James Hirabayashi, who was interned at Pinedale Assembly Center, and former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta cut the ribbon at a memorial plaza at the assembly center site in Fresno on Feb. 16, 2009. (Photo by John Hix)

SAN FRANCISCO — James Akira Hirabayashi, emeritus professor of anthropology, ethnic and Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and a leader of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, passed away peacefully in San Francisco on May 23. He was 85.

His passing comes just months after that of his brother Gordon, a civil rights hero. He was also the father of UCLA Asian American studies professor Lane Hirabayashi.

Born in on Oct. 30, 1926 in Thomas, Wash., to Issei parents, Hirabayashi was raised in mukyokai or “non-church” Christianity. His parents led their hard-working farming family by example, teaching their children a sense of ethics and comportment that stayed with them for a lifetime, perhaps eventually shaping their quests for social justice.

When he was a sophomore in high school, he and his family were moved against their will to a WCCA (Wartime Civil Control Administration) camp in Pinedale in Central California. From there, the family was forced to move again, this time to the War Relocation Authority camp at Tule Lake in Northern California. Hirabayashi later recounted his wartime experiences in Emiko Omori’s documentary “Rabbit in the Moon.”

Within a year, Hirabayashi dropped out of high school and left for Weiser, Idaho with a family from a neighboring barrack. He picked sugar beets for a year and later said that was the hardest farm work he’d ever done. He was joined in Weiser by his father, Shungo, and with money they saved from their labor, they were able to help resettle his mother, Mitsu, and his younger siblings to Spokane, Wash., which was outside the exclusion zone for Japanese Americans.

Meanwhile, Hirabayashi’s oldest brother, Gordon, a student at the University of Washington, had protested the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans. Eventually convicted by the U.S. Supreme Court, Gordon spent much of the war serving time in jail for his resistance, as well as for his stand as a conscientious objector. His conviction was overturned in 1987, and this year he will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

SFSU President Robert Corrigan presented the President's Medal to James Hirabayashi on Oct. 22, 2009.

After returning to Seattle, with the help of the Quakers, the Hirabayashi family started a nursing home. Their mission was to provide a home for some of the elderly Issei who were infirm and/or had nowhere to go. James Hirabayashi enrolled at the University of Washington, where he received his bachelor’s degree (1949) and his master’s degree (1952) in anthropology.

In 1954, he received a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the University of Tokyo, as well as to conduct original fieldwork in his parents’ native Nagano Prefecture. In 1957, with a John Hay Whitney Foundation Scholarship, he began his doctoral studies at Harvard University in anthropology, receiving his Ph.D. in 1962 with a dissertation on Kaida-mura, a mountain community in Nagano-ken.

As he was finishing his dissertation, Hirabayashi obtained his first teaching position at San Francisco State College (now known as San Francisco State University) in 1959. He moved his wife, Joanne, and his two children, Lane and Jan, to the Bay Area, where he began a 30-year teaching and administrative career.

Hirabayashi and other professors risked their jobs when they went on strike in 1968, a historic social movement that led to the creation of the first autonomous school of ethnic studies. He subsequently became the chair of Asian American studies in 1969. In 1970 he was appointed the first dean of the School of Ethnic Studies, a position he held for six years. This was a seminal period in his life, and he was proud of his contributions to the initial development of Japanese American, Asian American, and ethnic studies.

Before he retired, he also served as the dean of undergraduate studies at SFSU from 1985 to 1988. He became emeritus professor in 1988 and went on to pursue an active role for many years as a curator, advisor, and consultant to the Japanese American National Museum, which honored him at its 2004 gala dinner.

In 2009, during the 40th anniversary commemoration of the College of Ethnic Studies, he received the President’s Medal from SFSU President Robert Corrigan for contributions that have provided long-lasting and widespread benefits for the university and the greater community.

That same year, Hirabayashi and other former internees took part in a ribbon-cutting at a memorial plaza marking the site of the Pinedale Assembly Center in Fresno.

The author and editor of a range of publications in anthropology and Asian American studies, his last work is a book edited with his son Lane, which revolves around the wartime prison diaries of his brother Gordon. The work, entitled “A Principled Stand:  Gordon Hirabayashi vs. The United States,” will be published by the University of Washington Press in 2013.

Apart from his career, Hirabayashi was a person of all seasons. He traveled widely, many times for anthropological research, living in various countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands. He had many hobbies and interests, including silver jewelry making, softball, cooking, and collecting ethnic cloth and folk arts.

He also caught the acting bug in the 1980s and was cast in many productions staged by the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco (where his credits included “And the Soul Shall Dance,” “A Song for a Nisei Fisherman” and “Nisei Bar and Grill”) and other venues. He also acted in films, including Steven Okazaki’s Living on Tokyo Time” and Philip Gotanda’s “The Kiss,” and in television.

Remembered as a devoted father and friend, Hirabayashi was predeceased by his first wife, Joanne, and his last wife, Christine. He is survived by his sister, Esther Toshiko Furugori, and his children, Lane (and wife Marilyn Alquizola), Jan (and husband Steve Rice), and Tai-Lan.

A memorial reception is being planned; details will be announced shortly.

“Dynamic and Visionary”

Nancy Araki, JANM director of community affairs and longtime friend of Hirabayashi, posted the following statement on the museum’s blog on May 24:

“Jim will always hold a special place in the history and memories of museum staff, volunteers, and leadership. As our dynamic and visionary founding scholar and curator emeritus, he established the philosophical foundation of the museum that continues to guide our work today.

“During the opening of the museum’s landmark exhibition ‘America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience’ in 1994, controversy arose over the museum’s use of the term ‘concentration camp.’ As a Harvard-trained anthropologist, Jim was adamant that U.S. history be examined accurately without euphemisms, and argued that the term ‘relocation center’ was actually a euphemism used by governmental officials to strip Japanese Americans of their basic constitutional rights (see Hirabayashi’s essay ‘Concentration Camp or Relocation Center — What’s in a Name?’).

“In more recent years, Jim served as the chief project advisor for the museum’s International Nikkei Research Project, and was co-editor for one of the project’s resulting publications, ‘New Worlds, New Lives: Globalization and People of Japanese Descent in the Americas and from Latin America in Japan.’

“At our 2008 National Conference in Denver, Jim presented a dramatic reading on the complex choices faced by Nisei families during World War II in his piece ‘Four Hirabayashi Cousins: A Question of Identity.’

“The museum and our community owe a great deal to Jim, who along with his late brother, Gordon, and now his son Lane, have devoted their lives to educating others by taking a stand for their principles with integrity and unwavering commitment.

“Jim will be deeply missed for his remarkable wit, intellectual insight, charismatic spirit, and humble character. On behalf of the museum family, I send our heartfelt condolences to the Hirabayashi family during this difficult time.”

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  1. I met Jim playing softball in San Francisco. We called him Dr. J.
    I was always in awe of him, playing with 20 & 30 year olds and here he was in his 60’s.
    He was truly a good friend and most of all a mentor to all of us on our team.
    Our team surprised him on his 80th birthday, it was the first time he was speechless.
    It was an honor to have known him, I will truly miss him.

  2. I have to say that Jim Hirabayashi was one of the most influential people in my life. As a young man at San Francisco State University in the late 70’s and early 80’s Dr. Hirabayashi challenged me and taught me how to think. As an anglo, I was ashamed at the actions of the US government in regard to treatment of non-european ethnics and it was through Dr. Hirabayashi’s thoughtful actions and guidance that I developed the worldview that I carry with me today. Dr. Hirabayashi’s thoughts, character and words of encouragement have been a touchstone for me throughout my adult life. I had a chance to thank Jim for the influence he had on me, but only after 25 years of living and reflecting on the words and time he shared with a young student. I can remember well, Jim sharing with me that “you will find that the only constant in your life will be change”. I welcomed and sometimes feared the single spaced, typed commentary Dr. Hirabayashi would bestow on a recent paper I submitted to him and as testament to their influence, I still have them.

    I am indebted to Jim Hirabayahsi for teaching me to challenge my implicit assumptions and showing me that a humble presence can change lives.


  3. Jim was one of the most humble men I have ever met. His quiet and gentle nature will be missed. I had a pleasure and honor of playing softball with Jim.

  4. I was saddened to hear of Professor Hirabayashi’s passing. As a young Anthropology student at SF State, he helped guide me through my final thesis process–he was wise and supportive, and had a great sense of humor throughout. As a young African American woman in a discipline in which I had few role models, he helped me to feel as though I had insight and experience to offer–I will always be grateful for that gift.