Dr. James Hirabayashi, Pioneering Ethnic Studies Scholar, Dies at 85

Category: Asian American Issues,News,Subfeature |
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by Lydia Lum

An ethnic studies pioneer whose scholarly family is closely connected to the U.S. internment camps of World War II has died—although not before he had produced yet another book on the subject.

In fact, Dr. James Hirabayashi, a San Francisco State University professor emeritus who died in late May at age 85, collaborated on the book with his son, Dr. Lane Hirabayashi.

Forthcoming by the University of Washington Press, the book contains wartime diaries and letters written by James’ older brother, Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi, a sociologist who became famous for defying the government’s mass incarceration of people of Japanese descent. Lane Hirabayashi holds the George and Sakaye Aratani Professorship in Japanese American Redress, Internment and Community at the University of California, Los Angeles.

An anthropologist by training, James Hirabayashi taught for nearly 30 years at SFSU and served as its first dean of ethnic studies, a position he held for six years. He joined SFSU in 1959 among a wave of minority intellectuals who conceived and developed courses in Japanese American, Asian American and ethnic studies. He was among the faculty who risked losing their jobs when they joined students in the 1968 strike on campus that led to creation of the ethnic studies school.

Hirabayashi was also dean of undergraduate studies for three years. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary commemoration of SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies in 2009, president Robert Corrigan awarded Hirabayashi the President’s Medal in honor of his numerous contributions.

Widely published in Asian American studies and anthropology, Hirabayashi held additional teaching and research positions at universities in Japan and Nigeria. His scholarly travels took him to South America and the Pacific Islands as well—destinations far removed from the rudimentary wartime camp where he and most of his family were confined.

The U.S.-born Hirabayashi was a high school student when, in the hysteria and xenophobia following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order singling out people of Japanese ancestry. The order included measures such as curfews and mass removal of Japanese Americans from their homes, workplaces and schools.

By the following spring, U.S.-born Japanese Americans such as Hirabayashi and Japanese immigrants such as his parents were herded into remote camps in harsh terrain and climates. Hirabayashi’s family was sent to the camp at Tule Lake in northern California.

Within a year, James left with a family from a neighboring barrack to pick sugar beets in Idaho. He was joined by his father, and, with money saved from their labor, they resettled the family in Spokane, Wash., which was outside the exclusion zone for Japanese Americans.

James’ brother, Gordon, however, had a vastly different wartime experience that was no less grueling.

Eight years James’ elder, Gordon was a University of Washington student who protested the mass removal and incarceration by refusing to report to a camp and insisting Roosevelt’s executive order was unconstitutional. He also refused induction into the armed forces as a conscientious objector, arguing that a document sent to Japanese Americans by draft officials demanding they renounce any allegiance to the emperor of Japan was racially discriminatory because other ethnic groups were not questioned about ties to foreign leaders.

Tried in court and convicted by a jury, Gordon Hirabayashi spent much of the war serving time in prison for his actions, appealing his cause all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in vain.

He finished his UW studies after the war, earning a doctorate in sociology. Unable to get a U.S. university to hire him because of his wartime convictions, Gordon taught at colleges in Lebanon and Egypt before joining the University of Alberta in Canada in 1959, where he taught until his 1983 retirement.

In 1987, Gordon’s convictions were overturned on the grounds that, during the war, the federal government had suppressed, altered and destroyed evidence contradicting its claim at the time that curfews and the internment camps were “military necessity.”

Last week, President Barack Obama awarded Gordon, who died in January at age 93, a Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian.

James Hirabayashi, who held a doctorate from Harvard University, has called the U.S. internment camps “concentration camps” even though, unlike Nazi Germany’s genocide of Jews in gas chambers, very few Japanese Americans perished as a direct result of being incarcerated. Still, Hirabayashi noted that about two-thirds of the 120,000 Japanese residents sent to internment camps were, like him, American citizens “incarcerated under armed guard.”

“There were no crimes committed, no trials and no convictions,” Hirabayashi once wrote in an essay scrutinizing what he considered widely misused terminology. “The Japanese Americans were political prisoners. To detain American citizens in a site under armed guard surely constitutes a ‘concentration camp.’ The term ‘relocation center’ was actually a euphemism used by governmental officials who had stripped Japanese Americans of their basic constitutional rights.”

A scholarship fund in James Hirabayashi’s name has been established at SFSU. It aims to support upperclassmen committed to public service who major or minor in any of the ethnic studies disciplines and have taken an interdisciplinary approach to their studies.

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