Gordon Hirabayashi was a model student at Auburn High School. He was so bright, he skipped a grade and graduated at age 17. A popular student and self-described "sports nut," he was invited to join an exclusive high school group sponsored by the YMCA. His classmates would have laughed if someone had told them their short, bespectacled friend was destined for a prison road gang in Arizona.
After graduating from high school, “Gordie” spent more than a year working at his dad’s vegetable stand to save money for college. His mother really wanted him to go to an Ivy League school, not the UW, an unrealistic expectation for Japanese American truck farmers in the depths of the Great Depression. The UW would have to do.
He finally arrived at the UW in 1937, working as a “school boy” for a local doctor. In return for housekeeping duties, he got free room and board. For his first two years, he studied mathematics fall and winter quarters but stayed at home in the spring to help with the planting.
Like most Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans), Gordie was a member of the Japanese Student Club. But he never lived at the clubhouse and gradually drifted away from most activities. Due to his YMCA ties in high school, Hirabayashi joined the University YMCA in Eagleson Hall. “It was the home of ‘liberal thinking’ and with inspiring speakers, thoughtful discussions and so on. I liked the people there,” he later said.*
It was in the dorm rooms and dining area of Eagleson Hall that Hirabayashi’s life of crime began. His best friend was a white student from Marysville, Howard Scott. “We just had the same vibes, I guess, and we were both poor,” Hirabayashi (pictured at top) recalled.
In 1939 Hirabayashi qualified for a federal work-study program. No longer a school boy, he moved into Eagleson. Scott became the YMCA student president and Hirabayashi the vice president. In school he was drifting away from math and towards sociology. “Life was really shaping up,” he recalled.
But for the first time in its history, the United States instituted a peacetime draft. Hirabayashi, Scott and other Y leaders decided to register as conscientious objectors. Hirabayashi and Scott also joined the Society of Friends—the Quakers.
Sueko Sumioka remembers well one encounter she had with Hirabayashi in this pre-war period. “I was on the campus before the war broke out, agitating for equal rights for the Nisei. I remember Gordon telling me, ‘Progress is made by evolution, not revolution,’ ” she recalls. “But he turned out to be the revolutionary.”
After Pearl Harbor but before the internments began (see “The Stolen Years, Part One,” December 2005), some Nisei students still held out hope. “I was an American citizen and nothing would happen to me,” Hirabayashi thought. “We really believed that. In fact, later, as we were being picked up, even as it was happening, we could not really believe it was happening to us!”
But it was. Shortly after Gen. John L. DeWitt issued the March 1 order banning anyone of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island were taken away to an “assembly center” in California.
A day after De Witt’s proclamation, UW President Lee Paul Sieg told the Daily, “The University of course will comply with all orders issued by the Army.”
Trained as a physicist, Sieg was an enlightened leader who guided the University through the depths of the Great Depression. Despite the weak economy, the UW student population grew to more than 8,000 by the fall of 1941. But once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the UW went to war. Civilian enrollment dropped by about 3,500 and more than 100 faculty took leave for the armed forces or war work.
In the midst of the fervor, it would have been easy for Sieg to dismiss the fate of some 440 Japanese American students as a casualty of the war. But according to an oral history recorded with one of his assistants, Robert O’Brien, Sieg opposed the internments. Behind his office doors, they launched an effort to place willing Nisei students at colleges outside the exclusion zone. On March 6, O’Brien drafted a letter for Sieg to send to 25 college presidents.
“It was so sudden, it was hard to believe.”
“We have known these students as excellent scholars and young people who have contributed their leadership to our classroom work and constructive campus activities. As a group, their scholarship is well above the University average. As citizens of the University community, they have been loyal supporters of academic and defense activities,” wrote Sieg.
While the administration worked quietly, some student voices loudly decried the internment plans. “These people you condemn, gentlemen, are human beings—individual citizens who work and dream as you and I. They are not cattle. And they are not to be herded as cattle. They are humans. Citizens. They speak our tongue. They worship our way of life. They are us,” wrote one Daily editorialist.
Yet many of the Nisei students didn’t read the Daily editorials and few knew of O’Brien’s and Sieg’s plans. “It was so sudden, it was hard to believe,” says Sumioka.
All Japanese Americans were under suspicion of being enemy sympathizers. If they objected to the exclusion order, they could be labeled as “unpatriotic” in a time of war. Many students were worried about their parents, permanent residents who were classified as “enemy aliens.” Was the ultimate plan to send these enemy aliens back to the enemy? “We were all pretty puzzled. Will our parents be sent back to Japan?” Ruby Inouye Shu says.
Sometime in the middle of the month, Sieg sent O’Brien to a conference in San Francisco where he could meet with the military authorities. The hope was that somehow UW students would be exempt from the internment camps or at least be allowed to finish spring quarter.
On his return to Seattle, O’Brien wrote a detailed memo that held little hope. “The Army official stated definitely that evacuation for Seattle will take place before the end of our spring quarter and that students in college would not be exempted from the orders,” he wrote.
One bright note, O’Brien added, was that officials favored relocating Nisei to other universities away from the West Coast. The government promised to cover the cost of transportation. But the reaction from the colleges was lukewarm, at best.
“The replies from almost all of these letters indicated that the institutions were, in general, a little hesitant about receiving students of the Japanese race,” Sieg wrote later that month.
Overt racism and political pressure were rampant. An Associated Press story in early April quoted O’Brien as saying that there were 14 inland colleges willing to take Japanese American transfers and listed them. The uproar over the news report immediately closed the doors at several institutions. The University of Idaho withdrew its offer. University of Montana President Ernest Melby told Sieg that while he wanted to help, his opinions were probably “of no consequence.”
A few institutions were more welcoming, particularly private religious colleges in the Midwest and East.
While Sieg, O’Brien, Quaker activist Floyd Schmoe and others tried to find a way out for UW students, the military tightened its restrictions. Initial plans to assemble Japanese Americans in temporary camps and then release them beyond the exclusion zone were quashed by politicians in the Rocky Mountain states. Large “relocation centers” would have to be built from scratch to house the 120,000 uprooted Japanese Americans. All of these camps would be scattered across the interior of the West in hot, arid places—except for two in Arkansas built in swamp land.
In the meantime, the military ordered that all West Coast Japanese Americans had to be home by 8 p.m. and could not leave until 6 a.m. For a week, Gordon Hirabayashi followed the rules. He would be studying with his friends. “They’d say, ‘Hey Gordon, five minutes to go,’ and I’d gather up and beat it home,” he recalled.
Then came a revelation. “I said, ‘Why am I dashing back when my fellow American dormmates are continuing to do what they were doing).’ The obvious factor of my Japanese ancestry, that’s the only reason that differentiated me on this order, and I said to myself, ‘Gee, if the American Constitution means anything at all, this is wrong. And if l believe in the Constitution, I’ve got to object to this.’”
So Hirabayashi ignored the curfew. He went where he liked and stayed out as long as he liked. Though he broke the curfew for two months, nothing happened.
As the military imposed its curfew, Sieg and O’Brien stepped up efforts to help their Japanese American students. Sieg wrote a letter to the deans near the end of winter quarter, politely urging them to give these students full credit. Later, when the remaining students left for the camps in mid-May, Sieg asked the deans to graduate those who had almost completed their degrees. Some of these deans felt it was “outrageous,” O’Brien later recalled. “But President Sieg knew what he thought was right.”
No one knew exactly when the Nisei in Seattle would have to leave. All UW officials knew was that the order would come before the end of spring quarter. At most, they had eight weeks to find places for up to 440 students.
While O’Brien was beginning to organize transfers, Japanese American students faced a difficult choice. If they left for the Midwest or East, they would leave behind their parents and siblings, who would have to make arrangements for their homes and businesses and then travel to the camps.
There were financial problems was well. Many of their families were going to sell their homes and businesses for less than they were really worth. The UW students were going to have to pay private or out-of-state tuition wherever they were being sent.
In addition, there were mountains of paperwork. For some, it would be an eight-step process, demanding clearances from the FBI, the Army and the Navy before the transfer would be allowed. Despite the roadblocks, at the end of the academic year, O’Brien reported that 58 students were able to transfer to 15 different colleges in 12 states.
Figuring he would be “evacuated” soon, the 24-year-old Hirabayashi dropped out of school to help the American Friends Service Committee prepare local Japanese American families for the camps. “When I helped families get to their buses for departure, they waved good-bye to me, saying, ‘We’ll see you later.’ They thought I’d be on the next bus,” he said.
After two weeks of packing up, families headed for the “assembly center” in Puyallup, Hirabayashi started to doubt his decision to follow along. “If the curfew bothered me to the point where I ignored it, how could I go along with this?” he asked himself.
He would have talked it over with his best friend, Howard Scott, but Scott had already reported to a conscientious objector’s camp in California. Hirabayashi had invited a fellow Nisei student, Bill Makino, to share his room at the Y so that Makino could study late on campus and still obey the curfew. Like so many college roommates, the two stayed up at night talking about current events.
“There was no question. This was wrong as far as we were concerned, and if we were good citizens we’d point this out by refusing it,” said Hirabayashi. “If there’s a court case, it’d be a two-man case.”
But Makino’s elderly parents convinced him to join them in the camps instead. Hirabayashi’s parents were also worried. His mother, while agreeing on the principle of her son’s stand, wanted the family to be together. She was a reader of adventure novels such as “The Count of Monte Cristo.” “She pictured me being tortured in a dungeon,” Hirabayashi said.
“I was not sure that I could abandon my values, goals and self-respect and still serve my family, community and country.”
Despite the family’s concerns, he knew he had to disobey the orders. “I was not sure that I could abandon my values, goals and self-respect and still serve my family, community and country,” he later explained. “I’m doing something on behalf of the American Constitution, the freedom of religion, the freedom of decision.”
Hirabayashi confided in colleagues at the Y and in his Quaker meeting. He started writing a statement justifying his actions and, since he was a YMCA student officer, he felt he had to share it with YMCA board.
Former State Senator Mary Farquharson, a YMCA advisor and wife of Engineering Professor Frederick Farquharson, confronted Hirabayashi one day. “I want to check a rumor. I heard that you are going to object to the exclusion order,” she said.
Hirabayashi confirmed the rumor. “Well, now that I have heard this from you, I want you to know first of all, I am behind you 100 percent,” she declared.
She told Hirabayashi that a group of civil rights activists were concerned. She named Schmoe, local attorney Art Barnett, “U” District businessman Ray Roberts and others. “Could we make this a test case?” she asked.
On May 10, the Army issued Civilian Exclusion Order No. 57. All persons of Japanese ancestry “both alien and non-alien” had to leave Seattle by noon on May 16. Families were ordered to register with the authorities over the next two days.
The UW refunded registration fees under the same policy it used when a student was drafted. And students were encouraged to make arrangements with their instructors to complete their interrupted studies through correspondence courses.
Sociology Professor Frank Miyamoto was still teaching his Introduction to Sociology course when the orders came. “I honestly don’t recall who took over,” he says.
Suppressing his anger and shock over the internments, Miyamoto tried to look at it as a grand sociological experiment. “I was giving it a lot of attention. This is a sociological event. How is this minority group going to react?” he wondered.
He wasn’t alone in his interest. A University of California sociologist, Dorothy Swaine Thomas, organized a research initiative that would study the effects of this compulsory “migration.” She asked Miyamoto to be a research assistant. So he joined the others in the transfer to Puyallup. Each “evacuee” was allowed two bags for all personal possessions. Miyamoto had to leave his books behind, but he was able to take his typewriter.
Sueko Sumioka was still working as a school girl until the day of the transfers. Rather than let her ride the buses, her employer drove her out to Puyallup. “She was very sympathetic. She thought it was a big mistake,” Sumioka recalls.
Toru Sakahara tried to tie up the financial side of his father’s farm before he left for the camps. He also married his college sweetheart, a common tactic for young Nisei worried about being separated. He took his mother, new wife and four siblings with him to the fairgrounds, wondering if he would ever be able to complete his law degree.
Seattle was emptied of its Japanese Americans—except for one. Hirabayashi stayed behind in Eagleson Hall, but only for a day. If he was found there, the YMCA might be accused of harboring a fugitive in wartime. So he and attorney Art Barnett decided to visit the FBI on the 16th. It was time to turn himself in.
When he reported to the agents, he was in for a surprise. “We have been expecting you,” one told him. Taken aback, Hirabayashi said he had a statement to present to them. “Oh, we already have a copy,” came the reply. (Though it was never confirmed, Hirabayashi suspects that one of the YMCA board members leaked the statement to the FBI.)
The statement laid down Hirabayashi’s reasoning. “I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives. Therefore, I must refuse this order for evacuation,” he wrote, adding that he appreciated the “sympathetic and honest efforts” of military personnel carrying out the order. He also refused to condemn Japanese Americans who obeyed the edict. “They have faced tragedy admirably,” he wrote.
As he stood before the FBI officer, Hirabayashi was sure that he was not alone. He pictured 100 to 200 other resisters standing in other offices across the West Coast. ”I’d be one of a mass case,” he thought. But of the 120,000 Japanese American sent to “assembly centers” in the spring of 1942, only a handful resisted at that time. Hirabayashi would face the government alone in the first case challenging the legality of the internments.
“I thought Gordon was very brave. Today I'm ashamed that I didn't speak out and say no.”
That night—and for the next nine months—Hirabayashi was in the federal holding tank at the King County Jail. But this was not the “Count of Monte Cristo” experience his mother feared. Some of the lawbreakers tried to take care of him. “They gave me things to eat they had been saving for themselves …. One of the fellows offered me an extra blanket, claiming he didn’t need it.” In time he was elected “mayor,” arbitrating disputes between the inmates and negotiating with the jailers.
Supporters poured in on visiting day. One of the jailers complained that he had never seen a prisoner with so many visitors. Even old college friends now in the military would show up—in uniform. Perhaps what touched Hirabayashi the most was a letter to his defense committee from a soldier fighting in the South Pacific. A stranger to Hirabayashi, he had visited the prisoner while in transit to the war zone. From somewhere in the Pacific, he sent a check and a note that read, “I’m out here fighting and that’s one of the things I’m fighting for.”
Word of Hirabayashi’s resistance spread throughout the camps. “I thought Gordon was very brave,” says Sumioka. “Today I’m ashamed that I didn’t speak out and say no.”
The authorities said Hirabayashi could get out on bail, but there was a catch. Once released, he would immediately be taken to the “assembly center” in Puyallup. Since the whole point was to protest the internments, Hirabayashi wouldn’t compromise. He refused bail, which meant staying in a short-term jail without an exercise yard, shops, a library or other facilities found in prisons. He held up well, but the confinement would later prompt him to beg for work outside on a road gang. That request set in motion a legal mistake that would be seized by the Supreme Court when it heard his case.
It was a crazy world. While Gordon Hirabayashi was in jail and his parents and fellow Japanese Americans were in camps, UW student Hiro Nishimura was in the U.S. Army. He had been drafted shortly after Pearl Harbor, before the military secretly started excluding any Japanese Americans from conscription. In the spring of 1942, he was stationed with other Nisei at a camp in Little Rock, Ark.
Nishimura was afraid he’d be assigned to menial work (a common Army treatment of African Americans), but he got a break. “They realized they needed linguists to fight the war in the Pacific,” he says. In January 1943, Nishimura got Japanese language training and was sent to the British Army’s HQ in New Delhi. He spent two years translating captured documents and interrogating POWs in India and Burma.
On his way to India, Nishimura stopped off at a camp to say good-bye to his parents. The most bizarre experience, he recalls, was coming to the camp in uniform and being processed by white soldiers wearing the same uniform. Holding rifles, they opened the gates that let him pass through the barbed-wire fences. “I wondered if they would let me out,” he recalls.
Kenji Okuda described his initial camp experience in a letter to his good friend, Norio Higano. “Here I am, and I’ve been for almost the last two weeks, sitting on my haunches in the ‘assembly center’—what a name—at Puyallup watching the days roll by. Hell, what a feeling! Cooped in by a fence with armed guards patrolling outside and submachine guns in the watch towers, powerful search lights playing in the area between the barracks and the fence, watched by armed guards the moment we leave to go to another camp—what a mess!”
When Gordon Hirabayashi was arrested, the FBI interviewed him about his activities and found that he had also violated the curfew. To strengthen the case, the federal attorney charged Hirabayashi with a curfew violation as well as failing to register for the internment camps.
It would take five months to go to trial. His defense committee hired Frank Walters, a member of the American Legion from a large, respectable firm. They prepared their case carefully, focusing on the internment charges and not the curfew violations. Walters warned Hirabayashi that the trial in district court would almost certainly end in conviction, and that the constitutional issues would be heard in the appeals process.
One of the facts that the federal attorney needed to prove was that Hirabayashi was of Japanese ancestry. So a week before the trial, Gordon found a new inmate in the jail—his father. “In the dim night lights, I saw this big officer and a guy about half his size. ‘Hey! That’s my dad!’ I said.”
His parents were held in the Tule Lake camp in California, but the government brought them both up for the trial. His father was supposed to testify that Gordon was his son and of Japanese ancestry. While they were in Seattle, the government insisted on following the exclusion orders. Both parents would have to spend their days in jail until the trial, even though their only “crime” was being Japanese.
But the jail time for his mom and dad turned out better than expected. His dad was proud of the fact chat Gordon was “mayor” of the holding tank. And they could meet some of their son’s friends. During the trial, Hirabayashi’s supporters wanted to hold a dinner for him and his parents at Eagleson Hall. At first the government agreed, but when they found out how many were planning co attend, they canceled Hirabayashi’s pass for “security reasons.” Instead, he could join his parents and a few supporters at a nearby Chinese restaurant.
Gordon had seen his mother only once after she arrived at the jail. He waited with the other men for her to be brought down from the women’s holding tank. “When Mom came down, she looked like a queen!” he later recalled. “She had her first professional hairdo, wore cosmetics and had her fingernails painted. She looked like a million! The women in jail had really taken care of her. They had really fixed her up for the dinner party.”
His mother turned to her son and said, “I don’t know what those women are charged with, but I never in my life saw such warmhearted people.”
The trial was brief. Hirabayashi’s dad told the jury he had come to the U.S. in 1909 and pointed out his son. Gordon also took the stand, stating it wasn’t necessary to call on his father. “I am of Japanese ancestry, but I don’t see any connection between that and the reason for which this order was established …. I was never accused of being a spy or a danger for sabotage.”
Before the jury left the courtroom, the judge gave explicit instructions. “You are only to decide this: Is he of Japanese ancestry? Did he move out when he was supposed to, from this excluded zone? He is not on trial for espionage or sabotage,” the judge said. It took the jury only 10 minutes to render a guilty verdict.
Aware that the defendant had already spent five months in jail, the judge handed down a sentence of 30 days for the curfew violation and 30 days for the exclusion order violation, to be served consecutively. But Gordon asked for more time. He heard from his jail buddies that if he wanted to be assigned to a road gang, he would need at least 90 days. And by this point, confined to a jail with no fresh air or exercise for five months, he was going a little stir crazy. The judge laughed but agreed to the request. Both sentences were expanded to 90 days, to be served concurrently (at the same time).
That day, everyone seemed pleased with the sentencing, but the switch from consecutive to concurrent sentences would backfire when Hirabayashi’s case reached the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Hirabayashi returned to the King County Jail while his case was on appeal. By February 1943, the judge decided enough was enough. He called Walters into his chambers and said, “We ought to get your boy out. He’s been in there too long,” Walters later told Hirabayashi.
By that time, the civilian War Relocation Authority had taken over the camps from the military. Its policy was to allow “loyal” Japanese American families to leave the camps under certain circumstances, such as having a job and a sponsor outside the exclusion zone. The Friends Service Committee offered Hirabayashi a job in Spokane to help resettle families coming out of the camps. He could be free, pending his appeal, as long as he didn’t enter the restricted zone. He agreed, setting off for a new life east of the mountains.
Shortly after arriving in Spokane, Hirabayashi heard some remarkable news about a fellow UW student. “From Oberlin comes the news that Kenji Okuda is the new student body prexy,” he wrote to a friend. “Things have a way of happening in a hurry …. Ken went through a lot of hell, but he stayed on the beam and I guess that is noticeable to others. That was truly good news to have.”
That a Japanese American male recently released from the internment camps would be elected student president was national news. Time magazine wrote, “A typical evacuated Nisei student is Oberlin College’s lanky, 20-year-old, bespectacled Kenji Okuda …. Hustled into a Colorado relocation project (his parents are still there) after Pearl Harbor, he was released early this year. At Oberlin, Kenji heeled the college paper, made a hit, became student-council president.”
It sounded like a remarkable American success story. But Okuda’s arrival at Oberlin took nine months, during which he was scrutinized for anti-American attitudes.
UW Assistant Dean O’Brien, a graduate of Oberlin, kept track of Okuda. As an unpaid member of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, O’Brien pushed through some of the paperwork necessary to get a transfer. So did the YWCA’s Ruth Haines. The council later estimated that it took 25 letters to various government authorities and universities to process one Nisei student transfer.
At last, in January 1943, Okuda arrived at Oberlin. The contrasts were almost overwhelming. College life was “so damn unreal” compared to the “starkness of camp life,” he wrote to his friend Higano. He didn’t expect that a few months later, he would become student president, but as soon as he arrived, he became active in the student government and things quickly fell into place. Looking back, he now says the main reason for his victory was that he “was the only male running for office, and military men [stationed] on campus were not allowed to vote.” But others felt that, at least in part, the Oberlin students cast their ballots as a sympathy vote.
Okuda was one of many former UW students now leaving the camps for other universities. Sueko Sumioka, housed in the Minidoka camp, had help from Schmoe to get into the University of Cincinnati. “When they found out I was Japanese, I was quite a novelty,” she recalls. No one knew anything about the West Coast internment camps. Her new friends had a quick rationalization for the uprooting. “They did that to protect you. White people might come and lynch you,” they told her.
Cincinnati was just a way station. Her goal was to resettle in Chicago, where an in-law had a cafe on the south side near the University of Chicago. By 1944 she had transferred there. Although the cafe served American food, it always had rice as a side dish. “A lot of Japanese would come to eat there. If they couldn’t afford it, my in-law would often give them a free meal.”
At the cafe, she met a wounded war veteran—Shiego Sumioka—who was from Seattle’s Japanese American community. “We got married in Chicago in 1944,” she recalls. “I had to go back to the camps and get my mother and father out for the ceremony.”
Back on the West Coast, O’Brien was keeping tabs on Toru Sakahara, who had to drop out of the UW law school right after Pearl Harbor. With O’Brien’s help, Sakahara got accepted to law schools at Columbia and the University of Utah. Newly married, he didn’t have much money. So after about two months inside the Minidoka camp, he and his wife set off for Salt Lake City.
Ruby Inouye Shu, another former UW student at Minidoka, was also ready to leave. At the UW she was a pre-med student, despite the barriers against both women and Asians in the profession. The student relocation council looked for any openings for her to continue her studies. They found a spot for her at the University of Texas.
Before she left Minidoka, her father had a long talk with her. She was one of six children, but now he was giving her his bank book. “I was in shock,” she lacer recalls. “I thought this was all the money he had. I have to say that it made me want to follow through on my goals. I had to keep going.”
George Mukasa also left Minidoka, but not for a university. Like thousands of other Nisei men, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army while held in an internment camp. “Many of my classmates were drafted, but I volunteered.” At first he thought he would be assigned to the famous 442nd battalion—the most decorated unit in World War II. But after Japanese language training, he was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters, following the general as he made his way from Australia to Japan. While Mukasa survived the war, 13 Japanese American students from the UW gave their lives in defense of their country.
Hirabayashi’s case was moving through the courts quickly—too quickly, he felt. “Our team was feeling that in a couple of years, some of the hysteria may be reduced so that there’s a better chance for an objective review of the constitutional issues,” he said.
But when the appeals court in San Francisco sent a set of questions about the case to the Supreme Court, the justices decided they wanted the case right away. Hirabayashi v. U.S. was placed on the May docket for oral arguments.
Hirabayashi’s legal team was caught off guard. They hired Harold Evans, a Quaker attorney in Philadelphia with Supreme Court experience, and asked for a delay. But the request was turned down. Evans only had a month to prepare.
Years later, Hirabayashi felt that political pressure was put on the justices to hear the case quickly. “I think it was in the interest of the government to have no postponement, to have the court case on at the time where there was considerable anxiety about the way the war was going,” he said.
“I expected that when it got to the Supreme Court, of course, they were going to declare it unconstitutional. It looked like a black and white case to me.”
But at the time, he said, he was “relatively naive …. I expected that when it got to the Supreme Court, of course, they were going to declare it unconstitutional. It looked like a black and white case to me.”
Hirabayashi was the first Supreme Court test of the treatment of Japanese Americans during the war. In their briefs and oral argument, Evans and Walters focused on the internments. Was it constitutional to forcibly remove a group of citizens from their homes and jobs solely because of their race? Only about 10 percent of their argument couched on the issue of the curfew violation.
But Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone took advantage of the concurrent sentences, tossing aside the question of the internments and focusing only on the legality of the curfew orders. It would be easier, he thought, to get a unanimous decision if only the curfew were considered.
If Hirabayashi had served the original, consecutive sentences, the Court would have been forced to examine the constitutional merits of the exclusion order. Because of the concurrent sentences, they could duck the issue.
According to Hirabayashi, President Roosevelt sent word to one of his senior appointees that it would be good for the war effort if the ruling was unanimous. Justice Frank Murphy was going to dissent. “They worked hard on him, and finally he caved in. His papers indicate this,” Hirabayashi said.
On June 21, the Court issued a 9-0 ruling that the curfew was within the war powers of Congress and the president. “Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people,” Chief Justice Stone wrote in his majority opinion, ” … [but] it by no means follows that, in dealing with the perils of war, Congress and the Executive are wholly precluded from taking into account those facts and circumstances which are relevant to measures for our national defense.”
While voting with the majority, Justice Murphy wrote his own opinion. “Today is the first time, so far as I am aware, that we have sustained a substantial restriction of the personal liberty of citizens of the United States based upon the accident of race or ancestry …. In this sense it bears a melancholy resemblance to the treatment accorded to members of the Jewish race in Germany and in other parts of Europe.”
Hirabayashi got no advance notice of the ruling. He read about it in the newspaper the next morning, like everyone else. “I thought, well, I guess the Constitution had gone to war, too.”
Two and a half years later, in December 1944, the Supreme Court would finally rule on the legality of the internment camps in Korematsu v. U.S. Citing the precedence of Hirabayashi, the justices voted 6-3 affirming the legality of the camps. Murphy wrote a stinging dissent. The West Coast evacuation, he wrote, was “one of the most sweeping and complete deprivations of constitutional rights in the history of this nation.”
Not until 44 years later, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, did the United States formally admit it was wrong. Under President George H.W. Bush, the federal government paid a fee of $20,000 per person to those it incarcerated in wartime. And in 1987, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government had withheld information from the courts in both Korematsu and Hirabayashi.
After the ruling, Hirabayashi spent three months working on a road gang in southern Arizona’s Catalina Mountains. (The government wouldn’t pay for his transportation, so he hitchhiked from Spokane to get there.) In 1999, the location was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.
After serving his time, he came back to Spokane and married Floyd Schmoe’s daughter, Esther. But his days of civil disobedience weren’t over. He later served time in federal prison on McNeil Island for refusing to sign a loyalty document distributed only to Japanese Americans by the draft board.
By 1944, most officials within Roosevelt’s cabinet realized the internment camps were a mistake. Since it was an election year, Roosevelt decided to wait until after the vote to lift the military orders. On Dec. 17, 1944, Public Proclamation No. 22 officially removed Gen. De Witt’s exclusion orders.
Many returnees faced economic ruin. Others faced a hostile reaction from the white population. It is beyond the scope of this article to cell the story of the return—and later success—of this generation. But those who came back to the UW in 1945 say they felt welcomed. O’Brien later wrote there were 53 Japanese American students enrolled at the UW in 1945-46.
Of the 15 Nisei students interviewed for this article, all but one completed their college degrees despite being forced to leave the UW. The post-war success of these (and most) second-generation Japanese Americans is remarkable. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, college professors, social workers, government officials—their achievements caused some to label them the “model minority,” a name that rightfully irritates most Japanese Americans.
Perhaps this later success is the reason why no one interviewed for this article would admit that they are bitter about the internments. “If I had not been evacuated, I don’t know if I would have followed through on becoming a doctor,” says Ruby Inouye Shu. “The chances would not be as great and my intention would not be as firm.”
George Mukasa spent the post-war years in top security positions in the federal government. “The uprooting was a good thing,” he says bluntly. “It broke up the provincialism in the community. There was too much focus on the dignity of the family, of conforming to this and conforming to that. I wanted to get away from all that. I grew up pretty fast.”
“I wasn’t bitter. It’s great to be an American,” adds World War II veteran Hiro Nishamura. “I had a cultural shock over there [in Asia]. I’d rather have two strikes against me in America than live in Burma, Thailand or elsewhere. This is still the best country in the world and the best democracy.”
But their experiences need to be considered in a broader context, says Professor Emeritus Frank Miyamoto. “As a matter of fact, it is true. The internments did disperse the [Japanese American] community. But at what kind of cost?” he asks. Those alive today were in their teens and early 20s in 1942, he notes. They were young and adaptable. But their parents lost almost everything.
Miyamoto is philosophical about his personal experience and his community’s experience. “One thing I think about. It’s too bad that Japanese Americans have hung on to the evacuation experience as the event in their backgrounds that mobilizes their attitudes and sentiments,” he adds.
“Prejudice and discrimination are worldwide. There are a lot of things wrong with American society, but, on the other hand, there is no other society in the world has the capacity for change in another direction.”
Tom Griffin has been editor of Columns since it was launched in 1989. Many portions of his article rely on research by Theresa Mudrock, the history librarian far UW Libraries. For more information on this period in UW history, see Mudrock’s Web exhibit, “Interrupted Lives.”
Gordon Hirabayashi, ’45, ’49, ’52, got his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Washington and taught in the Middle East before becoming a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Now retired, he lives in Canada.
Frank Miyamoto, ’36, ’38, returned to the UW faculty after the war and was chair of the sociology department and an associate dean. He retired in 1980 and lives in the Seattle area.
George Mukasa, ’42, worked in the Pentagon after the war and then in other parts of the federal government. After retiring in 1979, he moved to the Seattle area, where he still lives.
Hiro Nishimura, ’48, completed his degree at the UW in biology and worked for 28 years for the UW departments of physiology and biochemistry. He retired in 1987 and lives in the Seattle area.
Robert O’Brien left the UW after the war to teach at Whittier College in California. He died in 1991.
Kenji Okuda graduated from Oberlin College and later got his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. He taught in Pakistan, Nepal and Uganda before returning to the U.S. to teach at WSU. He was on the economics faculty of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., before retiring 18 years ago. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.
Toru Sakahara, ’40, founded a law firm with Donna MacArthur that lasted 40 years, until his retirement in 1990. He and his wife live in the Seattle area.
Floyd Schmoe was an activist for peace and social justice his entire life. In 1948, he recruited two dozen volunteers to help rebuild the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, devastated by atomic bombs during World War II. He was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. He died at the age of 105 in 2001.
Ruby Inouye Shu was for many years the only Japanese American woman who was a physician in the Seattle region. She retired in 1995 at the age of 75 and lives in the area.
Lee Paul Sieg retired from the UW presidency in 1946 and was named its first president emeritus that year. He died in 1963.
Sueko Hasegawa Sumioka, ’45, ’60, worked for 20 years as a social worker for Seattle’s Children’s Home Society and Ryther Treatment Center. She is retired and living in the Seattle area.
* Because he is in poor health, we were not able to interview Gordon Hirabayashi for this article. All his quotes are from two oral histories in the UW Special Collections holdings.