BOOK REVIEW: Endurance, Faith and Incarceration

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A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States” by Gordon K. Hirabayashi with James A. Hirabayashi and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi (University of Washington Press) $29.95 hardback, 232 pp.

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

Most books on Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi focus on his legal courtroom battles, but “A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States” is the first to delve into the more important question of what sustained Hirabayashi during those court appearances and incarceration in various prisons.

Hirabayashi is most known for his legal challenge of the curfew and subsequent imprisonment of Japanese Americans into United States concentration camps during World War II. His case was reopened during the 1980s, as part of the coram nobis cases of Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui. In 2012, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

This new book examines how Hirabayashi endured during those turbulent war years. His thoughts and feelings are conveyed through the compilation of his diary entries, letters, personal papers such as speeches, and oral history interviews conducted in the 1990s by Gordon’s younger brother, the late Dr. James Hirabayashi, with assistance from James’ son, Dr. Lane Hirabayashi.

James and Lane did an excellent job in keeping Gordon’s voice intact, and what emerges is a portrait of a young man with a dry, witty sense of humor, who possessed a maturity well beyond his age and was deeply grounded in spirituality with no patience for rigid religiosity.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Hirabayashi’s inner thoughts is the absence of bitterness, fear, anger or despair. This lack of negative feelings can be credited to Hirabayashi’s deep faith in Christianity, and he continued to read widely while imprisoned.

It is because of this strong spiritual foundation that Hirabayashi never wavered or compromised from confronting injustice wherever he went. Even in prison, while other prisoners accepted segregation, Hirabayashi gathered the courage to question this practice, even if this meant some form of punishment.

Readers may even get a chuckle when Hirabayashi writes in his diary about all the “profanity” he had to put up in jail, but rather than compromise even his language, Hirabayashi creatively described how one prisoner said to “go far away from heaven” rather than simply write “go to hell.”

In his typical humorous way, Hirabayashi also describes a confrontation he had with two white female prison visitors hell-bent on converting the heathen prisoners to Christianity. Although Hirabayashi told these women Jesus’ teachings were the guiding light of his life, they were not satisfied and they got into a debate. In the end, Hirabayashi wrote, “It is too late to say these things to two old ladies. It only causes them to pray every night for a Jap boy in jail who is possessed by the devil.”

Another important aspect that this book reveals is the strong support Hirabayashi received from his Christian friends, mainly from the American Friends Service Committee, also known as the Quakers. Ironically, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Japanese American Citizens League — two groups that purport to be “civil rights” organizations — are the two that refused to support Hirabayashi’s constitutional quest.

This book also effectively pulls together the different parts of Hirabayashi’s life, which the public has heard in his speeches at different venues. When read together as a whole, Hirabayashi’s life is like “a comedy of errors.” For example, his parents are thrown into jail with him although they were brought there to act as his witnesses at his trial; Hirabayashi has to act as an interpreter for his father at his own trial; and he must hitchhike from Washington to Arizona to serve his own jail time.

The weakest portion of the book is a lack of explanation or analysis of Hirabayashi’s observations. As an example, Hirabayashi mistakenly refers to the draft resisters he met at the McNeil Island federal penitentiary as “no-no boys.” Like many Nisei of his era, Hirabayashi held the common misconception that simply answering “no” to Questions 27 and 28 on the controversial government loyalty questionnaire got Japanese American men tossed into the federal penitentiary.

In reality, Nikkei men and women who answered “no” to the two controversial loyalty questions were sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center, but this book continues to perpetuate this widely mistaken notion.

The chapter focusing on Hirabayashi’s courtship with Esther Schmoe also felt like an afterthought. The chapter is a selection of diary entries from different years, but those who are unfamiliar with Hirabayashi’s story may wonder why he is writing from Spokane, Wash., one month and then from Tucson, Ariz., the next month.

Other areas that would have strengthened the book would have been avoiding the inclusion of similar sentences that begin to sound repetitious; copy-editing the photo captions; and giving readers a short background of other people Hirabayashi mentions, particularly other Japanese American jailmates such as Ted Takahashi, Kenji Iki, etc.

Despite some shortcomings, however, the book is a fascinating look into the inner workings of how one man, with the support of his Christian supporters, took on the U.S. government and ultimately won.

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