Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American who was imprisoned during World War II for disobeying an internment order and decades later won a court battle against the U.S. government to clear his conviction, died Jan. 2 at a nursing facility in Edmonton, Alberta. He was 93.
He had complications from the flu, said his son, Jay Hirabayashi.
Dr. Hirabayashi became a civil rights figure in the 1980s after he won a landmark court case concerning laws directed at those of Japanese descent during World War II. These included a mandated mass internment, which the American Civil Liberties Union once called the “greatest deprivation of civil liberties by the government in this country since slavery.”
Largely because of Dr. Hirabayashi’s efforts — and those of two other Japanese Americans who won cases against the government, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui — Congress passed legislation in 1988 apologizing for the policies. Reparations exceeding $1 billion were awarded to former internees.
Dr. Hirabayashi inspired “the American people to recognize that his situation and legal status and those of his generation had been abridged,” said Char Miller, a historian and authority on the Japanese internment. “He really pricked our conscience about the rule of law even in the midst of war.”
Two months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The document called for those of “Japanese ancestry” to be evacuated from the West Coast “as protection against espionage and sabotage.”
More than 100,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants were transported to internment camps, which were ringed with barbed wire.
Dr. Hirabayashi was not among them.
The son of Japanese immigrants, he was a 24-year-old senior at the University of Washington in Seattle when the government ordered him and his family to board a bus headed for a “relocation center.”
After bidding goodbye to his family, Dr. Hirabayashi turned himself in to the FBI and presented a statement: “This order for the mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese descent denies them the right to live,” he wrote.
“I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives. Therefore, I must refuse this order of evacuation.”
He was taken into custody for disobeying the order and also for breaking a curfew that had been instituted before the evacuation.
“Gordon had a very strong, principled objection to being treated differently from other American citizens,” said historian Peter Irons, who wrote the 1983 book “Justice at War,” the definitive account of the internment camp legal battle. “He deliberately violated the curfew. It was an act of civil disobedience, sort of like Rosa Parks on the bus. He was like, ‘I’m going to make this stand and risk the consequences.’ ”
Dr. Hirabayashi was found guilty in a federal court in Seattle and sentenced to several months in a Tucson labor camp. In 1943, his case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard only his curfew conviction.