Fight for These Truths

By Jiayun Zhuang, Dramaturg for Hold These TruthsAssistant Professor, Department of Dramatic Art, UNC-Chapel Hill

A Solo Act Against Exclusion 

Image from the National Archives

On February 19, 1942, ten weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and thereby granted Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson the authority to designate military zones from which “any and all persons may be excluded.” Although the wording did not specify any ethnic or racial groups, the intent of the order was clear. The stage was now set for the mass evacuation and confinement of more than 110,000 American citizens and legal residents of Japanese ancestry, all of whom were labeled “the enemy.” Forced from their homes on the Pacific Coast into a series of large, hastily constructed concentration camps far inland, these people labored, languished, starved, and suffered behind barbed wire.

Executive Order 9066 was both a response to and inspired by widespread pro-war, anti-Japanese hysteria that was equally tinged with economic self-interest and racial discrimination. This hysteria and the accompanying concentration-camp system persisted throughout the war despite the fact that not one incident of sabotage or espionage was conducted by Japanese Americans in the United States. Their wartime loyalty was disbelieved for no reason, and they were punished for this baseless disbelief.

The protagonist of Jeanne Sakata’s one-man play Hold These Truths, Gordon Hirabayashi—an American-born Japanese Quaker—was one of the few who defied the government’s attempts to displace and isolate his community. Not only did he refuse to obey the curfew orders imposed only upon people of Japanese descent, he also violated Civilian Exclusion Order No. 57 (which required Japanese Americans to register for exclusion by May 12, 1942) in order to legally challenge the constitutionality of race-based evacuation and imprisonment. Heard before the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 1943, Hirabayashi v. United States was the first Japanese American internment case to test the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066 and its Congressional support. Before the Supreme Court decided the case in favor of the government Hirabayashi had already spent months in Washington State’s King County Jail. After the court’s decision, he served an additional three months at the Catalina Federal Honor Camp in Arizona. Along with the incarceration suffered by other Japanese Americans, Hirabayashi’s conviction and sentence demonstrated legally sanctioned discrimination based on a poisonous amalgamation of nationalism and racism.

Image from the National Archives

Under the direction of Lisa Rothe and starring Joel de la Fuente, Sakata’s one-man story of this long,lonely stand against mass incarceration during America’s pre-Civil Rights era underscores a sense of singularity in Hirabayashi’s extraordinary odyssey. Based on extensive interviews with Hirabayashi and exhaustive archival research spanning prison diaries, personal letters, and newspaper articles, Sakata’s group portrait of more than 30 characters unfolds through the memories and thoughts of the older Hirabayashi, now a retired professor. As he speaks, parents, friends, judges, lawyers, military personnel, and strangers all bear witness to the pacifist beliefs, undaunted spirit, and strategic modes of resistance enacted by a fearless individual in an era when it was both a difficult time to be Japanese-American in the United States and a critical time for Japanese-Americans to demand recognition of their rights as citizens of the United States.

Long-Term Anti-Japanese Sentiment

Hirabayashi’s story evokes a Japanese-American experience that, while characteristic of and set in the wartime period, also sheds light on how anti-Japanese prejudice, as a part of a wider anti-Asian sentiment, was firmly in place before the war and can be traced back to the early immigration and settlement of the Japanese in America. 

Image from the National Archives

First-generation Japanese immigrants, known as Issei, demonstrated principles of sacrifice and parental devotion known as kodomo no tame ni [literally, “for the sake of the children”]. Whereas the first of this group were contract workers who arrived at the sugar plantations of Hawaii in 1868, the first wave of Japanese did not reach the continental United States until the 1890s (when they were brought in as replacements for Chinese agricultural labor shortly after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act). By 1909, “Japanese farmers owned 2,442 acres in California and leased another 54,830” (Starr 1996: 62). By the 1930s, these farms were producing more than 10% of the value of California’s annual agricultural yield.

Nativist hostilities and anti-immigrant legislation swiftly erupted as this group of wage laborers shifted to land ownership and small-scale farming. Even though they represented less than 2% of California’s population, the Japanese were perceived as seizing agricultural substance from the White race. In addition, they were stereotyped as “yellow hordes” whose social and cultural mores were both insurmountable by and incommensurate with the dominant society. Typical rhetoric described them “the least assimilable and the most dangerous (race)” that polluted the nation, who “have no idea of assimilating in the sense of amalgamation” and “never cease to be Japanese” (Ichihashi 1969: 303).
According to a 1910 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle:  

Had the Japanese laborer throttled his ambition to progress along the lines of American citizenship and industrial development, he probably would have attracted small attention of the public mind. Japanese ambition is to progress beyond mere servility to the plane of the better class of American workman and to own a home with him. The moment that this position is exercised, the Japanese cease to be an ideal laborer.

Declared ineligible to own agricultural land by the Alien Land Acts passed by Congress in the 1910s and 1920s, the small Japanese population on the California coast enjoyed no rights to the properties they cultivated and were excluded from citizenship and naturalization. For 28 years, starting with the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 and ending in 1952, Japanese immigrants in America were classified as “aliens ineligible to citizenship” and new Japanese immigrants were barred completely. In the face of this discrimination, which was entrenched across national and racial lines, some Issei returned to Japan; some congregated in urban neighborhoods and developed systems of mutual aid; and others organized, demonstrated, and worked—despite scant resources—against limits on Japanese immigration.

Image from the National Archives

Gordon Hirabayashi was a Nisei, the American-born second generation that held citizenship as a birthright; most were born between the 1910s and the 1940s. Although they experienced somewhat less economic instability and political powerlessness than their Isseiparents, the Nisei faced another set of difficulties as they negotiated the complexities of their identity in various contexts. Were they more Japanese or more American? Should they maintain their ethnic and cultural characteristics as their parents expected them to, or should they invest more in their efforts of Americanization? Perhaps most centrally, as they dealt with the cultural and national gulf between America and Japan, as well as the clash between self-identity and group identity within their own circumscribed ethnic community, the Niseiwondered if the larger society’s attitudes and views of them were more tolerant—and, perhaps most urgently, whether the barriers posed by “Anglo conformity” were in fact permeable. Even as their rights to full freedom and equality as American citizens were taught to them at school and by their parents, the Nisei often felt anxiety and discomfort as they negotiated issues of assimilation.

In the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Nisei’s worst nightmares became reality. Along with their parents, they were interrogated around the principle of loyalty. Their answers, however, were moot because so many others had already answered for them. For example, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, Commanding General of the Western Defense Command, explained to the Secretary of War why “all enemy aliens” should be “removed” by arguing that “[The] Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.” Similarly, columnist Walter Lippmann attempted to explain the absence of Japanese sabotage on the Pacific Coast by declaring, “it is a sign that the blow is well-organized and that it is held back until it can be struck with maximum effect” (Washington Post, February 12, 1942). Two days after Executive Order 9066, the San Francisco Chronicleendorsed it by commenting that “we have to be tough, even if civil rights do take a beating for a time.”

Image from the National Archives

DeWitt’s infamous declaration that “A Jap is a Jap” was widely shared. Private employers as well as state and local governments dismissed their employees of Japanese ancestry; upper-case signs such as “JAPS, KEEP OUT, YOU RATS” were hung on the doors of stores and businesses. Japanese Americans suffered eviction and were deprived of their possessions—hostilities inflicted by an intensive social and economic boycott deeply infused with anger and stigmatization. Such was the hypocrisy of this social, political, and economic climate, however, that the concentration camps were rationalized as a military necessity and essential for the “protection” of the Japanese American community (Maki, Kitano, and Berthold 1999: 2). Thus the “detained,” most of whom had been born in the United States and were American citizens, were stripped of their fundamental civil and human rights.

A Forty-Year Fight

In 1776, in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously declared “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This principle, which is still deeply rooted in the identity of the United States, was affirmed in 1789 by the Constitution. Nonetheless, as illustrated in the story of the humble, principled Hirabayashi, these truths must be enacted by relentless efforts to preserve the principle of equality and by wrestling with any possible betrayal of Constitutional values and promises.

In the four-page written statement he composed in 1942, “Why I refused to register for evacuation,” Hirabayashi explained that:

 (The exclusion) order for mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese descent denies them the right to live. […] If I were to register and cooperate under these circumstances, I would be giving helpless consent to the denial of practically all of the things which give me incentive to live […] I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives.

Here Hirabayashi firmly equates life with citizenship and asserts his duty to fight for democratic principles. Even when the lives of Japanese-Americans were shrouded by a mixture of fear and shame, he defined his priority as exposing and resisting the country’s worst peril: not on the battlefield, but in the courtroom, where a war was being fought over the infringement of American citizens’ civil liberties. Whereas his conviction meant the failure of his challenge to the constitutionality of the wartime order, his political stand was effective. Not only did it immediately inspire other Niseiinternees to refuse to submit to the draft, it has also been passed on to successive Japanese-American generations as a symbol of courage and perseverance, and the necessity of taking action rather than swallowing pride “for the sake of the children.”

Image from the National Archives

During the years that followed the incarceration of the Japanese Americans, Hirabayashi continued his long fight for governmental acknowledgment of the civil rights violations visited on him and other Japanese Americans, as well as to overturn his wrongful convictions. In 1948, Congress passed The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act, by which a mechanism was set up to compensate Japanese Americans for their documented property losses during their wartime removal and incarceration. Although limited in scope and availability, and with no address of the loss of freedom, it was regarded as an important step toward bringing some degree of relief to the victims. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Civil Rights Movement and resultant changes in the nation’s political climate led to additional investigation of the camps as well as efforts to obtain redress and justice.

The redress resolution, first introduced at the biennial Japanese American Citizens League convention in 1970, triggered heated debates among Japanese Americans as well as attempts to find the most appropriate way to pursue reparations. In 1979, as the redress movement began to draw more attention and participation from both inside and outside the Japanese American community, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was introduced. Its goal was to review the facts and circumstances surrounding Executive Order 9066 and to recommend appropriate remedies. After findings showed that the Justice Department had withheld evidence the Supreme Court that would have obviated the need for forced removal and internment, Hirabayashi and his attorneys filed a petition to have his cases reopened. In 1986 and 1987, both of his convictions were overturned. Moreover, in 1988, based on CWRIC findings and recommendations, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 redress bill passed Congress and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

Wedding photo for Gordon Hirabayashi and wife Esther

Over more than 40 years, Hirabayashi’s actions challenged the government’s violation of individual civil rights, first by questioning to what degree under wartime circumstances can expanded government power restrict individual freedom, and next by evoking Constitutional guarantees that the state cannot not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process. As we revisit this important historical struggle, and reaffirm our own determination to ensure that past failures do not reoccur, perhaps more courageous names and their unique sacrifices should be mentioned. In any case, the internment should not be buried in silence and regret. To this end, the story of Gordon Hirabayashi is not only about a Japanese American man fighting to uphold the Constitution, but also a call for us to hold these truths as well, in our own way and in our own time.

  •  Ichihashi, Yamato. 1969. Japanese in the United States. Reprint. New York: Arno Press.
  • Maki, M. T., Kitano, H. H. L., & Berthold, S. M. 1999. Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Portes, Alejandro and Robert D. Manning. 2005. “The Immigrant Enclave: Theory and Empirical Examples.” In The Urban Sociology Reader, eds. Jan Lin and Christopher Mele, New York: Routledge, 202-213.
  •  Yoo, David. 2000. Growing up Nisei: Race, generation, and culture among Japanese Americans in California, 1924-49. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.