Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Hirabayashi lie

I'm going to depart from the usual content of this blog to comment on something that is extremely important to me. In my profile description over there in the right-hand sidebar, I mention that I am 4th-generation Japanese-American, or yonsei. That means my great-grandparents came to the U.S. from Japan (in the JA community, 1st-generation, or Issei, refers to the generation that come over, not the first born here). For those who can do the math, my grandparents were born well before World War II and yes, my family went through the internment (and if you don't know much about the internment, I've written a short summary here). I've often thought that the ironic absurdity of the internment is exemplified in the fact that my mother was born in Mississippi, where my grandfather was doing his Army training. When he went off to fight with the 442nd in Europe, my grandmother went back into camp, since she didn't really have anywhere else to go. It's simply beyond comprehension that there were men fighting and dying for a country that was essentially treating their families like prisoners.

Of course, there are many things about the Japanese American internment that are appalling but yesterday I read something that reinforced just what a shameful period that was. Eric Muller has written a paper about Hirabayashi v. United States, a key case in which the Supreme Court basically said that the racially-based curfew imposed on Japanese Americans was allowable because of the severity of the threat of an invasion of the West Coast. Muller presents new evidence that the government lawyers lied to make their case. I'll let the abstract speak for itself:
While the government's submissions in Hirabayashi maintained that the curfew was a constitutional response to the serious threat of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast, new archival findings make clear that military officials foresaw no Japanese invasion and were planning for no such thing at the time they ordered mass action against Japanese Americans. Even more disturbingly, the archival record demonstrates that at the time that Justice Department lawyers filed their brief in Hirabayashi emphasizing a threatened invasion, they knew this emphasis was false.

The Article seeks to understand what might have led otherwise ethical Justice Department lawyers to present such a big and consequential lie, suggesting that the then-prevalent racial schema of the "Oriental" as an invading horde may have overpowered the lawyers' evaluation of the facts. And perhaps more importantly, the Article demonstrates that the Hirabayashi decision - which has never been repudiated in the way that the more famous Korematsu decision has been, and which remains a potent precedent for race-conscious national security measures - deserves to be installed in the Supreme Court's Hall of Shame, alongside Korematsu, Dred Scott, and the Court's other biggest mistakes.

There are many who want to believe that the internment was somehow justified, that the government must have had some reason to believe that the Japanese American community posed a threat to national security. But there is simply no evidence that that was the case; on the contrary, the only people who spied for Japan during the War were all white, there wasn't a single incident of sabotage perpetrated by Japanese Americans, and the 442nd, comprised entirely of Japanese Americans, is one of the most decorated military units in history. For reasons that should be obvious, I think it is particularly crucial that we keep this history in mind today...


Anonymous said...
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Jenn said...

FYI: an anonymous commenter left a summary of Kiyama v. Dulles (, which was a case about nationality in which two Kibei were repatriated to Japan and later wanted to be declared American citizens. The comment only contained the text of the case summary and I really don't know what the commenter's point was, and it was anonymous so I had no way of asking the person, therefore I deleted it. The link above is to a similar summary of the case and if anyone wants to explain what this has to do with Hirabayashi, I'd appreciate it.