S.I. Hayakawa

Name Samuel Ichiyé Hayakawa
Born July 18 1906
Died February 27 1992
Birth Location Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Generational Identifier


S.I. Hayakawa (1906-1992), linguist, educator and U.S. Senator, who became the most visible and controversial Nisei of the late Twentieth Century and who played a minor role in assisting wartime Japanese American resettlers.

Early Life and Academic Career

Samuel Ichiyé Hayakawa was born in Vancouver, Canada, the son of a Japanese immigrant labor contractor, journalist, and importer and his wife. The family migrated across Canada during his youth, ultimately settling in Winnipeg. After the young Hayakawa received his B.A. from University of Manitoba in 1927, his parents and two younger sisters moved to Japan, while S.I. and a brother relocated to Montreal with their uncle. There the young Hayakawa earned an M.A. at McGill University, supporting himself through night work as a taxi driver.

In 1929 Hayakawa enrolled at University of Wisconsin. During his student years, Hayakawa met and ultimately married a white woman, Margedant Peters. In 1935, following completion of a thesis on the poet/essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, he received his doctorate. The following year, he was recruited by the Japanese Canadian Citizens League to visit Ottawa, where he helped lobby Parliament (unsuccessfully) on behalf of West Coast Nisei barred from suffrage on racial grounds.

In 1939, Hayakawa was named professor of English at the Armour (now Illinois) Institute of Technology, and moved to Chicago. He soon became absorbed in the General Semantics movement headed by Alfred Korzybski. He sought to popularize Korzybski's epistemological theories on the use of words to shape ideas by means of a textbook. Hayakawa's textbook, entitled Language in Action , appeared in December 1941. Thanks to a selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club, it swiftly became a best seller.

World War II and Japanese American Resettlement

Hayakawa did not make any surviving comment on the issuing of Executive Order 9066 . However, in late 1942 he was contacted by Robert Frase, a former roommate from the University of Wisconsin, who had become a staffer with the War Relocation Authority and who supported mass resettlement . When Frase visited Chicago to investigate resettlement prospects there, Hayakawa housed him and advised on securing jobs and housing for resettlers.

In November 1942 Hayakawa joined the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender , and he contributed a weekly column until January 1947. While Hayakawa was forthright in his criticism of racism against Blacks in his column, he remained aloof from Japanese Americans and only sporadically addressed issues of confinement or anti-Japanese discrimination. While Hayakawa was genuinely sympathetic to Japanese Americans, and deplored racial prejudice (He bluntly described West Coast Issei and Nisei as having been put into "concentration camps") [1] , he did not wish to be limited as a Nisei or to be perceived as engaging in special pleading on behalf of his own ethnic group.

He became more involved, however, as migration of former inmates to Chicago swelled, reaching 20,000 after the end of the war—the resettlers included an aunt of Hayakawa's and her family. Following pleas from sociologist Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, he agreed to join the board of the Chicago Resettlers Committee and helped finance both the Resettlers Committee and the JACL Anti-Discrimination Committee, as well as sending aid to his parents in Japan.

Postwar Years and Estrangement from Japanese American Community

During the postwar years, Hayakawa became a well-known figure as a lecturer and public intellectual, notably as editor of the semantics journal ETC . After working part-time for University of Chicago, in 1955 he was named professor of English at San Francisco State University. He soon cut ties with the Japanese community. In summer 1952, the JACL offered support to the McCarthy-era Immigration and Nationality Act (the so-called McCarran-Walter Bill), which opened naturalization to Issei, and helped lobby Congress to override President Harry Truman 's veto. Hayakawa publicly denounced the JACL, whom he accused of putting their own selfish interest ahead of all those who would be damaged by the repressive provisions of the law. (As a Japanese Canadian barred from U.S. naturalization until the law's passage, Hayakawa showed strong devotion to principle in rejecting it). Shortly afterward, he publicly refused a speaking invitation from a Nisei student group. Hayakawa proclaimed that separate Nisei organizations should cease to exist, as they were no longer necessary and retarded full participation in society. Hayakawa remained almost defiantly cosmopolitan, studying tap dancing and fencing as well as collecting African art.

In 1968-69, a "Third World" coalition of students at San Francisco State University launched a strike, demanding Ethnic Studies programs and protesting the Vietnam War. When the university's president resigned over the protests, Hayakawa, who had been named to the selection committee for his replacement, instead took the job himself. He became a hero to conservatives for his militant opposition to the strikers: on one occasion he even ripped out the wires from a sound truck at a demonstration.

Upon retiring from academia in 1973, Hayakawa became a newspaper columnist, then parlayed his newfound popularity into a successful campaign for the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket in 1976. During his single term in office, he aroused the ire of Japanese Americans when he opposed official apologies and redress for wartime incarceration, and in public speeches and testimony before Congress expressed his conviction that the Nisei were actually better off for the experience (Hayakawa's remarks stung his audience even more because he had never been confined in a WRA camp). [2] Hayakawa did, however, support a bill for creation of a historical commission to study the wartime events, leading to the creation of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). After leaving the Senate, Hayakawa became a consultant on East Asian relations. He sparked further liberal outrage by cofounding U.S. English, a lobbying group dedicated to making English the official language of the United States.

Hayakawa did join forces with other Japanese Americans in 1976 in the successful campaign for a pardon for Iva Toguri d'Aquino , who had been convicted of treason for having broadcast for Japan as "Tokyo Rose" during World War II. Hayakawa noted that the only reason that Toguri could be indicted for wartime treason was that she had refused to renounce her American citizenship, even under duress, and that such patriotism should be rewarded. (He also owed a debt of gratitude to the Toguri family, whose patriarch had once supported Hayakawa's own father in Vancouver). In addition to devoting two newspaper columns to the case, Hayakawa telephoned the White House to lobby Ford administration officials.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Haslam, Gerald, with Janice E. Haslam. In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S. I. Hayakawa . Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics . Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2012.


  1. S.I. Hayakawa, "Second Thoughts: Incident on Southside," Chicago Defender , August 3, 1946.
  2. S.I. Hayakawa, Testimony on S. 2116 before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Senator Ted Stevens, Chairman, Los Angeles, August 16, 1984, Densho Digital Repository. http://www.densho.org .

Last updated Feb. 12, 2024, 10:12 p.m..