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A First in Study of the Internment

October 08, 2006|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

While Lane Ryo Hirabayashi was growing up, he heard family stories of how his uncle Gordon defied the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in a case that decades later helped prompt a historic congressional apology.

At a UCLA celebration Saturday, Hirabayashi took his own place in Japanese American cultural history as the first professor in the nation to hold an academic chair dedicated to the study of the internment.

"To me, I feel that this is a family obligation," the 53-year-old anthropologist said.

On hand to salute the new Aratani chair and Hirabayashi was a large group of prominent Japanese American scholars, artists and political and business leaders.

Some were former internees. Some knew Gordon Hirabayashi, who went to prison in 1942 for refusing to obey a curfew. Their stories and his family's will be studied in his nephew's courses by undergraduates born too late to hear stories from relatives who were adults during World War II.

On a sun-dappled campus patio, well-wishers greeted longtime friends and praised George and Sakaye Aratani, among the largest donors to Japanese American educational and cultural causes. The Los Angeles couple gave $500,000 to fund the Aratani chair and strengthen the study of the relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans, as well as postwar efforts to redress that wrong, and the Japanese American community.

Endowed chairs are increasing at all kinds of universities, including more with a sharper focus, some academic experts say.

"In the past it was typical to see an endowed chair in history, for example, but not one tied specifically to a specific act or period of history," William G. Tierney, a USC professor and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, responded to an e-mail from The Times.

The Aratani chair will be part of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, the country's largest such academic program. The professor holding the chair will be expected to teach at least one course on the Japanese American internment, redress and community or related issues, and to organize or aid public education programs on the subject.

"Clearly, the aftermath of 9/11 demonstrated the importance of learning and applying the lessons from the Japanese American experience to current and future situations," said the center's director, UCLA professor Don Nakanishi.

Hirabayashi will teach his first course in the next term.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) recalled in a speech that he visited an internment camp when he was a soldier during the war. He described the shock of seeing barbed wire, machine guns and "people who looked like us in there."

Speakers also included Aiko Herzig, well known for her 1980s research for the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, and Irene Hirano, president and chief executive of the Japanese American National Museum.

A former internee, George Aratani -- founder and former chief executive of the Mikasa china and Kenwood electronics firms -- lost his family's fresh produce business while he was in a camp a during World War II. Many others lost all they owned.

"A thing like that," he said Saturday, "should never happen again."

Several speakers said the new chair is being created as the U.S. government faces many of the same wartime pressures that can isolate a racial or cultural group -- in this case, Arab Americans. They suggested a parallel between those pressures and what they or their families experienced in the camps.

Hirabayashi himself sees similarities. "What I want to make sure is that people remember the past so that we can make better policy decisions," he said in an interview last week.

Some Japanese Americans born after the war say their relatives would not discuss the West Coast internment camps where they were forcibly relocated after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

But in Hirabayashi's home, there were no such secrets.

At an early age, he learned that his parents and grandparents were moved from their home south of Seattle to a camp at Tule Lake in Northern California.

"I can't even remember first hearing about it. It was never hidden," he said.

He learned that his uncle Gordon, then a 23-year-old University of Washington student, defied a curfew imposed on Japanese Americans. Gordon later turned himself in to federal authorities in Seattle rather than be moved to a camp. He was convicted of violating military law, and spent two years in prison.

His was one of three major U.S. Supreme Court cases that challenged the internment.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government and against Hirabayashi. "In the height of the hysteria, I think Gordon was very, very brave," Hirabayashi said.

He has been told that his paternal grandmother begged her oldest son not to defy authorities. "My grandmother was very, very afraid that the family would be split up and they would never see one another again ... but Gordon felt very strongly that he needed to do this."

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