Nikkei honored for donating photo collection

Patti Hirahara with Washington State University President Kirk Schulz. photo by Steve Nakata / WSU

Patti Hirahara of Anaheim, Calif., who donated her family’s concentration camp photo collection to Washington State University Libraries’ Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections Department, received the Honorary Alumna Award from the WSU Alumni Association in April.

Hirahara was also honored for educating the public about the Japanese American wartime incarceration experience. She is the first Nikkei in 52 years to earn that Honorary Alumna award.

The George and Frank C. Hirahara Collection, donated to WSU in 2010, has more than 2,000 black-and-white photographs and negatives taken by her father and grandfather while they were incarcerated during World War II at Heart Mountain, Wyo. This collection is considered the largest private collection of photos depicting life in that United States concentration camp.

As a result of that acquisition, WSU MASC received $46,000 in funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program to preserve, clean and digitize the negatives for future generations.

Steve Nakata, a communications coordinator for the Division of Student Affairs at WSU, said via e-mail, “I think it is fantastic that WSU is home to the Hirahara Family Photo Collection. It reflects our heritage of recognizing and valuing the contributions of Asian Americans throughout our history.”

The collection is a “perfect place to digitize the photos, make them accessible to students and university researchers worldwide, and preserve the collection for generations to come,” stated Nakata, whose father’s family was forcibly relocated from Pasadena to the Tulare Assembly Center. “The collection does a wonderful job of showing what everyday life was like in the incarceration camps and tells the story in such a stunning and visual way.”

Exiled to Heart Mountain
“I found that many Americans are still unaware about this dark time in history, especially those that are of high school and college age,” Hirahara stated in an e-mail. “In working with the Smithsonian and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, I realized that this is a story that needs to be shared with all generations, and my family has given me the tools to give people a firsthand look at what happened 75 years ago through photographs that were taken behind barbed wire.”

The United States government in the summer of 1942 exiled the Hirahara family and more than 1,000 other Nikkei from Washington state’s Yakima Valley to Heart Mountain. In all, the camp held more than 11,000 — out of a total of 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated throughout the western U.S. — making it Wyoming’s third largest settlement.

Underground Darkroom
While imprisoned there, George Hirahara, Patti’s grandfather, built a secret underground darkroom and studio underneath their barrack. With cameras, photographic equipment and supplies purchased through a Sears and Roebuck mail order catalog, George and his son, Frank (Patti’s father), took thousands of photos of camp life between January 1943 and November 1945, which Patti later donated to the university.

According to Patti Hirahara, her grandfather dug under the family’s barrack to build the six-foot-deep darkroom. To create the secret room, her grandfather used the handyman skills he learned when he operated a 60-room hotel in Yakima, she explained. “If you look at various photos, you can see modifications that were made to allow for ventilation and moving things in and out. It was a marvelous achievement.”

Patti Hirahara said her grandfather and father took those photos because they felt it was “an opportunity to capture history … a firsthand opportunity for people to see what really happened there since the photos were taken by actual incarcerees rather than War Relocation Authority photographers.”

The camp administrators apparently knew what the family was doing, “but they looked the other way and allowed the family to take photographs,” she revealed.

Nikkei Accepted at WSU

Patti Hirahara, who was born after the war, said this “tragedy in American history affected me at an early age. I did not want to be known as a Japanese American but rather as an American and was uncomfortable having Japanese spoken in the home. I would say, ‘This is America and you need to speak English,’ when my mother and grandmother spoke Japanese in front of me at home.”

The only Nikkei at her elementary school, Hirahara was called a “Jap,” she recalled. “This traumatized me for many years, but once I moved to Anaheim and got exposed to the Japanese American community in Southern California, I realized that I had been missing an opportunity to embrace my Japanese heritage and to show how I could become more involved in my community to talk about the Japanese American incarceration.”

The university has really never been given the recognition it deserves in allowing Japanese Americans to continue their college education during World War II, and “many Japanese Americans excelled during their time there and their history is an important part of this legacy as well,” she pointed out. “I know my father would be honored to know that his alma mater would become the home of his family’s photo collection, especially since WSU allowed him to go there in 1945 after he graduated from Heart Mountain High School in 1944.”

In 2014, Hirahara led a series of workshops, films and presentations for a campus-wide look at the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. She has shared her family’s story and photo collection with more than 1,000 students on campus and recently established the Frank C. Hirahara Excellence Fund in his honor.

Since the Hirahara Photo Collection became accessible to the public online, documentary filmmakers, authors, the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History have all utilized the photographs. They can be viewed at libraries.wsu.edu/hirahara.

The Hirahara Collection was used extensively in the documentary “The Legacy of Heart Mountain,” produced by David Ono of Los Angeles’ ABC7 and screened at the Films of Remembrance in San Francisco in 2015.

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