Dr. Cherstin Lyon, author of “Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience and Historical Memory” (Temple University Press), will discuss the choices individuals like Gordon Hirabayashi made during World War II in response to the U.S. government’s illegal actions at a public program set on Saturday, June 23, at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. First St. in Little Tokyo.
Hirabayashi, who passed away in January and was presented posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, told Lyon in interviews that after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, leading to the unfair forced removal of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry, he had at some point decided that to obey an unjust law was to support it.
Hirabayashi explained to Lyon that he chose to take small steps to make sure his personal values matched his everyday actions. As time went on, and as his commitment to pacifism and the Constitution were challenged more directly, he took bigger steps. If a law was fair and just, he would obey; but if a law was clearly racially discriminatory or if it contradicted his most deeply held spiritual beliefs, he would not.
What seemed so clear to Hirabayashi back then may not always be so clear to others today. As Dr. Lyon mentions in her book, “when individuals are asked to obey a law or comply with an order from a source of authority that contradicts their most deeply held values, it can be hard to remember that we are all still free to make our own choices.” Moreover, in a democratic society such as ours, “we have the right to refuse any order, or any law,” though “with that freedom comes the responsibility to accept the consequences.”
For Hirabayashi, it meant incarceration in jail once and prison twice. Convicted of violating the exclusion order and curfew, he requested his time be served outdoors at a road camp. Because of the exclusion, the nearest facility was the Catalina Federal Prison Camp in Tucson, Ariz. There were no funds to send him, so Hirabayashi volunteered to report there on his own. “It was against my principles to pay my way to prison, so I hitchhiked,” he recalled.
Lyon, who is an associate professor of history at CSU San Bernardino, first met Hirabayashi in November 1999 when she was invited to interview him and several Nisei draft resisters, including Ken Yoshida, Sus Yenokida, Harry Yoshikawa and Noboru Taguma, who attended the U.S. Forest Service’s renaming ceremony of the former Tucson camp where they served their prison terms.
The site was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site.
Lyon has been drawn to stories of resistance, such as the way ordinary people resisted military dictatorships in South America, Chinese immigrants resisted exclusion policies around the turn of the 20th century, and Native Americans whose tribal lands have been divided by the international borders of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada have worked to achieve stable border-crossing rights to tribal members cut off from certain services.
Lyon carefully listened to Hirabayashi and the other draft resisters back in 1999. With the utmost respect for World War II veterans, including those valiant Japanese Americans who fought in the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, she contends that people should not lose sight of the freedoms “won in court and in prison.”
Furthermore, she stated that those individuals willing to go to prison instead of obeying an unconstitutional law are directly responsible for keeping “the boundaries of our democratic freedoms large and inclusive.” Indeed, those “like Gordon Hirabayashi make room for more ordinary conversations about the balance between our rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”
In the course of 12 years of researching and writing “Prisons and Patriots,” Lyon sought the answers to several important questions: “Why did not more people resist the draft? What were some other ways in which individuals and groups expressed their dissatisfaction with wartime policies of exclusion and the segregated military? What, if anything, does this story teach us about the complex nature of citizenship in times of war and peace?”
Lyon is aware that her audiences sometimes can be a little uncomfortable deviating from a very narrow definition of patriotism and that there are still those who believe “that all ‘Japanese’ posed a threat to the U.S. during World War II.” Also, according to Lyon, because of the “militarized society” in which we live, it is “difficult to discuss civil disobedience — especially draft resistance — without the conversation turning on narrow definitions of loyalty, patriotism, and duty to country.”
She remains hopeful, however, that the vast majority of Americans will be open to reading a book that may challenge traditional notions.
This program is free to JANM members or with admission. For more information on Lyon and her work, go to Discover Nikkei to access the profile by Edward Yoshida at http://5dn.org/Cherstin-Lyon.
“Prisons and Patriots” (not to be confused with the documentary “Prisoners and Patriots”) is available at the Museum Store. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.