Densho Digital Archive
Steven Okazaki Collection
Title: Gordon Hirabayashi - Jim Hirabayashi Interview
Narrators: Gordon Hirabayashi, Jim Hirabayashi
Location: San Francisco California
Date: December 3, 1983
Densho ID: denshovh-hgordon_g-01

<Begin Segment 1>

JH: Well, do you remember when you came over to San Francisco about the time of the strike and people were wanting to use you as sort of a symbol? Do you recall that?

GH: Yeah, yeah.

JH: I think for a long time, people weren't interested in being Japanese American and things like that and so --

GH: This was the latter part of '60s, '69, something like that.

JH: That's right, that's right. And they're digging into the recent past and looking for various kinds of symbols.

GH: Uh-huh.

JH: And l recall at that time their wanting to look at your particular experiences in your case.

GH: Yeah. Sort of discovered me in the records.

JH: That's right.

GH: Very uncomfortable for me when you were talking to me about playing that role. And l remember we talked halfway into the night, three a.m. or something.

JH: Uh-huh.

GH: Before I could get the perspective of the role, not a personal one, but kind of a social, cultural symbol.

JH: Well, why did you find it somewhat uncomfortable?

GH: Well, I didn't feel I was any kind of a culture hero for that event, and it seemed out of character for me to try to play something like that. And it took a long time, probably if it were not for the opportunity of talking at length from all kinds of angles with someone like yourself that I could talk with, I don't know that anybody else in San Francisco could have done that, you know, on my short visits over and so on.

JH: Uh-huh. Well, I appreciated those days for another reason. As I recall, we didn't have much relationship with each other when we were young because of the separation in age and you were at the university. So that it seemed to me that that was a first time that we began to talk to each other as adults.

GH: Yeah. Person to person.

JH: Yes.

GH: That's right. Earlier, in your growing up period, I was away at school, university, eight years' difference even when we did visit, made a lot of difference. I'm talking to a little kid brother, you know.

JH: Yes, right.

GH: Getting dents in old man's car and so on. [Laughs] So that's right, both with you and my youngest, our youngest brother, Dick, who was thirteen years younger, it's only recently we've been sort of man to man relationship.

JH: Well, I think I think the significance of your case for the young Japanese Americans, it rather changed something that was you personally to something that was a symbol. And so you had the change from looking at it from a personal standpoint to something that is happening at a different time and for different reasons, it seems to me.

GH: Yeah. I remember discussing with one of your students who had come from Hawaii, where being Japanese American was second nature. They were the majority there. And then, discovering what Japanese Americans meant on the West Coast after she had come to school here, and it had been so live awareness that she couldn't understand why I wasn't always carrying always the Japanese American flag wherever I went. And I was trying to tell her that while I was teaching in the Middle East, American University of Beirut, it didn't make any sense to myself nor to anybody else to raise that flag. Part of the time, my identity was as an American overseas, or sometimes even as an international, as apart from the locals. So Japanese American in that context was irrelevant. But it's a different story here.

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

<Begin Segment 2>

JH: Oh, well, questions of redress and reparations, I think there've been divided opinion on in the community about that. But for those of us who've been involved in it from the very first, think it's a very important thing to clarify the issues as to what it means for us. I think... and then there's been quite a bit of argument over whether there should be reparations or not. And I've always felt that it's very important in our society anyway to recognize wrongs done in the past by establishing some sort of reparations for the wrongs committed.

GH: Yeah. The other side of the thing is if something is declared to have been unjust, but no compensation is associated with it, the reaction in our system is, "I guess it wasn't a very serious wrong." And from that perspective, redress should be substantially a large sum, relatively speaking, because it was a very gross injustice.

JH: Well, I think that insofar as the Sanseis are concerned, also, I kind of think that it's symbolic. Again, something that has some meaning to outside, outsiders and some meaning for them. Something that's more or less physical, I guess. Something that you could see. And I think this is why reparations is an important thing in the redress issue.

GH: Well, the Sanseis, when we say Sansei, they're, we're talking in your case about those who are aware and concerned. They're angry; they even get to the point of wondering why more voices weren't raised earlier. But then the bulk of the Sanseis, population-wise, they think they're blended in, and it won't be in until they run into some injustice by being considered Japanese because of their face, until they begin to have some second thoughts. Currently, the relations of many of the Sanseis are quite good. It has given rise to statements like "out-whiting the white" and so on. They feel they're Anglo Americans.

JH: Well, I think, many of them will realize when special instances come up, and the most recent and most blatant act has been this Vincent Chin case where a Chinese is being mistaken for a Japanese and then clubbed to death. And then the perpetrators of this just really getting off with just a slap on the, on the wrists. I think that the Sanseis will recognize that there's something wrong about this and that really that this racism is still extant in our society.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

Q: Jim, what is the lesson of Gordon's case? Well, thinking about the [inaudible] what are the lessons?

JH: What are the lessons on the case? Well, for me right now, I've been just lecturing in my classes about the case. And my general theme is that this has always been a society which has had an implicit ideology of racism regardless of what the Constitution guarantees. And so I want people to recognize this. And what we've learned from the case is that these events that really took citizenship rights away from us forty years ago, they're still, they're still alive today. Because in the rehearing of these cases, forty years subsequent to the event, the government is still dragging their feet about admitting to the wrongs. This is the feeling that I get about the rehearing cases that are currently going on.


GH: One of the observations I have with these different fights with civil liberties, is that even in 1942, when we had our discriminations and confinements and camps and so on, we had all the rights on the books. You know, when, these days, you hear citizens say, "We gotta get Congress to pass laws that would prevent this sort of thing from happening again," we had all those protections. The thing that we need, the only thing that would help us, is citizen vigilance to uphold those things. And that's the lesson I learned from the wartime case and the current coram nobis case, Vincent Chin case and so on. You gotta fight for those rights or they won't be there.

JH: And I think this is what the Sanseis are beginning to realize, and it was principally because of their support that the cases are being reheard now because the young lawyers are mostly the Sanseis that are pushing this


GH: Yeah, I think the stage is for the Sansei to carry on. The Niseis are pasturing out now, not only by age but by the kind of growing they went through. They weren't, they weren't confrontation-oriented. They were survival-oriented, and I think that was valid then. But the times are different now and so it's up to the new generation and the newer one, the Yonsei, coming in. If there is such a consciousness as Yonsei to carry this forward. I suppose, I suppose there's increasingly American citizens instead of somebody special.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

Q: Why don't you sum up in five sentences why you reopened the case. What would you say?

GH: I can't hear all of that.

Q: If you could sum up in five sentences why you reopened the case, what would you say?

GH: Well, for a long time, it's, I've wanted some kind of opportunity to erase that bad decision in the Supreme Court. And I felt that sometime it'll come, although I wasn't quite sure how that sort of thing would present itself, the opportunity. So when Peter Irons came with new discoveries and a rarely used device by which we could petition for a hearing, that was the opening, and I didn't have any hesitation responding positively to that question. And the rest is the record now. We're almost, I think, to win it.

Q: Could you also sum up very briefly why you made the initial decision?

GH: In 1942, I was confronted with obeying what the government orders said, and that's part of my training, you know, we're all trained to obey the law. On the other hand, I was confronted with certain values that I held high, the various principles of American citizenship and what we considered fair play and justice. And if I were to go along with the order, I would have to kind of restructure all of those values and develop a new philosophy of life which was too much for me. So I decided to hold to those values and disobey the law. It was, I was a student then, so guess I was freer to think in those relatively idealistic terms. But since then, I've discovered idealism and realism aren't that different. That sometimes, the most realistic position is an idealistic one.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

GH: Yeah, when we talk about the conservatism of the Japanese Americans, we're generally thinking of the Nisei and in terms of postwar, the 1950s era. Now, that, I think we should remember it was a quiet era for all Americans. They were recovering from a decade long total depression of the 1930s, and total war like we've never had before. World War II. So they're getting on with getting themselves shaped up. In the meantime, certain kinds of human rights, legislation and other things are slowly coming in. But I think the concern of the Nisei, was to get on with an economic stabilization, not to be poor and hungry like most of us were during the Depression.

JH: I think there was tremendous recovery at that time. Because at first we were wondering what the effects of the war would be. And I remember prior to the war there were hardly any Japanese that were in civil service or the professions, or teaching. And then suddenly, very soon after World War II, the Japanese made tremendous moves into the general society.

GH: When the restrictions were moved, the kinds of education we were getting without knowing how we were gonna use it, suddenly had places to be put. And so they moved in fast. They moved rapidly in terms of social economic hierarchy.

JH: So I think there was no reason for the Japanese to be very much in the protesting mood at that time, because they were making it into the society quite rapidly. It was only after that that the changes in the '60s came about, and the unrest.


GH: The conservatism of the Niseis weren't just because they had been trained to cope with survival and not confrontation. And that kind of training carried on, not so that they were sort of inactive, relatively speaking, but they were, they even were vigorously opposed to any kind of activism. And Jim could tell you some experiences in the late '60s, early '70s, the opposition he got, in terms of citizen responsibilities and so on.

JH: Well, it was during that time that we had to go out to get support from the community and many of the conservative people, simply because the style that they used before was non-confrontational, not to rock the boat, and to be good law-abiding citizens. So that they didn't see that the style that we were using in order to get certain changes made in society, so that there was quite a bit of opposition within the community itself.

GH: They were afraid that if we got too involved, we would get backlash.

JH: They would lose the kind of advantage that they had worked hard for.

GH: Yeah. By being quiet and hard-working. Good qualities, but there are times when you have to speak out.

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

Q: Gordon, do you remember, at any time did your parents say anything about what you were doing back in '42?

GH: Yes, I think the parents, my parents... no, I don't think I took stands completely independent of the kind of philosophy my parents had. So they understood and in fact, in principle, they supported me, but they wanted me to hold that principle in abeyance under these circumstances so that we could be together, not knowing where they were gonna go and not knowing what was gonna happen to me when I refused. And as my mother emotionally put it, we may never see each other again. And so she said the family should come first. So they begged me to hold off my protest, but when I was unable to do that, they without hesitation supported me all through the situation.

JH: I think it should be pointed out here also that he, Gordon being the firstborn son in an immigrant family, plays a specific and special role in the adjustment that Japanese families are making to the society here. So that I think it's very important for them to have him with us during the time of the crisis.

GH : I was helped a little by the fact that my next brother had just graduated high school and Jim was second year in high school, so that physically, at least, they weren't left on their own, so it put my mind to ease to some extent on that aspect.

Q: Did you remember any exchange with your father, what he said?

GH: Yeah, my father was less articulate than my mother on these things, but he was standing right there and they spoke as a team. I always felt that... one experience in, while I was in jail, I would correspond, she would write to me in the simple Japanese phonetics called katakana, and I'd respond accordingly. In one of the letters, she said that a couple of ladies from California who were in Tule Lake in a block about a mile and half away, trudged all the way out to knock on her door because they heard that the son of that family was in jail, refusing to go with this process of uprooting. And she said when these people came just to say thank you, she said that gave her a big lift. And I then, I didn't... felt no longer any kind of concern over what I did and not being with the family because I didn't think anything I ever could've done could have given her that kind of lift.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.