Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi: a Portrait of Modern Christian Resistance (Remember)

Gordon Hirabayashi
Pictured from left to right: Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

February 19, 1942, marks a dark moment in U.S. history. On that day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed and issued Executive Order 9066, which placed Americans of Japanese ancestry under a curfew, among other restrictions. Ultimately, they were forcibly relocated and incarcerated in internment camps. Japanese Americans around the nation recognize February 19 as The Day of Remembrance (追憶の日or Tsuioku no hi).

Yet, in the midst of such a clear denial of civil rights to Americans of Japanese ancestry, there are stories of resilience and resolve that bring a light of inspiration to this day.

From Mukyokai to Quaker: Religious Influences to Resistance

Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi was born on April 23, 1918, into a Christian family that was associated with the Mukyokai Christian Movement (無教会主義). The Mukyokai movement was founded by Uchimura Kanzo, a graduate of Amherst College. The movement was known for its emphasis on Bible studies, speaking out against social injustices, intellectual scholarship, pacifism, and a non-church ecclesiology that lacked a liturgy, sacraments, and clergy. During his studies at the University of Washington, Hirabayashi became more convinced of pacifism and ultimately joined the Quaker’s American Friends Service Committee.

Upon the issuance of Executive Order 9066, Hirabayashi became one of three Japanese Americans to openly defy it. After being sentenced to 90 days in prison for violating both the mandatory curfew and internment, Hirabayashi sought the legal aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Harold Evans, a Quaker attorney. Hirabayashi and his legal counsel were able to appeal the verdict to the United States Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled against him in Hirabayashi v. United States in 1943.

After serving his sentence, Hirabayashi was later convicted for refusing to fill out the “Statement of United States Citizen of Japanese Ancestry.” He argued that Japanese Americans were subject to racial discrimination due to to being required to answer a questionnaire that demanded renunciation of allegiance to the emperor of Japan. Other ethnic groups were not asked the same question about their allegiance to foreign leaders, Hirabayashi noted.

Marriage and Life After the War

While out on bail for his second offense, Hirabayashi and his fiancée, Esther Schmoe decided to marry in a simple Quaker ceremony at Lidgerwood Evangelical Church in Spokane, Washington. Schmoe was the daughter of Floyd Schmoe, a prominent Quaker known for his peace activism and for his advocacy for Japanese Americans.

Following the conclusion of World War II, Hirabayashi earned degrees in sociology from the University of Washington and went on to eventually serve as the chair of the sociology department at the University of Alberta in Canada. Throughout his life, he continued to be an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and championed human rights even after his retirement.

New Case and Posthumous Honors

Shortly after his retirement in 1983, civil rights attorney Peter Irons encouraged Hirabayashi to reopen his wartime conviction on the basis of governmental misconduct. Irons and his colleague, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, had spent years uncovering evidence showing that government officials had intentionally suppressed and altered evidence in lawsuits challenging curfew and forced exclusion orders that were imposed on Japanese Americans. The United States Ninth Court of Appeals ruled in favor of this coram nobis case and overturned Hirabayashi’s convictions in 1986 and 1987.

After suffering for several years from Alzheimer’s, Hirabayashi died at the age of 93 on January 2, 2012. Although Hirabayashi and Schmoe had divorced in 1970, Schmoe died just 10 hours after her former husband.

In recognition of his legal efforts and resilience in the face of egregious mishandling of justice, Hirabayashi was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on April 27, 2012. Obama remarked during the ceremony:

“In Gordon’s words, ‘It takes a crisis to tell us that unless citizens are willing to stand up for the [Constitution], it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.’ And this country is better off because of citizens like him who are willing to stand up.”

Today, Hirabayashi is known along with Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui for their principled resistance to the internment of Japanese Americans. The prison where Hirabayashi served his sentence for defying the curfew and internment was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site. Above all, Hirabayashi is a modern-day exemplar of Christian resistance to injustice at the hands of governing authorities. He is a reminder that speaking truth to power and standing for what’s right comes with the territory of being a follower of Christ.


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    Written by Timothy I. Cho

    Timothy Isaiah Cho is an Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy enjoys reading, discussing and writing on topics related to racial justice, diversity, social justice and Christian engagement in society. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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