The Agenda

Gordon Hirabayashi and Japanese American Internment

The New York Times has published a fascinating obituary of Gordon Hirabayashi, who as a young man refused to comply with the internment of Japanese Americans living in the western United States. 

When the West Coast curfew was imposed, ordering people of Japanese background to be home by 8 p.m., Mr. Hirabayashi ignored it. When the internment directive was put in place, he refused to register at a processing center and was jailed.

Contending that the government’s actions were racially discriminatory, Mr. Hirabayashi proved unyielding. He refused to post $500 bail because he would have been transferred to an internment camp while awaiting trial. He remained in jail from May 1942 until October of that year, when his case was heard before a federal jury in Seattle.

Found guilty of violating both the curfew and internment orders, he was sentenced to concurrent three-month prison terms. While his appeal was pending, he remained at the local jail for an additional four months, then was released and sent to Spokane, Wash., to work on plans to relocate internees when they were finally released.

His appeal, along with one by Mr. Yasui, a lawyer from Hood River, Ore., who had been jailed for nine months for curfew defiance, made its way to the Supreme Court. In 1943, ruling unanimously, the court upheld the curfew as a constitutional exercise of the government’s war powers. Mr. Hirabayashi served out his three-month prison term at a work camp near Tucson.

Incredibly, Hirabayashi then took another stand on principle:

Mr. Hirabayashi later spent a year in federal prison for refusing induction into the armed forces, contending that a questionnaire sent to Japanese-Americans by draft officials demanding a renunciation of any allegiance to the emperor of Japan was racially discriminatory because other ethnic groups were not asked about adherence to foreign leaders.

The Hirabayashi, Yasui and Korematsu cases were revisited in the 1980s after Peter Irons, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, found documents indicating that the federal government, in coming before the Supreme Court, had suppressed its own finding that Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were not, in fact, threats to national security.

In September 1987, a three-member panel of a federal appeals court in San Francisco unanimously overturned Mr. Hirabayashi’s conviction for failing to register for evacuation to an internment camp and for ignoring a curfew.

Many Japanese Americans served with distinction in the U.S. armed forces during the Second World War, and they have rightly been celebrated. But Hirabayashi’s efforts were in their own way significant and admirable.

One of the only members of Congress to register an objection to the 1942 internment law was Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft, leader of the GOP’s conservative wing and a committed civil libertarian. In the end, however, Sen. Taft failed to vote against the proposal, perhaps sensing that the political tide was running against him. Having opposed U.S. entry into the Second World War until the Pearl Harbor attack, the senator found himself in an awkward position — but of course Hirabayashi found himself in a rather more awkward position and he could have used some allies.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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