Gordon Hirabayashi v. United States

Hirabayashi v. United States, 1943

Ruling: 9-0, United States Supreme Court

Gordon Hirabayashi was born in 1918 in Washington to Japanese parents who immigrated to the United States. Following the February 19, 1942 issuance of Executive Order 9066, mandating the forced internment of Japanese Americans, Mr. Hirabayashi turned himself into the FBI on May 16, 1942 with a written statement titled “Why I refused to register for evacuation,” despite initial opposition against his refusal to evacuate his mother, provided moral support but wanted him to stay with the family[i]. Mr. Hirabayashi, as an American citizen, believed that the curfew and imprisonment of Japanese Americans violated his constitutional rights.

However, the federal grand jury in Seattle charged Mr. Hirabayashi with the violation of Public Law 503 for failure to report for evacuation and for curfew violation. In 1943, Mr. Hirabayashi’s lawyers appealed his case all the way up to the US Supreme Court in the first challenge to Executive Order 9066[ii]. Mr. Hirabayashi’s lawyers contested the constitutionality of the government’s wartime curfew and expulsion of Japanese-Americans on the grounds that they denied Japanese Americans due process and equal protection of the law. However, the Supreme Court unanimously voted 9-0 to uphold Mr. Hirabayashi’s conviction for violating the Executive Order.

Mr. Hirabayashi completed his initial sentence of 90 days in federal prison in Arizona, before being sent back to prison once again for draft evasion in refusing to complete the government-distributed “loyalty questionnaire.” While working for the American Friends Service Committee in Spokane, Mr. Hirabayashi refused the questionnaire administered to all Japanese Americans in camp, stating that its motivations were based purely on his ancestry and therefore was racial discrimination [iii].

Following his stay at McNeil Island federal penitentiary and after the war, he returned to Seattle where he earned a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in sociology. He went on to teach sociology for many years at the University of Alberta in Canada.

In 1983, UC San Diego Professor Peter Irons, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, uncovered evidence of government misconduct from 1942, which proved that the government knowingly withheld from the Supreme Court crucial information that there was no military necessity for Exclusion Order 9066 [iv]. In 1987, Mr. Hirabayashi’s lawyers filed a petition for a writ of error coram nobis (as did the Korematsu and Yasui legal teams). In September 1987, his conviction was vacated on the grounds that “material [had] been suppressed  from the Supreme Court…”

In 1999, the former Catalina Federal Honor Camp near Tucson, AZ, where Hirabayashi was sentenced to hard labor in the 1940s, was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site. Since 2007, the East West Players, an Asian American theater company, has staged productions based on his life.

In May 2011, acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal released an unprecedented “confession of error” in the Korematsu and Hirabayashi cases.

Gordon Hirabayashi passed away on January 2, 2012 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada at the age of 93. His former wife, Esther Hirabayashi, passed away in Edmonton just hours later on the same day. She was 87. He is survived by his wife, Susan, his children, Marion, Sharon, and Jay, and his sister Esther (also known as Tosh Furugori).

Read the Korematsu Institute’s full obituary for Gordon Hirabayashi here.

Hirabayashi Legal Team

Rod Kawakami (lead counsel)
Kathryn Bannai (lead counsel)
Nettie Alvarez
Arthur Barnett
Jeffrey Beaver
Camden Hall
Daniel Ichinaga
Gary Iwamoto
Craig Kobayashi
Michael Leong
Diane Narasaki
Karen Narasaki
Rich Ralston
Sharon Sakamoto
Roger Shimizu
Benson Wong


[i] Trinity University, “Gordon Hirabayashi v The United States, “Am I an American?”” http://www.trinity.edu/departments/history/faculty/Miller/Hirabayashi.htm (accessed August 24, 2011).

[ii] History Link, “Hirabayashi, Gordon K.”, http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=2070 (accessed August 24, 2011).

[iii] History Link, “Hirabayashi, Gordon K.”, http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=2070 (accessed August 24, 2011).

[iv] Peter H. Irons. Justice At War (Oxford University Press, 1983).