Belated Justice – the Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi Human Rights Award

Gordon Hirabayashi as a UW student in the 1940's. Photo by Sharon Maeda/The Wing Luke Asian Museum.

At the National Association of Japanese Canadians AGM held in Edmonton Alberta on October 16, 2011, the NAJC unveiled the Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi Human Rights Award at the AGM Dinner. Gordon had been a Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta during the sixties, seventies, and eighties.  He had also served as the Department Head for several years. He continued to teach at the U of A into the nineties but in the last ten years the scourge of Alzheimer’s forced him to retire and presently he lives in a nursing hospital. He is physically healthy but elderly.

He had been a student at the University of Washington in early 1942 when FDR’s Presidential Executive Order 9066 was enacted in the US. Being American-born, he felt that as an American it was it was unconstitutional. However, blinded by racism, ignorance and expediency, the U.S. government classed all persons with Japanese ancestry as enemies of the State. He defied the Order and was jailed. He finished his University in Spokane.

After many years of legal battles and the release of classified secret government documents, Gordon returned to the Courts to appeal the guilty conviction of 1943. In 1986, the unjust conviction of not complying to the Order of Exclusion was overturned in a belated act of justice by the Supreme Court of the United State. Gordon received a citation from the President of the United States – Gerald Ford. Gordon was hailed as a hero in the States, especially to Japanese Americans.

Much was made in the media about justice finally being achieved after so many years. Very little attention has been focused on the actual events which took place in 1942. In the heat of the haiseki (ostracism) of that time (1942), it took an act of great courage to defy the Government Order of Exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. Gordon decided to defy the Order because he reasoned that it was fundamentally wrong to deny freedom to an American when there was no crime committed. As a young university student of 23, Gordon’s act of defiance against the government order was a sudden and improbable step to be taken at that time. Those of us who living along the West Coast at that time can appreciate how difficult and dangerous was that decision. Gordon’s decision was taken alone without safeguards, but it was a decisive step. It was the act of an idealist, and independent conscience. Great social changes often start with a sudden impulsive but decisive step. Can you imagine this type of defiant action in 1942 against a powerful , determined government? What courage it must have taken Gordon to decide to take this step. What courage, to make that decision to defy the Government order, can only be appreciated if one can imagine the charged atmosphere of racism and war which prevailed in the general public along the West Coast in 1942.

Although these events took place a long time ago in the United States, we in Canada should acknowledge the significance of that Supreme Court victory. It is doubly significant because a similar action could not have taken place in Canada in 1942. We are indebted to Gordon Hirabayashi for having taken that defiant step which all of us would have been afraid to take.

The American Senator J. William Fullbright said “to criticize one’s country is to do it a service – criticism, in short , is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, – a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals and national adulation.”

Read article from the University of Washington Alumni Magazine.

by Henry Shimizu

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