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A Japanese-American man who defied the U.S. government, and stood up for his rights during World War II, died this week at age 93. Gordon Hirabayashi refused to obey the federal government's order to go to an internment camp, where Japanese-Americans were incarcerated. And so he was imprisoned during the war. Hirabayashi was a college senior at the time and later, his appeal made its way to the Supreme Court, where he lost. It took four decades for his conviction to be overturned.
BLOCK: Gordon Hirabayashi's nephew, Lane Hirabayashi, holds an academic chair at UCLA that's dedicated to the study of Japanese-American detention. He joins me now from NPR West. Welcome to the program.
LANE HIRABAYASHI: Thank you.
BLOCK: Your uncle was born in Seattle to Japanese immigrants, and I gather that you've been going through his diaries and his letters from the 1940s. What did he say in those papers about why he refused - first, the government's curfew order, and then the order that sent Japanese-Americans to the camps?
LANE HIRABAYASHI: I think there were two foundations to Gordon's decision in that regard. One was constitutional, and the other was religious. At a constitutional level, he - like many second-generation Nisei - went to American public schools and was fully exposed to the Bill of Rights and the principles of the U.S. Constitution. So at that level, he felt that both curfew and mass incarceration were unconstitutional in nature.
And I think at a religious or spiritual level, Gordon was a Christian. My grandparents had converted to Christianity in Japan even before they came to the United States. And he believed very sincerely in God, in a brotherhood of man. And he felt that the orders were objectionable on that basis as well.
BLOCK: Hmm. His parents were sent to the camps, and it sounds like - from what I've read - that there was a lot of anguish on all of their sides. They didn't know whether they'd ever see each other again, since he was not going.
LANE HIRABAYASHI: Well, I think that in particular, my grandmother - Gordon's mom - was terrified that the family would be split up. And Gordon had said that the FBI interrogations, and the kind of pressure that government officials and lawyers put on him, was strong. But he said his mother's tears, and her pleading that he not break up the family, was probably the most difficult obstacle that he had to face in making this decision.
BLOCK: Hmm. He serves time in jail. His appeal goes to the Supreme Court, and they rule against him. What did he say later about that ruling and the effect that it had on him?
LANE HIRABAYASHI: Well, I think that he was very disappointed in the ruling. I think that he really looked to the Supreme Court to be the ultimate defender of his constitutional rights. And what they did in his particular case was to focus on just the curfew issue, and that they upheld the need of the president, and of the government, to impose curfew as needed, whenever needed, to protect the interests of national security. And he felt that that was not a constitutionally sound decision.
BLOCK: Your uncle did tell his story about this time for an oral history project. Let's take a listen to some of what he said about this time period.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GORDON HIRABAYASHI: For a while, I thought the Constitution failed me. Then it occurred to me that it wasn't necessarily the Constitution that failed me. It was the people who were placed in the responsibility of upholding the Constitution. And 40 years later, my views were upheld.
BLOCK: Lane Hirabayashi, as a professor who teaches this period of American history, what do you tell your students about this chapter and in particular, about your uncle and his story?
LANE HIRABAYASHI: Well, the thing I like to remind students is that Gordon was a student very much like themselves. And students can really make a difference in terms of U.S. history, in terms of civil rights; and Gordon is a good case study of that kind of perspective.
BLOCK: Professor Hirabayashi, thanks so much for talking with us.
LANE HIRABAYASHI: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: Lane Hirabayashi is a professor of Asian-American studies at UCLA. We were talking about his uncle, Gordon Hirabayashi, who defied internment during World War II. He died this week, at age 93.
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