Gordon Hirabayashi: A Personal History through Diaries and Letters

In 1943,  Gordon Hirabayashi defied the curfew and mass removal of Japanese Americans and was subsequently convicted and imprisoned as a result. In A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States, Gordon’s brother James and nephew Lane brought together his prison diaries and voluminous wartime correspondence to tell the story of Hirabayashi v. United States, the Supreme Court case that ultimately vacated his conviction.

In this guest post, Lane Hirabayashi discusses why the first hand accounts written at the time of Gordon’s detention offer a powerful testament to his plight. Examining the nature of memory and oral history more broadly, Hirabayashi explores how diaries and letters  provide a very different kind of evidence than recollections and testimony taken long after the fact.

In the mid-2000s my father, Jim, asked my aunt Susan if he could borrow the diaries and letters that Gordon had written during the war years. Jim simultaneously began to gather all of the materials that both he and Gordon had in their personal files about Gordon’s legal challenges during the 1940s and again during the 1980s. It was a large body of material—fifteen or so banker’s boxes, each of which was half- to three-quarters full—that sat for a number of years to one side of the living room in my father’s house in Mill Valley. Every time I’d visit from Southern California, typically during Christmas and summer vacations, Jim would have sets of files out and he say, “Take a look at this.” I’d sit down, read for a while, and then we’d talk about whatever Jim had put aside. Sometimes there were particular items that Jim wanted to talk about or, alternatively, specific facts or stories about our family that he wanted to relate to me. Eventually, Jim invited me to work with him to develop a manuscript. For months we talked and corresponded about how best to approach writing about Gordon. I originally had a fairly standard approach in mind, although one that could explore sociological theories of biography as per Norman Denzin and Pierre Bourdieu.

Gordon Hirabayashi in 1938

Jim and I kicked this around for many months. An initial review of a book prospectus by editors at the University of Washington Press, however, suggested that we give primacy to Gordon’s voice in any manuscript that we develop. This advice prompted Jim, who had always thought that there was enough material in Gordon’s papers to sustain a full-length manuscript, to begin to block out parts of the diary that could serve as the heart of a book.  As I received and read these segments, typically sent in the body of long e-mails, I began to realize that Jim was right. Jim was finding enough interesting material that could be broken down without too much trouble into larger chronological and/or thematic blocks that eventually became the sections and chapters of A Principled Stand.

In the course of hammering out a text, which was a slow but organic process, we also began to grapple with certain gaps in Gordon’s 1940s-era material. As readers of A Principled Stand will notice, for example, Gordon doesn’t comment at all on Japanese war atrocities in Asia or the Pacific Islands. People have asked about this at various book talks I’ve given and I really have not known what to say. There were things that Gordon simply didn’t comment on but I’m compelled to say that as a life-long Quaker and a pacifist, Gordon would never have supported or rationalized the killing and injustices associated with war, no matter who happened to be carrying these out.

There were other instances in which we did have a great deal of information, but not specifically accounts from Gordon’s war-time diaries or letters. The first section of the book, for example, covers Gordon’s lineage, parents, and early years of family life in the Kent-Thomas farming area, south of Seattle. Although Gordon had not written about this during the 1940s, he covered such material many times in the numerous oral history interviews he had given, as well as in his published papers and unpublished manuscripts and speeches.

In any case, when we began trying to put together a complete manuscript, we hit a wall. We had to take a step back, look at what we had covered, then determine what was missing and what we really needed to fill in. We started to look through Gordon’s numerous oral histories, his publications, and his unpublished manuscripts—including speeches—that were given or presented decades after the fact. We both noticed that there was a spontaneity and a spirit to Gordon’s diaries that was unique compared to any of the other materials in his personal papers. In other words, Gordon’s immediate, written accounts of the events of the 1940s had a freshness that neither his oral histories nor his accounts from later in life seemed to capture. My personal impression was that Gordon’s first-hand accounts from the 1940s also had a deeper religious inflection than did his post-1950’s renditions of the past.

In doing so, we began to discuss a series of questions that we both found fascinating: After the passage of time, are people able to recall their experiences in terms of the actual thoughts and feelings they had at the time? What happens if we examine accounts of a given event—especially if it happened to be challenging or traumatic—immediately afterward? What about ten, twenty, or fifty years after the fact? How do threats that exist at the time of the original account shape how it is recorded? What happens to an oral history account of a traumatic event if the outcome is eventually salubrious, as in Gordon’s case? And, conversely, how might memories and oral history accounts be impacted by negative or destructive outcomes?

In terms of our particular biographical/autobiographical project, there are a good number of post-hoc accounts of Gordon’s life available (and the family gave a good number of pieces along these lines to the University of Washington Special Collections). These included accounts written by Gordon himself and by others, so those pieces are on the record for consideration by any and all. What is unique about A Principled Stand is that it’s Gordon’s direct account of his wartime experience, taken long before he knew what the outcome would be.

For future researchers, we’ve provided a data set that can be mined for methodological insights. Anyone who is interested can go to the UW Special Collections and begin to assess, empirically, if and how the passage of time, plus the eventual vindication of his stand, influenced Gordon’s account of what happened between 1942 and 1945.

The point of this essay is not to argue that accounts written on the spot, immediately after an event is experienced, are superior to post-hoc oral histories. Rather, I argue that the way one remembers a dramatic or traumatic event may change, evolve, differ over the period of a year, a decade, or half-century. In Gordon’s case, his diaries reflect the voice and sensibilities of a remarkable twenty-four year old who endured incredible hardship without ever losing sight of his convictions. The take-away is that if we only had the post-hoc papers, speeches, and oral history accounts of the mature man, father, Ph.D., professor, and world-traveled Quaker, we still wouldn’t know much about the mind of the youth who, at a relatively young age, determined to take a principled stand.

Lane Ryo Hirabayashi is professor of Asian American Studies and the George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress, and Community at UCLA. His coauthored book, A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States, is newly available in paperback.

One thought on “Gordon Hirabayashi: A Personal History through Diaries and Letters

  1. sandvick

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States are two of the most outrageous and disgraceful decisions in the history of American jurisprudence. In Hirabayashi, the Supreme Court found that curfews that singled out Japanese Americans were legal. At the time, Gordon Hirabayashi was a student at the University of Washington. Like Rosa Parks, Hirabayashi intentionally challenged the legality of the curfew and internment. He even self reported his curfew violation to the FBI and turned himself in. He ultimately served a one year prison sentence.

    The Hirabayashi decision laid the theoretical framework for the subsequent Korematsu decision. In Korematsu, the Supreme Court found that the internment camps created during World War II for Japanese Americans were legal. Perhaps the most galling aspect of these cases was that only one justice, Robert H. Jackson, dissented from the majority opinion in Korematsu (no one dissented from the Hirabayashi opinion).

    The University of Washington Press is now publishing a book based on the letters, interviews and diaries written by Gordon Hirabayashi. A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States was written by Gordon Hirabayashi’s nephew, Lane Hirabayashi, and his brother, James Hirabayashi. During his life, Gordon Hirabayashi keep a diary, wrote numerous letters and was the subject of several interviews. These voluminous records serves as the basis for A Principled Stand.

    Lane Hirabayashi has written guest post for the University of Washington Press Blog describing the genesis of this project and how the book ultimately came together. Check out Lane Hirabayashi’s post.

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