Home Community Revisiting Japanese-American Incarceration History in the Face of Rising Anti-Asian Hate

Revisiting Japanese-American Incarceration History in the Face of Rising Anti-Asian Hate

Patti Hirahara with her WSU Honorary Alumna award from WSU President Kirk Schulz, 2018. Photo: Steve Nakata, WSU

By Blair Khanal, For The North American Post

A Story All Too Familiar

“It’s a story that keeps on repeating itself,” said John Baule – archivist and director emeritus at the Yakima Valley Museum – comparing anti-Asian hate crimes in the past year with the events surrounding Japanese American (JA) incarceration during World War II.

Since the pandemic started, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in anti-Asian hate crimes around the country. In 2020, anti-Asian crimes increased 149% from 2019 in 16 of America’s largest cities, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

For historians like Baule, this is not a new story.

“If you remove the dates from what you see today, it is similar to what you saw back then,” Baule said in a phone interview. “The rhetoric then was similar to the rhetoric now; it’s all politically driven.”

Since Baule moved to Washington in 1992, he has been helping track the history of the JA community in the Yakima Valley region. He was the director of the Yakima Valley Museum, Yakima, for 25 years and helped cultivate a collection of artifacts and documents to preserve their history.

When he first arrived from the Midwest, Baule knew very little of the JA incarceration. It had just been a term that he heard growing up. From his Yakima work, he learned that before the incarceration, the Yakima Valley was known for having a large population of JAs. As a portion of that original Japanese population had returned after the incarceration, Baule tried to learn more about them and share their stories. Unfortunately, he gained no traction.

“Japanese families didn’t want to pass on that negativity – they didn’t want to dwell on it,” Baule explained.

Telling the Story of the Japanese American Incarceration

Dr. Trevor Bond is associate dean at Washington State University Libraries. Growing up, he too had heard little about JA incarceration. However, years later, he believes there is an importance in explaining the period so that future generations may better understand what took place.

One topic he touched on in a phone interview was Executive Order 9066. This was the order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during WWII to place JAs – living along the U.S. West Coast at the time – into the incarceration camps. These were places tucked away and deemed “safe” until the war with Japan was over.

“The government called them ‘relocation camps’ but contemporaries might now call them concentration camps,” Bond said.

According to an excerpt from the Yakima Valley Museum’s online exhibit on JA Incarceration, JAs were rounded up and sent to various camps primarily along the West Coast (“Land of Joy and Sorrow,” yvmuseum.org). The people from the Yakima Valley were sent to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. During the camp’s existence, it was the third largest city in the state.

“It was a policy driven by fear and racism,” Bond said. “It was the worst thing in FDR’s presidency. It disrupted so many lives.”

Bond believes that the same fear and racism is at play with the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes seen around the country during the pandemic.

“It’s all part of a larger movement,” he said. “We need to acknowledge and talk about it so people can live their lives.”

Blazing a Path Forward

It wasn’t until John Baule met Patti Hirahara that things truly began to change in the effort to get local JA families to share their stories.

Baule said, “The repository of Japanese history [at the Yakima Valley Museum] grew after Patti got involved.”

Hirahara describes herself as an Asian American trailblazer. She is a fourth-generation descendant of the Hirahara line – which dates back to 1907 when her great grandfather, Motokichi Hirahara, came to the United States from Japan. She has always felt the need to share the legacy of her 114-year-old family history.

In 2010, Hirahara donated 2,000 photos from the JA incarceration to Washington State University, her father’s alma mater, from her family collection: The George and Frank C. Hirahara Photo Collection.

Trevor Bond was the person who picked up the phone when Hirahara first called the university about preserving her family’s photo collection. He helped her get her photos submitted and preserved at WSU.

Hirahara felt that sharing and preserving the historic JA experience was important; not just to herself but to other Japanese and Asian Americans around the country.

“With many of the photographs not having any sort of identifications, I started to do research to identify the people in the photos from Heart Mountain, for over five years,” Hirahara wrote in an email. “In doing this, I was able to give family descendants a piece of history that they never knew existed as well as knowing the persons who actually took the photos during their family’s incarceration in Heart Mountain during WWII.”

As a result of the pictures being donated to WSU by Hirahara, she said that The George and Frank C. Hirahara Photo Collection has been used in several Emmy Award-winning documentaries, in books about the JA incarceration, and in the musical “Allegiance.” The latter made its worldwide debut at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and featured George Takei. The collection has also been shared on social media and in newspaper articles.

In 2018, WSU awarded Hirahara with an Honorary Alumna Award for her work in helping share and preserve the JA legacy.

Hirahara’s father, Frank, was a 1948 WSU alumnus. He was a trailblazer in his own right, being the only minority elected to the then Washington State College Athletic Council in 1946 and the second-highest vote getter a year after WWII, according to Hirahara.

She credits him for helping her become who she is today.

“My father was a unique individual, who did not feel his ethnicity was a handicap but was a unique opportunity to use his upbringing to enhance a situation by offering a fresh perspective to any situation. I feel I gained his foresight and I put that philosophy into practice every day,” Hirahara wrote.

Sharing the Story

John Baule, Trevor Bond, and Patti Hirahara all had a similar message when they spoke: the Asian American experience needs to continue to be told if people want to see real change.

Baule talked about the necessity of overcoming ignorance.

“The only way you get acclimated to new people is getting to know them,” Baule said. “If you live among people different from you, you become more accepting.”

Bond discussed how teaching and understanding history is crucial.

“Conversations around racism and profiling are hard but important,” said Bond. “One difference between then [WWII] and now is that the younger generation has individual power to document and hold people accountable – not just the media and power elites.”

Hirahara reiterated the importance of the untold story.

“In communities across this country, many JAs and Asian Americans have been trailblazers where they live but we never hear about them. In American history, there are very few that come to mind,” Hirahara wrote in an email. “That is why there needs to be more positive stories written and told about the contributions of JAs and Asian Americans in this country. We need to show what they have done in their own communities, how they showed how to become good corporate citizens, and how our lives are better due to their interest and caring for our well-being.”

Editor’s note. The NAP most recently covered Patti Hirahara’s various activities in April 2018, March 2019, and May 2019 (napost.com).