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Patti Hirahara – One woman’s mission to preserve the memory of Yakima Japanese pioneers

Patti Hirahara discusses the importance of preserving the Japanese American legacy with Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, DC in 2017, in front of items from the Secretary's personal collection. Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

More than one thousand people of Japanese descent were shipped to incarceration camps from the Yakima area in 1942. The central Washington community, which supported Japantowns in Wapato and Yakima, was not supposed to be evacuated because they were far enough inland. But once some local farmers realized they could wipe out their competition by stoking racist fervor and insisting the local JAs also be incarcerated, the gig was up for Yakima’s Japanese-American communities. After the war, only 10 percent returned to the area.

Patti Hirahara has made it her mission to keep the memories of those communities alive. Hirahara grew up in Anaheim, CA, but her great-grandparents, grandparents, and father lived in Yakima before the war, and her great grandparents and grandparents are buried at Tahoma Cemetery there.

A secret darkroom and a couple of very serendipitous discoveries – which amounted to a treasure trove of 2,000 negatives taken at Heart Mountain by her grandfather and father – fueled her passion to share the stories of the Yakima Japanese pioneers. We spoke with and emailed Ms. Hirahara about the central Washington communities. Excerpts from the interview and emails follow.

Interview by Bruce Rutledge

George and Koto Hirahara pose with baby Frank Pattis father in Yakima in 1926 Courtesy of the Hirahara Family Collection Anaheim Public Library
Tell us about your passion for sharing the stories of your parents, grandparents, and other Yakima families.

Due to people in the U.S. not knowing about the Yakima Japanese pioneer’s story, I felt it was important to focus my energies on promoting the history of these Japanese pioneers in the Yakima Valley before World War II since only 10 percent of the population returned after being incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

My family was one of the first to return to the Yakima Valley after the war. Now, in working with the remaining Japanese American families there, their story is being picked up by national media across the U.S. as well as the Yakima Herald Republic newspaper.

In finding that my family’s photography could help fill voids of history in the Pacific Northwest, I was happy to donate my grandfather George and father Frank’s photography to the Yakima Valley Museum, my father’s alma mater of Washington State University, where he attended from January of 1945 to graduating in 1948, as well as donate my father’s photography to the Oregon Nikkei Endowment to tell the Portland resettlement story.

Now, I am working to tell the Japanese pioneer story in my hometown of the City of Anaheim before and after World War II as well as their forced evacuation to Poston. In working with the city since 1999, the Anaheim Public Library received a 2018 NPS Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant to create its own original exhibition entitled “I AM AN AMERICAN: Japanese Incarceration in Time of Fear — The Unknown History of Anaheim’s Japanese Pioneers.” The 5,000-square-foot exhibition will be at Anaheim’s MUZEO Museum and Cultural Center from August 25 to November 3, 2019.


Prewar Yakima pictured here was home to a Japanese community of more than 1000 people Hirahara Family Collection Yakima Valley Museum
Two unidentified men stand in front of the Hiraharas Pacific Hotel
That’s wonderful. It seems there has been a big response to your efforts.

Yes. In April of last year, the Washington State University Alumni Association honored me with their honorary alumna award. This is the most prestigious award I could have received from WSU without being an alum. I was also the first Japanese American to receive the award since its inception in 1966. I have donated over 2,000 photos from my father’s World War II camp collection in 2010 to Washington State, which has helped make WSU a resource center on the Japanese American incarceration in the U.S.

Dad was on the Washington State College track team. In 1946-47, he was elected to the Washington State College Athletic Council, which was voted on by the students themselves. What astounded me was that this was 1946. The war had ended in 1945, and he was elected as a Japanese American. That was amazing.

I was named the grand marshal of the Washington State Pioneer Power Show last August in Union Gap. My grandfather received the same honor in 1987 and, as far as anyone can tell, he was the first Japanese and I was the second to be honored.

The Hirahara Family secret underground darkroom in Heart Mountain captured by artist Robert Nailon Photo Courtesy of the Hirahara Family Collection Anaheim Public Library
Tell us about how you discovered your grandfather’s photos.

I went up to Yakima to help my grandparents move in 1992. I only had three days. I had the whole run of the house, and my grandfather said there are some things in the attic, so I went up there and found a little blue box that said “Heart Mountain” on it. I opened it up, and there were 850 photo negatives.

I always knew we had photos. In 1982, Heart Mountain had its first reunion in Los Angeles, and my dad shared his photos. But he never told me how many we had. My father passed away in 2006 and in 2010, I found another 1,200 more negatives in his home.


In a closet, but it was well-preserved in a case. His photographs from high school were in this bundle. He came to Heart Mountain when he was 16 and graduated in ’44 as photo editor of the high school yearbook and ASB Commissioner of General Activities. My grandfather was in his late 30s. They started photography as a hobby. Once they got to Heart Mountain, they realized they had an opportunity to record history. My grandfather went out of camp to work in the fields, so he was able to buy a used car and drive it back to Heart Mountain. By having a car, they could go out and buy photographic supplies as well as photograph sites such as Yellowstone and areas around Heart Mountain that many had never seen.

At Heart Mountain, my grandfather built a secret photographic darkroom and mini-photo studio. They were at the end of the barracks and had four feet of clearance on their end. My grandfather just had to dig another two feet and they’d have six feet. At night, people would take scraps … wood, whatever. Also, my grandfather was working for the electrical department so he was resourceful. When he was in Yakima, he was very handy as the owner of the Pacific Hotel. When they built the Yakima Buddhist Church’s Bussei Kaikan, my grandfather was one of the electricians. Since technically he was a Japanese national, he wasn’t allowed to have access to or take pictures. But he decided to do it even though it was prohibited. Some of his friends had darkrooms, but they weren’t built to the sophistication of the Hirahara darkroom. He was very keen to not have evidence of it. We only have a photo of him in front of his enlarger. You could never tell where it was. But in terms of the correspondence that was in the file (from the National Archives), I really think the Heart Mountain officials knew what was happening.

Did your family tell you much about the Incarceration?

My family told me stories about how they had an attorney and a real estate broker taking care of things when they were in camp. But that’s all they told me. They didn’t give me any names, but when I went to the National Archives, I requested our family file. That told me the name of the attorney and the real estate broker. Correspondence between Heart Mountain and Yakima about the tenants of our family home that still remained are on record. The stories that we hear are that families couldn’t come back because of the resentment, but here was a Yakima family that was being pursued to come back to the community they left.

The Japanese pioneers who came to Yakima felt it was important to be remembered, so they bought a plot of land at the Tahoma Cemetery so that they would have a place to be buried. Two generations of my family are buried in Yakima, so when I go to Yakima now, it’s like a second home because that’s where my family is buried.

How did you become fascinated with Yakima history?

Yakima has a unique history. There were 1,018 (of Japanese descent) that left the valley in ’42. Only 10 percent returned after the war.

I felt the Yakima story is one that needed to be told since its history was only known to a very few. Once we opened the exhibit at the Yakima Valley Museum in 2010, people from across the state started to come and were amazed that this community ever existed. If the incarceration didn’t happen, who knows how big this community would have become today. Although I am a Fourth Generation or Yonsei, I am still passionate about preserving the Japanese American legacy in the United States. In working to preserve our history, I hope that the next generations will continue to tell our story, and in doing so my dream would be fulfilled.

Patti Hirahara has researched and curated the Hirahara Family Collections from Wakayama Prefecture to the Yakima Valley, Washington State University, Portland, Oregon, and the City of Anaheim, California. She has created collections at the Yakima Valley Museum, Washington State University, the Oregon Nikkei Endowment/Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, the Oregon Historical Society, the City of Anaheim, California, as well as donating objects to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Hirahara has helped initiate exhibitions at the Yakima Valley Museum, the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, the City of Anaheim, as well as contribute Hirahara family artifacts to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s “Righting a Wrong — Japanese Americans and World War II” exhibition. She will be loaning her father’s trumpet to the Heart Mountain Wyoming Interpretive Center this year.