S.I. Hayakawa – A Culture Warrior Goes to the Senate


In November 1968, San Francisco State University was in crisis. An active and aggressive campus left had resulted in a coalition of minority student groups, called the “Third World Liberation Front”, leading a strike and campus shutdown in protest of Eurocentric curriculum, a lack of discussion about oppression and identity, and a low percentage of minority students on campus. They made 15 “non-negotiable” demands to end the strike, including measures that gave outright and explicit preferences for blacks including a black studies department completely independent of university administration. Joining them on strike were Students for a Democratic Society and the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Exacerbating the strike was the firing of George Mason Murray, the Black Panther Minister of Education who was suspended from his teaching assistant position after he reportedly remarked to a group of Fresno State College university students, “We are slaves and the only way to become free is to kill all the slave masters” (San Francisco State University). Confrontations during this period between student activists and police were marked by violence. The university president, Dr. Robert Smith, the sixth one in eight years, resigned after Murray beat him up in his office and he proved unable to end the strike. His temporary replacement was semantics professor Samuel Ichyie (“S.I.”) Hayakawa (1906-1992), a small 62-year old man. However, this man proved to have much more grit and fire than his predecessors. He made national news when on December 2nd, wearing a tam-o’-shanter, he disrupted protestors screaming obscenities into a loudspeaker by climbing onto a sound truck and ripping the cords out of the loudspeaker. This act made him a hero of what would be called the “silent majority” nationwide and became popularly known as “Samurai Sam” (U.S. House). In response to the “non-negotiable” demands he refused to negotiate, at least for a few months. Disruptions of classrooms were met with police, and he was able to get classes opened for other students. He would also in response to protesting shout back with a bullhorn. Hayakawa viewed his actions as defending the many students of all races who came to San Francisco State who attended to be educated, rather than engage in radical activism. As he argued, “What my colleagues seem to be forgetting is [that] we also have an obligation to the 17,500 or more students – white, black, yellow and brown – who are not on strike and have every right to expect continuation of their education” (U.S. House).  He also condemned “the intellectually slovenly habit, now popular among whites as well as blacks, of denouncing as racist those who oppose or are critical of any Negro tactic or demand” (Hayward). From this point on, liberal academics broke with Hayakawa, which took him aback. As he wrote later on the subject, “When I kept the university open for the benefit of our students and faculty, I thought I was doing a liberal thing, I don’t know anything more liberal than to maintain education for all who want it” (U.S. House). He did eventually give some ground to the protestors such as establishing the first Ethnic Studies Department and agreeing to admit nearly all minority students for fall 1969, ending the strike that had lasted five months. His approach proved effective at countering disruption and permitting the continuation of education for those who were not protesting and he was officially elected university president with the approval of Governor Ronald Reagan.

Before he took on disruptive campus protestors, Hayakawa was positively viewed by liberals and negatively viewed by conservatives. He had butted heads with ultra-conservative California Superintendent of Schools Max Rafferty and was known to support civil rights as well as the housing co-op movement. Hayakawa had established his reputation as a linguist through writing Language in Action (1941) and Language in Thought and Action (1949), in which he held that language can be used to describe reality but also to conceal reality (U.S. House). In the 1940s he also wrote an effective takedown of racism, “When, to take another example, is a person a “Negro”? By the definition accepted in the United States, any person with even a small amount of “Negro blood” – that is, whose parents or ancestors were classified as “Negroes” is a “Negro.” Logically, it would be exactly as justifiable to say that any person with even a small amount of “white blood” is “white.” Why do they say one rather than the other? Because the former system of classification suits the convenience of those making the classification” (Torii, 31). In 1942, Hayakawa joined The Chicago Defender, a black-owned newspaper, for which he wrote articles frequently criticizing anti-black racism until 1947. In 1952, Hayakawa denounced the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) for endorsing the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act as an act of selfishness, since although it lifted racial prohibitions on Asian immigration and ultimately allowed him to become a citizen of the United States, it reinforced the discriminatory national origins quota system.

Hayakawa, as a New Deal liberal, believed that the way for civil rights to prevail was for gradual and consistent arguments that capitalized on reason and logic rather than disruptive and violent activism. Thus, people like Martin Luther King appealed to him, but as the sixties raged on and the Vietnam War escalated, radicals began seeking people more militant; some wanted to exit the road of non-violence. Starting in the late 1960s Hayakawa’s views grew more conservative and right after retiring from his post in 1973, he switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. In 1976, Senator John V. Tunney was seeking another term, but his liberal voting record was proving a weakness. Initially the leading contenders for the Republican nomination were establishment figures: moderate Congressman Alphonzo Bell, and former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Robert Finch. However, Hayakawa’s bid gained a lot of attention and he won over party conservatives, securing the nomination. He viewed his bid thusly, “I think the triumph of the New Left in the 1960s was really a blow against certain basic American values. One individual can do damn little about it, I suppose. This is some sort of moral gesture on my part. For after all, it seems to me the Senate is a platform from which you can preach” (U.S. House). During the campaign, Hayakawa appealed to a wide range of voters as a man of the people and through his glib responses, notably after he had been told that McDonald’s operated 100 restaurants in Japan: “What a terrible revenge for Pearl Harbor” (U.S. House). He also successfully lobbied for the pardon of Iva Toguri d’Aquino, known during World War II as radio broadcaster “Tokyo Rose”, who had been wrongfully convicted of treason. One of Ronald Reagan’s top advisors, Lyn Nofziger, stated in the leadup to the election, “There is no way for Hayakawa to win the election but he’s going to” (U.S. House). Indeed, he pulled off a victory by three points, running ahead of President Gerald Ford who won the state.

As a senator, Hayakawa proved to be…interesting. Although a conservative on economic and defense issues and on numerous cultural issues, indeed his MC-Index score is an 84%, he was not a rigid ideologue in the mold of Jesse Helms. He, for instance, opposed amendments limiting abortion and despite campaigning against the Panama Canal Treaty in 1976 and holding that “We should keep it. We stole it fair and square”, he voted for it on March 16, 1978 as a way to improve U.S.-Latin American relations (U.S. House). However, the culture issue he really pushed was assimilation, and this was one position that he had held in both the liberal and conservative phases of his life, that it was best for immigrants and minorities to assimilate into the existing culture. Hayakawa was thus one of eight senators to vote against extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 1982 and did so because he opposed bilingual ballot requirements that had been added in 1975. The previous year he had introduced an amendment to the Constitution to make English the official language of the United States. Hayakawa wished to “prevent a growing split among ethnic groups based on their native languages. With each trying to become more powerful than the other, the function of language could change from a means of communication to a tool of cultural assertion” (U.S. House). This is far from an implausible scenario: in his country of birth, Canada, this is exactly what has happened with Quebec and the French language. Hayakawa, incidentally, had earned his Master’s in English at McGill University in Montreal. He also opposed reparations for Japanese American internment and went as far as to say that internment was a necessary and good sacrifice for the war effort and that it had accelerated the integration of Japanese Americans into greater American society (U.S. House). In other words, according to Hayakawa, the American government had ultimately done Japanese Americans a favor. As a Canadian citizen in Chicago during World War II, he was not subject to internment and during the 1940s he had condemned them as “concentration camps” (Densho Encyclopedia). On economics, Hayakawa voted for the Reagan tax and budget program and was a strong supporter of a subminimum wage for teenagers as a way to boost their employment opportunities. However, by 1982 his star had fallen considerably and many Republicans wanted to move on from him. His staff was known to be often ineffective and he was not necessarily the best personality fit in the Senate. The press often had field days with him given that on multiple occasions he was caught sleeping during major votes and even during his orientation, which he explained as him being easily bored. Hayakawa initially wanted to run for reelection, but chose to retire after it was clear he would have an uphill battle to even be renominated. He was succeeded by San Diego’s popular Mayor Pete Wilson, one of the last of California’s successful statewide Republican politicians. In 1983, Hayakawa formed U.S. English, an organization that pushed for “English only” policies in the name of national unity and died nine years later. 

For conservatives, S.I. Hayakawa represented a counterrevolutionary reassertion of cherished American values and an example of how racial minorities can succeed in America while for liberals he was someone who when push came to shove sided with the white power structure and might be an example of why political firsts are overrated, a subject I will write on in the future. Hayakawa himself would probably wish to be remembered as an individualist, a patriot, an iconoclast, a foe of the identity politics of the New Left, and an unhyphenated American.


Hayakawa, Samuel Ichiye. United States House of Representatives.

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Hayward, S. Where is Sam Hayakawa When We Need Him? Powerline.

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S.I. Hayakawa. Densho Encyclopedia.

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The San Francisco State College Strike Collection. San Francisco State University.

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Torii, Y. S.I. Hayakawa and the African American Community in Chicago, 1939-1955. Setsunan University Academic Repository.

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