Gordon Hirabayashi challenges Japanese American exclusion orders on May 16, 1942.

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 6/11/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3358
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On May 16, 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), University of Washington senior, Quaker, and conscientious objector, drives with his attorney to the Seattle FBI office and challenges the Army's exclusion orders from the West Coast, orders which apply to all Japanese Americans and to their immigrant elders. To comply with these orders, which he believes are based upon racial prejudice and represent a violation of the United States Constitution and the rights of citizens, this principled American-born citizen of Japanese descent writes as part of a four-page statement: "I would be giving helpless consent to the denial of practically all of the things which give me incentive to live."

Hirabayashi was subsequently charged with disobeying Public Law 503, which provided criminal penalties for violations of the exclusion orders, and for failure to comply with the Army's curfew order. After refusal to post bail, which would have required that he join the Seattle Japanese community now being held en masse at the Puyallup Assembly Center, Hirabayashi was placed in the King County jail to await trial.

On October 20, 1942, the U.S. District Court in Seattle found him guilty on both counts, leading to a 90-day jail sentence. Hirabayashi appealed the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was asked to rule on the legality of the exclusion order, the curfew order, and Public Law 503. Argued in May 1943 and reported the next month, the justices unanimously denied his appeal after the solicitor general argued successfully that the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans was a "military necessity." In his assent, Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "We cannot sit in judgment of the military requirements of that hour." Hirabayashi, who had been released from jail pending outcome of the appeal process, was ordered back to prison to complete his sentence.

In one of the historic Japanese American internment cases brought in the 1980s, Hirabayashi challenged these decisions, and in 1986 and 1987, his exclusion and curfew convictions were overturned.


Peter Irons, Justice At War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Justice Delayed: The Record of the Japanese American Internment Cases ed. by Peter Irons (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989).

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