Densho Digital Archive
Steven Okazaki Collection
Title: Peter Irons Interview
Narrator: Peter Irons
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: November 11, 1983
Densho ID: denshovh-ipeter-03-0001

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Q: Peter, do you think you could describe for us the kind of backgrounds that the three men had, Mr. Hirabayashi, Yasui and Korematsu, and how their backgrounds may have influenced them?

PI: Well, I think it's interesting that they're three very different kinds of people, both in their backgrounds and their motivations for opposing the internment. Gordon Hirabayashi, at that time, who was a college senior, came from a family which was very unusual among Japanese Americans. His parents in Japan had belonged to a small religious group which was very much like the Quakers in this country. and so he was raised as a pacifist. This group did not believe in military service, and so Gordon grew up in a very religious kind of environment. He was very active in church groups. When he went to college, he joined the YMCA and the Christian fellowship and was very much influenced by pacifist religious leaders. So that his opposition to internment was really based on a very strong moral commitment, not only to opposing war but also to being unwilling and unable to accept the internment of his family and other Japanese Americans. And one of the things I think that influenced him in opposing internment himself was that he had dropped out of school just before the internment started to work for the American Friends Service Committee which is a Quaker group. And his job was to transport people to the assembly center, and so he would help them pack up their belongings and dispose of their property, drive them down to the centers, and he became more and more appalled at the conditions, the terrible hardships, separation of family and so forth.

Min Yasui, on the other hand, had a very different kind of background. His father was a apple orchard grower who was very assimilated into... the Japanese community where he lived was much smaller and more isolated in Oregon. And so his father was very much a part of the Caucasian society there. But it also was a very traditional kind of family. Min was brought up with a very sort of patriotic American kind of upbringing, and he was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps in college, he became an army officer. And when the war began, he'd been working for the Japanese consulate in Chicago. He immediately resigned, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, came back to Oregon to report for duty as an army officer, and then was turned down because of his race. But his basic motivation I think was much more a legal -- he was a lawyer, of course -- much more of a legal objection to the discrimination against American citizens as opposed to the, for "enemy aliens," that is, the older generation. So he had a sort of strong understanding of the constitutional problems of internment, of personal revulsion against what he considered an unlawful act.

And Fred Korematsu, the third opponent of the internment, was, unlike Gordon and Min, not brought up in a very strong social or political... he didn't have those personal experiences as a child that made him sensitive to these issues. He had a very personal response to this. It was something that he felt shouldn't have applied to him as an individual. I don't think he was as concerned about the impact on the Japanese American community as his own personal situation. He was then engaged to a Caucasian girl, didn't want to leave the coast without her, felt that it was his right to stay there, but it wasn't a product, I think, of a lot of reflection, conscious planning, as Gordon and Min and done. It was more a very personal objection that he had.


PI: I think one thing that was very important in Gordon's motivation was his reaction to what happened to his own family and to the other Japanese Americans in the Seattle area. He had been working, taking people to the camps, helping them dispose of their property, actually putting them behind the barbed wire, and he was keeping a diary of this as he went along. And one of the things that I think affected him very much was having to accompany his own parents and his younger brothers and sisters to the camp, the fairgrounds camp that they went to. He hadn't yet been called for the evacuation, so in a sense he had to leave them behind, and it was very, a very real stress on him to do that. His mother in particular felt that he should come with them and stay with the family, but that if it was his decision not to, and to resist, she would support that, but it was obviously, in her mind and in his father's mind, a real tension between their family loyalty and Gordon's principles, which they supported.

In Min's case, a number of things happened. Not only did he come back from Chicago to report for military service, his father in fact had sent him a telegram: "It's your patriotic duty to report for service now that we're at war." But after he came back and was rejected by the army because of his race, his father was picked up by the FBI. He was on the list of people who were considered potentially dangerous and was taken off to an internment camp in Montana. Min went to that camp to represent his father at a loyalty hearing, and his reaction to that was that his father was simply being railroaded into the camp for no good reason. There was no evidence the army presented that he was disloyal. So I think that that combination of factors, both what happened to his father, what happened to himself, made his objection, which was really based on his legal principles, more personal and more strong, and made him more willing to undertake the challenge that he did.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.