March 2012 Bar Bulletin
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March 2012 Bar Bulletin

Remembering the Lessons of Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi

By Lorraine K. Bannai


During World War II, Gordon Hirabayashi was a 24-year-old senior at the University of Washington - an American citizen by birth - when, as acts of civil disobedience, he defied a curfew imposed on persons of Japanese ancestry and refused to comply with military orders forcing Japanese Americans to leave the West Coast and enter concentration camps.

Forty years later in 1983, Hirabayashi - represented by a remarkable team of Seattle attorneys - reopened his case and won vacation of his conviction based on evidence that the government, while arguing his case before the Supreme Court, suppressed, altered and destroyed material evidence bearing on the issue of military necessity.

We learned with sadness of Hirabayashi's passing on January 2. As many recalled at a conference at Seattle University School of Law marking the 25th anniversary of his coram nobis case, he and the cases he pursued, both in the 1940s and 1980s, have left us many lessons.

He was a native son, raised in Auburn. He took a courageous stand during World War II and, years later in reopening his case, aided in vindicating the Japanese American community. On a broader level, Hirabayashi spoke for all of us in seeking to hold this country to its promise of equality. As he said in later years, "I never looked at my case as just my own, or just as a Japanese American case. It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental rights of all Americans."

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the popular press, vocal members of the public and government officials turned against the Japanese American community and called for these people's removal from the West Coast. In the spring of 1942, pursuant to authority granted by President Roosevelt, Gen. John L. DeWitt of the Army's Western Defense Command began issuing a series of orders to control the perceived "Japanese problem."

He first issued a curfew order, requiring immigrant Germans and Italians and all persons of Japanese ancestry, including citizens, to stay in their homes during the evening hours. Hirabayashi questioned why he had to run back from the library to his dorm before curfew - just because he was of Japanese ancestry - when his classmates did not. Hirabayashi wrote, "Why the hell am I running back and nobody else is? Am I an American?"

DeWitt then began issuing a series of civilian exclusion orders, 108 in all, requiring Japanese Americans to report for removal from the West Coast and for eventual incarceration in desolate camps across the interior United States. More than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were ultimately confined.

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