It was a fitting and timely tribute by the UCLA Department of Asian American Studies Department and the UCLA Research Library when it honored Gordon Hirabayashi on April 5 with a program featuring a screening of the documentary “A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. the United States” and an appearance by special guest speaker Jay Hirabayashi, Gordon’s son.
The program accompanied an exhibition on the life of Gordon Hirabayashi in the Charles E. Young Research Library.
Three weeks after this program was held, Gordon Hirabayashi was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, joining the ranks of such civil rights luminaries as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, and Fred Korematsu in receiving this highest civilian honor.
Hirabayashi, who died in January of this year, was only one of three individuals who openly defied the WWII forced exclusion. Because he refused to comply with the order to register to report to an incarceration camp, he was convicted by a U.S. District Court in Seattle of defying the exclusion order and violating the curfew.
In 1987, his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit as part of the famed coram nobis cases brought forth by a team of lawyers on behalf of Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Minoru Yasui.
In introducing the program, UCLA Research Library staff member Susan Minobe emphasized that the lessons of courage, fortitude, and high principles exemplified by Hirabayashi are old ideals that need to be passed from generation to generation. She recited a familiar quote that has been attributed to various founding fathers: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
The 1992 award-winning film “A Personal Matter,” produced and directed by John de Graaf, tells the story of Hirabayashi’s 43-year struggle from conviction to vindication. Featuring interviews with Hirabayashi, the film recounts his rationale for defying the exclusion order he felt was offensive, and focuses on the constitutional rights for which he stood.
In defending his conviction in the same Seattle courthouse where he was convicted in 1942, Hirabayashi tells an interviewer, “Ancestry is not a crime.” According to Lane Hirabayashi, Gordon’s nephew and chair of the George and Sakaye Aratani Professorship in Japanese American Redress, Internment and Community of the UCLA Asian American Studies Department, this film was one of Gordon’s personal favorites.
Lane Hirabayashi introduced his cousin Jay, who flew in from Canada to address the UCLA audience. Through his introduction, one could not help but see striking differences between father and son, as well as startling similarities. Jay was born in Seattle, and lived 19 years with his father, 13 of those years spent in Beirut and Cairo when Gordon left the U.S. to teach overseas. Jay eventually became a college dropout who went on to become a top-notch skier. He was eventually drafted into the Canadian military, and like his father, practiced civil disobedience as a conscientious objector. He took up kundalini yoga, and went back to school to attain a doctorate in philosophy.
He currently has a distinguished career in dance as the founder of Kokoro Dance in Vancouver, which he now administers. He also teaches butoh and has become a respected dance critic.
Like many Sansei, Jay had little or no knowledge of his parents’ backgrounds, and had no idea of the extent of his father’s history-making contributions. In fact, it was not until he was in graduate school that he realized his father’s impact on Japanese American history when a fellow student asked if he was related to the famous Gordon Hirabayashi, whose landmark case that law student was studying at the time.
Jay noted that his father only began talking about his past during the redress movement and was generally modest about his accomplishments. He never spoke about the war to him or to his twin sisters.
However, in 1985 Jay was able to interview his father and mother for a dance piece that he called “Half and Half,” which served as a metaphor for his own struggle with his identity. Jay remembers hearing his father say, “If I believe in the Constitution during peace, it ought to be so in war, too.”
Jay attributed the qualities of generosity, open-heartedness and modesty to his father, who he said never scolded him, but would instead sit him down for a four-hour lecture on his belief in the principles of good behavior. His father also supported him in whatever he chose to do with his life, even if it meant becoming a professional dancer over following in his father’s own footsteps as a scholar and educator. In a strange twist, Jay eventually changed paths to take on these roles.
It was fascinating to hear these personal reminiscences of the devoted father behind the legend. President Obama recently described Gordon as a man “who reminds us that each of us is only who we are today because somebody, somewhere, felt a sense of responsibility – not just to themselves, but to their family, and their communities, and to the country we all love.” By doing so, he describes both father and cultural hero.
Thanks to this UCLA presentation, when President Obama presents this prestigious award later this year, it comes with a deeper knowledge of the amazing man who raised his own family with the same integrity and principles that he embodied when he fought for fundamental human rights for all Americans.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.