legal victory, “it is nothing but a scrap of paper if citizens are not willing to defend it.”

In addition to his son, Jay, he is survived by his wife, Susan Carnahan; two daughters, Marion Oldenburg and Sharon Yuen; a sister, Esther Furugori; a brother, James; nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He was divorced from his first wife, Esther, who died several hours after Hirabayashi’s death.