James Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi

Left: Lane Ryo Hirabayashi. Photo from the Los Angeles Times, by Jake Fabricius Photography. Right: James Hirabayashi. Photo from Nichi Bei Weekly Report

Japanese American, Ethnic Studies, Activism, Museum Work

James Hirabayashi, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi

(1926-2012), (1952-2020)

Father and son, James Hirabayashi and Lane Hirabayashi were anthropologists who often collaborated, but also pursued distinct areas of research. Their work helped to expand knowledge about histories, cultures, and identities of Japanese diaspora communities. Drawing upon their formal academic and personal family experiences, they also interrogated Anthropology’s historical practices and contributed to pioneering new epistemologies and institutions prioritizing community knowledge and accountability.

Born in 1926 and raised in rural Washington state, James Hirabayashi was the son of Japanese immigrants who ran the local grocery. After the family’s displacement during World War II, when all people of Japanese ancestry were removed from the West Coast, he earned his BA (1949) and MA (1952) in anthropology at the University of Washington. He then traveled to Japan on a Fulbright scholarship before entering Harvard, where he received his anthropology PhD (1962) with a dissertation about a Japanese mountain community. Hirabayashi was faculty at San Francisco State University for over thirty years. There, he risked his job by participating in the 1968-69 student strikes that led to the establishment of the first autonomous school of ethnic studies on a US campus. He served as its first dean and later as chair of the university’s anthropology department and dean of undergraduate studies. He also served as visiting faculty in Japan, Nigeria, and Zaire before retiring from academia in 1988. 

Lane Hirabayashi was the oldest of James Hirabayashi’s children. He earned both his MA (1976) and PhD (1981) in anthropology from UC Berkeley, conducting fieldwork in Mexico for his dissertation, which was later published as Cultural Capital: Mountain Zapotec Migrant Associations in Mexico City (University of Arizona Press,1993). He was tenured faculty at San Francisco State, University of Colorado at Boulder, and UC Riverside. In 2017, he retired from academia as the George & Sakaye Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community and chair of the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA.

Both Hirabayashis questioned the ethics of anthropological fieldwork. Lane extensively researched the UC Berkeley-based Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS), which enlisted dozens of fieldworkers to provide ethnographic reports on the experiences of Japanese Americans incarcerated in US-government camps during World War II. He published two books centering the work of Japanese American fieldworkers, exploring the entanglements of race, class, gender, and power in this project.

Both scholars played foundational roles in the development of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. James Hirabayashi served as chief curator in its early years, developing the philosophical framework for curatorial practices emphasizing collaboration and first-person perspectives. As senior advisors, both Hirabayashis helped shape many of the museum’s initiatives—from oral history projects to exhibitions to the International Nikkei Research Project, a multinational collaboration that generated new research as well as print and online multilingual publications about communities across the Japanese diaspora.

With Akemi Kikumura Yano, James A. Hirabayashi and Lane R. Hirabayashi co-edited:

New Worlds, New Lives: Globalization and People of Japanese Descent in the Americas and from Latin America in Japan (2002)

Common Ground: The Japanese American National Museum and the Culture of Collaborations (2004)

Sojin Kim