Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony
3 July 2012
Jay Hirabayashi, co-founder of Vancouver’s Kokoro Dance company, knew his late father, Gordon, as someone who stood up for human rights. Jay said he had to pinch himself when he found himself at the White House in May with President Barack Obama at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony. Jay never dreamt his father would be honored by the American government for standing up for his beliefs.
The military aide announcing Presidential Medal of Freedom citations, said to the President and distinguished audience, “In his open defiance of discrimination against Japanese Americans during World War II, Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi demanded our nation live up to its founding principles. “Imprisoned for ignoring curfew and refusing to register for internment camps, he took his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him in 1943. Refusing to abandon his belief in an America that stands for fundamental human rights, he pursued justice until his conviction was overturned in 1987. Gordon Hirabayashi’s legacy reminds us that patriotism is rooted not in ethnicity, but in our shared ideals. And his example will forever call on us to defend the liberty of all our citizens.”
Jay said his father was a university student when he challenged the U.S. government on sending Japanese in the United States to internment camps during World War II. Gordon Hirabayashi not only objected to the curfew placed on people of Japanese descent in the U.S. and subsequent internment. As a Quaker, he also adhered to pacifist principles.
Gordon Hirabayashi, who died in January at age 93, was born in Seattle. He was professor emeritus of sociology at University of Alberta when he died.
Jay said outside of what he learned from family history he hadn’t fully realized the enormity of his father’s actions until he was at Seattle University earlier this year when the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Ninth Circuit opinion in the Hirabayashi v. United States coram nobis case at a day-long conference. As described by the university, the conference was held to “…reflect on his (Gordon Hirabayashi’s) 1943 Supreme Court case and the extraordinary work of his legal team in reopening of his case nearly 40 years later; and to use his case as a springboard to discuss moving forward in the struggle for civil rights.”
Months later in Washington, D.C., Gordon Hirabayashi was honored at the same ceremony as singer Bob Dylan, former astronaut John Glenn, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and author Toni Morrison, among others.
Jay choreographed a slow-moving dance, performed before hundreds of audiences, which symbolizes slow and deliberate struggle. That piece was originally called "Rage." But the son of Gordon Hirabayashi has changed his thinking and now that dance is called "The Believer."