Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Kafka in Seattle

January 4th, 2012 · 4 Comments

Amid all the wearying hullabaloo over the Iowa caucus, the passing of a major figure in American history seemed to have slipped off the radar. Gordon Hirabayashi, who died at 93 on Monday, was one of a small handful of Japanese-Americans to legally contest the Roosevelt Administration’s internment policy—a policy that, in this project’s humble opinion, was a national shame of the highest order. The 1943 New York Times piece (PDF) recounting the failure of Hirabayashi’s lawsuit against the federal government did a good job of explaining his Kafkaesque situation:

Hirabayashi, born in Seattle twenty-five years ago was a senior at the University of Washington and had never been in Japan, whence his parents came. He was sentenced to serve three months for violating the curfew regulation and three months for failing to register for evacuation from the military area.

So much for the promise that anyone can reinvent themselves as an American. And yet Hirabayashi never lost faith that the internment scandal was just as an aberration, summing up his attitude in a quote that deserves to be remembered for the ages:

I was able to hold my head up high, because I wasn’t objecting and saying “no,” but was saying “yes” to a prior principle, the highest of principles.

Hirabayashi was finally vindicated over four decades later, when a federal appeals court overturned his conviction. Today, the righteousness of his legal cause seems every bit as obvious as the propagandistic Superman cartoon above seems cheesy. But let’s hope it doesn’t fade from memory should there be another public debate over the relative merits of expediency and basic civil rights.


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Thanks, Brendan, for flagging this and for your thoughtful comments.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Michael Fitzgerald: Sure thing. The American dream of personal reinvention (and the hypocrisy that often denies it) is a major theme of my writing, so I’m naturally attracted to characters like this.

    Also, highly recommend you check out the Superman cartoon. It’s really quite a time capsule.

  • Brian Moore

    Good lord, that cartoon is offensive on so many levels. First of all, that bomber would be used (like the real ones in WW2) to firebomb civilian centers, often with much higher casualty counts than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. If Japanese saboteurs managed to sneak aboard and disable a weapon explicitly designed to destroy cities, probably killing only military personnel in the process, that sounds like the kind of heroic anti-terrorism action we’d applaud today.

    Superman always was a dick.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Brian Moore: Since digging up that clip, it’s the only thing that ever pops to mind when my son wants to play superheroes. He always wants to be Batman, and commands me to play Superman. In recent days, though, I’ve been begging to be Wolverine instead.