A Hidden History
by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
In 1992, Frank Hirahara ’48 sent his daughter Patti to Yakima to help his elderly parents pack up their home for their move to Southern California.
What had at first seemed a chore turned into a treasure hunt as Patti unearthed letters, photographs, and official records that chronicled her family’s experience as Japanese Americans who had spent World War II in an internment camp. “These things were hidden all around the house,” she says. She discovered notes in the buffet, letters in the kitchen cupboard, and photo negatives tucked into books.
Frank’s grandfather Motokichi Hirahara came to Washington from Wakayama Prefecture in Japan in 1909. He brought over his wife Sato and son George the following year. They settled in the Yakima Valley, farming and driving their crops to Seattle for sale. George grew up in the valley, married a woman from Japan, and eventually became owner of the Pacific Hotel in Yakima.
Their lives were disrupted in 1942 when the Hiraharas, including George’s teenaged son Frank, were ordered to leave their Washington home. They stored their belongings, packed their clothes, and boarded a train bound for an assembly center in Portland. There they were given numbers, handed luggage tickets, and assigned a barrack before joining about 10,000 others at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where they would spend the next few years imprisoned at a relocation camp under Executive Order 9066.
Now Patti Hirahara has shared a number of items from her family’s internment experience with the archives at Washington State University. They include the luggage tags from the train ride, high school yearbooks, her great-grandfather’s death records, her father’s WSU letterman’s sweater, and about two thousand photographs and negatives. Here students and scholars, as well as descendants of other families interned at Heart Mountain, can access these things, said Hirahara during a visit to WSU last fall.
This is a valuable gift, says Trevor Bond, head of WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections. Often photographs from the Japanese internment camps are the product of a government-paid photographer. To have so many photographs taken by Japanese internees, and showing scenes of daily life as well as special events like parties and funerals, is unique.
Until 1943, no cameras were allowed in the camp. But one resident sent a request to Washington, D.C. to change the rule. After that, the internees were allowed to mail-order their equipment from Sears, Roebuck, and Co. and a number of men and boys formed a camera club.
Some of the internees built darkrooms beneath the barracks where they lived. Hirahara has a photo of her grandfather’s work area, beautifully organized with an enlarger and canisters of developer, and timers on shelves above the worktable. A few of his and Frank’s photos are tacked on the wall.
This image is like many of the photographs in the collection—a look inside the camp from the resident’s experience, be it Frank’s or his father’s. They’re sharp and full of wonderful details, including views inside the barracks, tables set with meals punctuated with bottles of Coca-Cola, school dances, and photographic field trips around Wyoming.
Patti found the first large stash of negatives in her grandparents’ attic 20 years ago. She found many more photos and negatives in her father’s things after he died in 2006. “I had looked at these boxes many times before, but I didn’t find the negatives until I looked under the photo equipment,” she says. “He had hidden them so well.”
The photographs tell a story of people in an unpleasant situation, imprisoned by their government in a spare landscape, but willing to make a good life for the time being, says Hirahara. They beautified their barracks, explored their surroundings, and developed a social life. Frank’s pictures include high school yearbook photos, shots of basketball games, and school dances.
Frank Hirahara completed high school at Heart Mountain, then left for Pullman to study at Washington State College, one of the schools willing to accept students of Japanese ancestry. He majored in electrical engineering, which led to a job with the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland. Motokichi died at the camp in 1945. The rest of the family was released later that year, and they returned home to Yakima.
When Frank Hirahara became custodian of the family’s history, he didn’t think his materials or his history would be that interesting to others, says his daughter. But now she realizes her family’s story and materials help fill out the story of internment and provide details about Heart Mountain that might otherwise be lost.
The National Park Service has granted $49,217 for the preservation and digitization of film, prints, artifacts, and nearly 1,000 negatives from the relocation center. The grant includes funding to develop a curriculum based on the collection for five undergraduate courses.
One of Frank’s high school classmates, Tom Hide, has enhanced the materials with his own documents, which include a listing of the residents of Heart Mountain and in which barrack they lived. This is particularly helpful in identifying people in Frank and George Hirahara’s photos, says Bond, since many of the negative sleeves have notations of barrack numbers.
In the few months since word got out about the Hirahara donation, people who had family members at Heart Mountain have contacted her. One man from Spokane saw a story in the newspaper and called her. “His family was two doors down from mine,” says Hirahara. “They were from Wenatchee.”
Patti Hirahara says she has several goals for this donation: that her family’s materials can be used by students and scholars, that the subject of Japanese internment won’t be forgotten, and that Japanese families will find more information about their loved ones and perhaps come forward to share their own stories and documents.
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