Gordon Hirabayashi: Why I refused to register for Japanese evacuation

During WWII, Hirabayashi refused to obey curfew or evacuate to a Japanese internment camp. Before his death, he and his family compiled his memoirs in a new book.
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A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States

During WWII, Hirabayashi refused to obey curfew or evacuate to a Japanese internment camp. Before his death, he and his family compiled his memoirs in a new book.

Editor's Note: Gordon K. Hirabayashi was a student at University of Washington when the U.S. ordered the removal of Japanese-Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Hirabayashi refused curfew orders, prompting a legal battle. He lost. It wasn't until the 1980s that Hirabayshi's convictions were overturned, putting him firmly in the right on his initial refusal.

After his death in 2012, Hirabayashi’s brother, James Hirabayashi and nephew, Lane Hirabyashi, compiled his diaries and correspondence which follow his experiences as a student through time served in jail for defying U.S. orders. The book gives insight into Hayabayashi's motivations and faith during his time in jail.

“A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States" chronicling the life Gordon K. Hirabayashi was released by the University of Washington Press this month. Below is an excerpt which contains Hirabayashi’s formal refusal to comply with orders. He disseminated the refusal to chairmen of the YMCA board where he was a dorm resident:

When my family was eventually moved from Pinedale to the more permanent War Relocation Authority [WRA] camp known as Tule Lake in Northern California, two women who had been uprooted from the Los Angeles area trudged the dusty road from the opposite end of the camp looking for my mother. When they finally located her, they said they had heard that the mother of the fellow in jail fighting for their rights was housed in that block. They had come to greet her and to say “Thank you!”

In recounting this episode, my mother wrote about what a great lift she had received from that visit. When I read her letter, I experienced a sudden removal of weight from my shoulders, which I hadn’t realized I was carrying. I knew then that nothing I could have said or done could have given her more satisfaction.

In any case, as I prepared to take my stand in Seattle, I heard about Min [Minoru] Yasui in Portland and his refusal to obey the curfew because his case was already going on. As far as the Japanese American community was concerned, in terms of the norms of the 1940s, protesting was not a frontline activity, not even a backline option. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was the big thing in the Japanese community. I knew the leaders, men like Jimmy Sakamoto and Bill Hosokawa. They were working on opposite things from what I was doing, so I never consulted them.

Had Japanese American leaders known of my position while they were still in Seattle, they would have confronted me and said, “You are not even dry behind the ears. How can you take such a step that will create difficulties for the whole group? How do you know there won’t be a backlash? How do you know you are right and the rest of us are wrong?” I would have had difficulty answering their questions.

But I would have had questions for them also. How could they defend America and the Constitution by acceding to a decision made by military authorities to suspend constitutional guarantees, especially when there had been no suspension of the Constitution via martial law? In the end, I would not have changed their views, and they would not have changed mine. By personality, though, while I had independent positions on various things, I was never what you might call the kind of person who habitually protested.

As I followed the press after the U.S. entered the war, the writing was on the wall. The first part of the evacuation process began with the Bainbridge Islanders, who, because of their proximity to naval installations, were moved in March 1942. The last district in Seattle to be evacuated was the northeast section, including the University District, where I was living. The deadline was May 12, 1942. By the end of March, the Bainbridge Island Japanese Americans were gone. At that point, I knew that I wasn’t going. I sat down and wrote a statement:

Why I Refuse to Register for Evacuation

Over and above any man-made creed or law is the natural law of life — the right of human individuals to live and to creatively express themselves. No man was born with the right to limit that law. Nor, do I believe, can anyone justifiably work himself to such a position. 

Down through the ages, we have had various individuals doing their bit to establish more securely these fundamental rights. They have tried to help society see the necessity of understanding those fundamental laws; some have succeeded to the extent of having these natural laws recorded. Many have suffered unnatural deaths as a result of their convictions. Yet, today, because of the efforts of some of these individuals, we have recorded in the laws of our nation certain rights for all men and certain additional rights for citizens. These fundamental moral rights and civil liberties are included in the Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution and other legal records. They guarantee that these fundamental rights shall not be denied without due process of law.

The principles or the ideals are the things which give value to a person’s life. They are the qualities which give impetus and purpose toward meaningful experiences. The violation of human personality is the violation of the most sacred thing which man owns. 

This order for the mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese descent denies them the right to live. It forces thousands of energetic, law-abiding individuals to exist in a miserable psychological and a horrible physical atmosphere. This order limits to almost the full extent the creative expressions of those subjected. It kills the desire for a higher life. Hope for the future is exterminated. Human personalities are poisoned. The very qualities which are essential to a peaceful, creative community are being thrown out and abused. Over 60 percent are American citizens, yet they are denied on a wholesale scale without due process of law the civil liberties which are theirs.

If I were to register and cooperate under those circumstances, I would be giving helpless consent to the denial of practically all of the things which give me incentive to live. I must maintain my Christian principles. I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives. Therefore, I must refuse this order for evacuation.

Let me add, however, that in refusing to register, I am well aware of the excellent qualities of the army and government personnel connected with the prosecution of this exclusion order. They are men of the finest type, and I sincerely appreciate their sympathetic and honest efforts. Nor do I intend to cast any shadow upon the Japanese and the other Nisei who have registered for evacuation. They have faced tragedy admirably. I am objecting to the principle of this order, which denies the rights of human beings, including citizens. [May 13, 1942]

I circulated a half-dozen copies to the chairman of the YMCA board; Colonel Kimmel, director of the University of Washington ROTC; and a few YMCA supporters. Dr. Fred Ring said, “I just heard about your position — that you intend to refuse to go along with this. I admire your position . . . but I’m trying to determine whether this is a courageous act or a foolhardy act.” And he was seriously reviewing for himself whether mine was an intelligent way of expressing my objections. Once I was in jail, however, both he and his wife, Mabel, both of whom were Baptist Church and Fellowship of Reconciliation members, were right there supporting me.


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