Gordon Hirabayashi

I just heard a story on NPR about Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American who refused to go to the internment camps during World War II and was put in prison instead. NPR interviewed his nephew, who attributed his uncle’s civil disobedience to both his commitment to the Constitution and his Christianity, observing that Gordon’s family had converted to Christianity “even” while they were in Japan.

That detail, and phrasing, caught my ear. The rhetorical effect, I propose, is to reduce perceptions of Hirabayashi as Other. Not only was he second-generation American; not only was he named Gordon, for pete’s sake; not only was he Christian; but his parents had been Christian “even” before coming to America, ergo they had already been that much more Like.

On the one hand, I’m intrigued by how this detail disrupts a potential assumption about Japanese immigrants, i.e., that they’re probably from Buddhist backgrounds. At the same time, if I’m reading this rhetorical effect correctly–and let me here be the first to admit I may be over-reading it–then note what’s happening: American listeners are being invited to recognize Hirabayashi as undeniably “one of us” because he was a Christian.  From the standpoint of promoting pluralism in America, that rhetorical move is . . . nnyehh.

On a related note, let me plug a post that Anne Blankenship, a former colleague of mine at UNC, recently made to the blog Religion in the American West on Christmas celebrations in the internment camps. Fascinating period photos. Anne argues that these images represent a “nuanced expression of resistance and Americanism.”

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