Remembering Gordon Hirabayashi

Gordon Hirabayashi, former sociology chair and professor, and defender of human rights, died last week at the age of 93.

By Jamie Hanlon on January 10, 2012

(Edmonton) Gordon Hirabayashi, a former University of Alberta sociology chair and professor—and a purveyor of human rights amongst Canadians and Americans of Japanese descent—died last week at the age of 93.

Born on April 23, 1918 in Seattle, Washington to Japanese immigrants, Hirabayashi was attending the University of Washington at the start of the Second World War. Shortly after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order affecting people of Japanese ancestry. The order included such measures as curfews and internment. Hirabayashi considered the executive order unconstitutional and he peaceably defied the order to relocate to an internment camp. In 1943 United States Supreme Court heard his case and he was ordered to serve three months in jail.

Hirabayashi was later sentenced to more time in prison for rejecting induction into the military on the grounds that it required him to take an oath renouncing Emperor Hirohito, a requirement that he said was racially discriminatory.

Following the war, Hirabayashi completed his master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology at the University of Washington. Unable to find work in the United States due to his wartime convictions, he taught at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo before being hired at the University of Alberta in 1959 as a member of the fledgling sociology department. He served as head of the department from 1963 to 1969, and was appointed its first chair in 1969 (to 1970). He remained with the department until his retirement in 1983, but was still active as an emeritus into the early 1990s.

“He was connected with the university for over 30 years,” said Harvey Krahn, professor and chair (on leave) in the department of sociology. Krahn, who started his tenure with the university as Hirabayashi was nearing retirement, remembered him as being a skilled administrator. Under his tenure, the Population Research Lab was created and the department was arguably one of the top three sociology programs in the country.

“Gordon left his imprint on the department in terms of bringing in some top scholars in various areas of study,” he says. “He really shaped the department in the ways he hired but also with his strong emphasis on research.”

Social justice was a strong element in Hirabayashi’s life and shaped his areas of interest, including research on Russian Doukhobours and Jordanians in British Columbia and political awareness in Egyptian villages. Yet he never lost sight of seeking redress for the wartime wrongs committed against Americans and Canadians of Japanese descent.

Remembered as an icon of human rights in both Canada and the United States, Hirabayashi was active in the National Association of Japanese Canadians, which won a formal apology from the Canadian government for its internment of Japanese Canadians during the war.

In a landmark case, his own conviction for failing to comply with internment orders was overturned at the United States Court of Appeals in 1987. “I never look at my case as just my own, or just as a Japanese-American case. It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental human rights of all Americans,” Hirabayashi said in The Courage of Their Convictions by American author and political scientist Peter Irons.

Hirabayashi’s life and his story have been remembered in the play Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi and Rage (later renamed Believer), a multi-disciplinary dance performance piece created by his son, Jay.

Krahn remembers speaking with Hirabayashi in the mid-1980s, the latter asking him about his research and taking an interest in his new career. In retrospect, Krahn realizes that Hirabayashi would have been busy at the time preparing and tabling the case for his appeal. It is this engagement and keen interest in others for which he will be remembered.

“He was working on something momentous and yet he was asking me about my research, so I think that’s telling,” said Krahn. “This was really a remarkable person I got to know.”