Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, UCLA professor emeritus of Asian American studies and one of the most esteemed scholars of the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, died of cancer Aug. 8. He was 67.
Hirabayashi taught at UCLA from 2006 through 2017, joining the faculty as the inaugural George and Sakaye Aratani Professor on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community. This was the first endowed chair in the nation to focus on the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans. Recognizing the authority his expertise afforded him as an activist, Hirabayashi was at the forefront of scholars calling for the use of more precise terminology regarding the state-sponsored forced uprooting and incarceration of Japanese Americans from 1942–46, and for avoiding government euphemisms such as “evacuation” and “relocation.”
Mindful of the parallels between the racial profiling of the Issei (Japanese immigrants to the U.S.) and Nisei (children of Japanese immigrants) during the 1940s and Arab Americans after 9/11, Hirabayashi said, “What I want to make sure is that people remember the past so that we can make better policy decisions.”
Hirabayashi also argued that “comparative research relating this history to the internment of Middle Eastern and Muslim detainees, and the incarceration of militant activists of color and prisoners of conscience, is imperative.”
In addition to his duties as the holder of the Aratani chair, Hirabayashi served as the chair of the Asian American studies department from 2007 through 2010 and taught courses on Japanese American experience, contemporary Asian American communities, the experiences of multi-racial Asian Americans, and Asian Americans and reparations.
“Lane Hirabayashi left us a priceless gift in his lifetime of scholarly research and writings on Japanese American history, and World War II incarceration history in particular,” said Karen Umemoto, the Helen and Morgan Chu Endowed Director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. “We are humbled by his selfless contributions to the community as well as to the generations of students and colleagues who were transformed by his wisdom and generosity.”
Hirabayashi received his bachelor’s degree from Cal State Sonoma in 1974 and then pursued his master’s and doctorate, which he earned in 1981, in anthropology at UC Berkeley. His engagement with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center began that same year, when he was awarded an Institute of American Cultures postdoctoral fellowship.
Eager to get involved with the Japanese American community in Southern California, Hirabayashi began working with a range of community-based organizations, including the Gardena Pioneer Project, the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (now Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, and East West Players. In 1983, he left for a position in the school of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University. In the 1990s, he became a professor in ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, and from 2003–2005, at UC Riverside.
Hirabayashi is remembered as a valued friend and colleague — a prodigious scholar, teacher and activist, whose work and ideals were deeply rooted in family tradition. He was greatly influenced by his father, James Hirabayashi, a sociocultural anthropologist who was involved with the Third World Strike at San Francisco State University and who became the first dean of the school of ethnic studies. Working on projects with his father, as well as their discussions about “cultures of resistance,” informed Hirabayashi’s approach to social research that focused on what he said was “working with or for a community-based group seeking to empower an ethnic minority population that had been excluded from the mainstream in terms of resources and services.”
Throughout his career, Hirabayashi wrote or edited nine books and more than 30 academic articles.
In 2013, Hirabayashi brought intimate perspective to one of the key cases in U.S. constitutional law, co-editing the book “A Principled Stand: Gordon Hirabayashi v. the United States,” drawing on his uncle’s prison diaries and correspondence to present, in Gordon’s own words, how he defied the wartime curfew of Japanese Americans, the course of his Supreme Court case, subsequent imprisonment, and the 1987 appeal of his case.
Hirabayashi’s work shed light not only on wartime experiences but also the redress movement of the 1970s and 80s. He co-edited “NCRR: The Grassroots Struggle for Japanese American Redress and Reparations,” published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press in 2018. He wrote that the stories of the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress activists “richly illustrate the personal transformation engendered when people take their history, destiny, and representations into their own hands.”
He was a leader in drawing scholarly attention to the histories of and linkages among communities of the Japanese diaspora throughout the Americas. Reflecting the breadth of his vision, he launched the “George and Sakaye Aratani Nikkei in the Americas” book series with the University Press of Colorado. To date, eight titles have been published, including works that illuminate the history of the Japanese American community in New York City, Japanese Brazilian diasporic identities and oral histories of resistance in the World War II camps.
Researchers seeking assistance from the Densho online encyclopedia of Japanese American history will continue to benefit from Hirayabyashi’s deep knowledge, given the many essays he contributed. Also, he and his wife, literary scholar Marilyn Alquizola, collaborated on a series of articles about Carlos Bulosan, including the forward to the reissued 2014 edition of Bulosan’s classic “America is in the Heart.”
During his tenure holding the Aratani chair, Hirabayashi started and administered the annual the George and Sakaye Aratani Community Advancement Research Endowment awards, which are given to projects that benefit and advance the Japanese American community.
Under his supervision, the Aratani CARE awards have supported projects by individuals and community organizations, such as the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, UCLA Nikkei Student Union, Kizuna, Little Tokyo Historical Society, Nichi Bei Foundation and many others. This includes the successful international endeavor of the Waseda University Japanese American history project, in collaboration with UCLA, to recover dozens of original audio recordings of Issei interviews conducted by the UCLA Japanese American Research Project in the 1960s.
An inspiring orator who combined keen historical analysis with a passion for civil rights, Hirabayashi spoke at countless Days of Remembrance, organized by Japanese American communities to keep in memory the signing of Executive Order 9066, the presidential authorization of the forced removal of Japanese descent people from the West Coast.
Hirabayashi’s research agenda remained full after his retirement. Throughout his prolific academic career, he maintained a steadfast commitment both to scholarship and to what he called mutuality — not just conducting research but also acknowledging that there can be a deep sharing of purpose between researcher and subject. He learned this from his father and it became a lifelong touchstone that always privileged active involvement with community.
“I have tried to both share what was given to me,” he wrote in a 2014 essay titled “Thinking About and Experiencing Mutuality: Notes on a Son’s Formation.” “And to invite readers in turn to rethink and sharpen an approach that can be an integral tool in ethically and politically informed social research leading to engagement and empowerment.”
Editor’s note: The word “internment” has been changed to “incarceration” in the headline and first sentence. Lane Ryo Hirabayahi was a staunch advocate that the historical record be accurate and that people should use “incarceration” to describe what happened.