POLITICS

Sociologist who resisted internment in camps for Japanese-Americans dies

01/03/2012 10:01 EST | Updated 03/04/2012 05:12 EST
EDMONTON - A sociologist who refused to be sent to internment camps that kept more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans captive during the Second World War has died in Edmonton.

Gordon Hirabayashi, 93, was vindicated four decades later when a U.S. court in 1987 overturned his conviction and concluded that the U.S. government's internment policies had been based on political expediency, not on any risk to national security.

Hirabayashi had by then left the United States, working in Beirut, Cairo and Lebanon before taking a job at the University of Alberta as chairman of the sociology department.

His son, Jay Hirabayashi, said on Facebook that his father died Monday morning, adding that his mother, Esther Hirabayashi, 87, died about 10 hours later.

Gordon Hirabayashi was born in Seattle and attended the University of Washington, and as a student was one of the first to challenge the U.S. government policy.

In 1942, five months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he turned himself in to the FBI and was sentenced to 90 days in prison, a verdict that was upheld on appeal through to the Supreme Court.

According to a University of Washington newsletter from 2000, Hirabayashi was in his senior year when he refused to get on a bus that was taking Japanese-Americans to internment camps on the West Coast.

"I wasn’t a rebel looking for a cause," Hirabayashi said at the time. "In fact, I was preparing to go. But in the days before I was supposed to leave, I realized that I couldn’t do it."

He said he knew his parents might be in jeopardy, as they had not been eligible for naturalization when they immigrated to the United States.

"But the second generation, my generation, were U.S. citizens," Hirabayashi said. "We had constitutional rights. I didn’t think anything could happen to us. We had a rude awakening."

His disbelief continued as he fought his legal battle, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"When the case got to the federal courts I thought I might win it, since the primary goal of federal judges was to uphold the constitution," he said. "But the judge told the jury, 'You heard the defence talking about defending the constitution. That’s irrelevant. The issue is the executive order that the military issued.' Under those circumstances, the jury came back very fast."

He recalled that even getting to prison proved to be an exercise in the bizarre, as there was no money to transport him. Instead, he offered to get there on his own and the court issued him a letter in case he was questioned along the way.

"I hitchhiked but didn’t realize how hard it would be due to severe gas rationing," he said. "It took me more than two weeks to get there, sleeping in ditches along the way and with friends where I had some. Finally, around Las Vegas, I gave up and bought a bus ticket."

When Hirabayashi showed up at the prison two weeks later, staff could not find his paperwork and tried to send him home.

"They told me to go out for a nice dinner and a movie while they looked for the papers," he said. "So I did. By the time I returned, they’d found the papers."

Having his conviction overturned many years later was a real vindication not only for Hirabayashi but for "all the effort people had put in for the rights of citizens during crisis periods."

He said it also changed his view of his home country.

"There was a time when I felt that the constitution failed me," he said.

"But ... the U.S. government admitted it made a mistake. A country that can do that is a strong country."

Hirabayashi spent 23 years at the University of Alberta before retiring in 1983. His focus was the study of peasants in developing countries and the problems of confronting the mounting impact of post-Second World War industrialization.

Jay Hirabayashi called his father "an American hero."

"Besides being a great father ... (he) taught me about the values of honesty, integrity, and justice," he said.

He noted that though his parents were divorced, "they somehow chose to leave us on the same day."