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Thursday, February 17, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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He stood by his principles

Seattle Times staff reporter

GORDON HIRABAYASHI, who defied the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, has returned home to share his experiences with a younger generation.

Neither his energy nor his still-dark hair betrays Gordon Hirabayashi's 82 years.

His arms gesture wildly as he talks to a class of 10-year-olds who know his story only through the movies and history books they've been devouring. He is modest about his fame. He only followed his conscience; there really was no choice.

"I felt if I gave in because of the pressures I would lose my own self-respect," said Hirabayashi, imprisoned when he defied the order for relocation to Japanese internment camps during World War II. "If I lost my self-respect, I would not be a good son, a good citizen. In that sense, I had no choice."

In 1942, Hirabayashi, a University of Washington senior and the son of a truck farmer, defied a curfew set for those of Japanese descent and refused to board the relocation bus. He spent more than two years in jail; the conviction was finally erased in 1997 when a federal court ruled he was wrongly convicted for resisting internment and curfews aimed at tens of thousands of Japanese Americans.

During the war, 112,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were forced from their homes along the Pacific Coast and placed in government detention camps in remote locations throughout the West.

Hirabayashi's parents went. His four brothers and a sister went. But he did not.

With tears in her eyes, his mother begged him to go with them. And Hirabayashi, for a time, thought he'd be on the last bus out of Seattle. But he'd already defied the curfew, "and I asked myself, if I couldn't cooperate with the curfew, how could I cooperate with this?"

He issued a statement that continues to be one of the most famous to emerge from the internment era. "This order for the mass evacuation of all persons of Japanese descent denies them the right to live," he wrote. "I consider it my duty to maintain the democratic standards for which this nation lives. Therefore, I must refuse this order of evacuation."

Now lives in Edmonton

Hirabayashi, who now lives in Edmonton, Alberta, is in town to speak at a public forum Saturday at the Wing Luke Asian Museum. He will return in May to receive the University of Washington's 2000 distinguished alumni award.

Hirabayashi eventually finished his education at the UW, earned his doctorate and taught sociology in Edmonton until he retired.

Yesterday, he told his story to a group of fourth- and fifth-graders at Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue who have been studying the internment. "In the hysteria of wartime, these things took place," Hirabayashi explained to the students. "You wouldn't even have heard of me except a whole lot of people supported me."

It was through efforts by Hirabayashi and others that Congress in 1988 agreed to compensate Japanese Americans uprooted during World War II.

Camp renamed in his honor

In November, a former prison camp in Arizona where Hirabayashi spent three months was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreational Site to recognize the most famous of the 45 Japanese Americans sent there.

"If I look at people who survive crises and wonder how they survived, it's probably because they had something that made them what they are that prevented them from selling out on themselves," said Hirabayashi.

"I never felt like I was in a losing battle. I tried to live with my principles. When something came up that challenged my principles . . . I couldn't go."

Susan Gilmore's phone message number is 206-464-2054. Her e-mail address is sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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Hirabayashi forum

A forum featuring Gordon Hirabayashi will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday in the theater at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, 407 Seventh Avenue S. Admission is free.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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