Skip to main content
Patti Hirahara, congratulated by WSU Athletic Director Patrick Chun, with her Honorary Alumna Award, the highest honor presented to a nonalumni. (Photo: Steve Nakata, WSU)

Patti Hirahara becomes the first Japanese American recipient of the WSU Honorary Alumna Award in 52 years.

By P.C. Staff

Ever since Patti Hirahara donated to Washington State University more than 2,000 photos taken by her father and grandfather while in a Japanese American incarceration camp during World War II, she has dedicated her life to serving as an ambassador for WSU in promoting the collection and educating others about the Japanese American legacy.

To recognize her many years of dedication in promoting that legacy, the WSU Alumni Assn. has honored Hirahara with its Honorary Alumna Award, which was presented to her following a recent speech she gave at WSU Spokane’s Student Diversity Center.

Hirahara’s father, Frank C. Hirahara, was photo editor of the Heart Mountain High School Tempo Annual and graduated there in May 1944, taking more than 2,000 photos in Heart Mountain with his father, George. (Photo: Courtesy of WSU Libraries MASC)

“I was so surprised when they presented me with the award at the conclusion of my diversity presentation in Spokane. I just thought Christina Parrish (assistant director of the WSU Alumni Assn.) and Anna Maria Shannon (interim director of the WSU Museum of Art) were there to hear the presentation I did at the FDR Presidential Library in New York last October,” said Hirahara. “When they started reading the award and talking about my contribution to Washington State University, I started to tear up. Being the first Japanese American to receive this award in 52 years, I feel this is a tremendous honor, and it is a tribute to all the Japanese American alumni who have gone to WSU since its inception in 1890.”

The Honorary Alumna Award is the most prestigious award given to non-WSU graduates by the WSU Alumni Assn. Established in 1966, it honors friends of WSU who have given special service to the university.

“We are thrilled to honor Patti,” said Tim Pavish, executive director of the WSU Alumni Assn. “She is a remarkable person, and we are lucky to have her in the WSU family.”

Hirahara’s dedication to preserving the Japanese American legacy extends far beyond her association with WSU.

Hirahara was a fixture in the Southern California Japanese community in the mid-1970s and early ’80s as a print and broadcast journalist and photographer, a marketing consultant to Disneyland’s Festival Japan and as co-host of the TV public affairs show “Images.” She also started her own public relations company in 1980 after being approached by the Japan External Trade Organization, the trade promotion arm of the Japanese government. As its public relations counsel, she worked with JETRO’s worldwide network of 77 offices in 57 countries to help Americans export their products to the Japanese market.

In addition, she served on the board of directors of the Nisei Week Japanese Festival, the Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Southern California Chapter of American Women in Radio and Television.

Patti Hirahara with Congressman Robert T. Matsui at the JACL’s “An American Testimonial” dinner in 1980. (Photo: Frank C. Hirahara)

“I became a pioneer of my time, in many meanings, but when I finally married and settled down, I slowly vanished into the sunset and enjoyed being a wife and doing things with my husband,” Hirahara said.

But Hirahara’s life changed drastically in 2006, when her father, Frank C. Hirahara, became ill and passed away.

“My life was never to be the same again,” she said. “With both my father and myself being only children in the family, I was faced with the ultimate responsibility of taking four generations of Hirahara family photographs, artifacts and documents and finding a home for the possessions that had been accumulating since my great-grandfather, Motokichi Hirahara, had arrived in America, in 1907, from Wakayama Prefecture in Japan.”

As the last descendant of the Hirahara family in America, Hirahara knew she had a wealth of history that needed to be shared.

She initially began to archive some of the Hirahara family’s history in 1999 with the establishment of the first Hirahara Family Collection with the City of Anaheim. Since participating in the “Shades of Anaheim” Digital Photo Project, her family has donated additional photographs, documents and artifacts that now make up the only four-generational family collection in the holdings of the Anaheim Public Library’s Heritage Center.

In 2009, the City of Anaheim presented its newest exhibition “100 Years and Four Generations — Bridging the Past and Present: A Look Into the Life of the Hirahara Family.” It was the city’s first museum without walls exhibition, shown in three locations in the city’s civic center, and was the first time a Japanese American family had been so honored.

“Having lived in Anaheim for 63 years, I have continued to help the City of Anaheim chronicle the history of its Japanese pioneers here as well as being involved in looking at the student history of my alma mater of Anaheim High School before and after World War II.

I am very proud of what we have been able to accomplish in Anaheim. Being the first family to be profiled by the city — this shows what can be done in your local community,” she said. (To view the Hirahara family’s history on the Anaheim Public Library website, visit

In 2010, Hirahara began to look for a permanent home for her family’s priceless Heart Mountain photo collection.

“My father said his last wish was to find a home where this photo collection would be treasured and preserved for generations to come,” said Hirahara. “He wanted people to learn first-hand what happened to the Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII.

After leaving Heart Mountain, Frank Hirahara entered Washington State University in 1945 and joined the track team. He received his WSU Freshman Numeral and was junior manager of the team. (Photo: Courtesy of WSU Libraries MASC)

“My father would have never imagined that the university that allowed him to get an education during WWII would become the home of his father’s and his Heart Mountain photographic portfolio taken in 1943-45,” Hirahara continued.

She donated the original negatives and photos to the WSU Libraries Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections (MASC). It is considered to be the largest private collection of photos taken by amateur photographers incarcerated behind barbed wire in Heart Mountain.

During WWII, Hirahara’s father, grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to leave their homes in Yakima, Wash., under the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. While they lived in Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center, her father, Frank, and grandfather, George, documented everyday life inside the camp using camera equipment purchased from the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs. They developed and printed their photos in a secret underground darkroom built by George beneath the family’s barrack apartment.

As a citizen of Japan, George was not allowed to possess camera equipment at the time. Frank was born in Yakima, and as a U.S. citizen, could have photographic equipment that was ultimately used by the family. Together, they went about capturing history.

After graduating from Heart Mountain High School, Frank attended WSU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1948.

Once WSU acquired the collection, MASC received funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program to preserve, clean and digitize the negatives for future generations.

After becoming 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 Hirahara family photographs. (The photos can be viewed online at

“I am amazed at how the WSU MASC has taken care of this collection and how it continues to grow with other donors adding their personal collections about the Japanese American incarceration,” reflected Hirahara. “Everything is temperature controlled and labeled, with the Hirahara Collection having its own shelving as things are added every year from my travels and presentations.”

For more than six years now, Hirahara has worked to locate many of the people featured in her family’s photos. By sharing them with family descendants, she has offered them a piece of history that they never knew existed. Hirahara plans to donate, to WSU, additional information of what she has found.

In 2014, Hirahara spearheaded a series of workshops, films and presentations for an unprecedented campus-wide look at the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII (

“This was quite an accomplishment for one entire fall semester and one that has not been replicated, to my knowledge, at any university or college in the U.S. When I share my family’s story and the history of the photo collection to the over 1,000 WSU students on campus I have spoken to thus far, they are amazed at what happened to the Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII and how it reflects on what is happening today,” she said.

Hirahara continues to work with students on campus to ensure that they are aware of this dark time in history about the Japanese American incarceration.

“For many, 1942 was so long ago that it is hard for them to relate to what happened 76 years ago,” she said. “They understand what happened during 9/11, and when I speak about that, they have a better understanding on how fear can change people’s minds. I had a front-row seat in experiencing what happened that fateful day since my husband and I flew into Dulles Airport at 5:40 a.m., that morning, and I then understood what my family experienced on Dec. 7, 1941.”

Through the years, Hirahara has a been a guest speaker at several WSU Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Center activities on campus, and she recently established the Frank C. Hirahara Excellence Fund in his honor.

Remembering her father, Hirahara said, “I am particularly proud and astonished that in 1946, my father was elected by the Associated Students of WSU (ASWSU) to its Athletic Council. As a Japanese American and a track athlete just one year after the conclusion of WWII, he received the second-highest vote tally of everyone on the ballot.”

Outside of her work with WSU, Hirahara has developed additional collections that tell the history of her family and others at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center and the Oregon Historical Society, both in Portland, and has donated family Heart Mountain artifacts to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Japanese American collection in Washington, D.C.

The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center/Oregon Nikkei Endowment Frank C. Hirahara collection ( has helped to fill the void of information that was missing in regards to the resettlement of the community of Portland, Ore., after WWII.

In addition, Hirahara’s passion for telling the Yakima Japanese pioneer story continues, as she is currently working with the Central Washington Agricultural Museum, which is the largest agricultural museum of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. On Aug. 18 and 19, she is set to attend the 37th annual Pioneer Power Show in Union Gap, Wash.; her grandfather served as grand marshal in 1987.

“This will be the first time I will be attending the Pioneer Power Show. When I saw my grandfather’s large purple ribbon with the words ‘Grand Marshal’ embossed on it, I was very proud to know what the pioneers thought of him,” Hirahara said. “After being one of the first to return to Yakima in the fall of 1945, my grandfather decided not to run a hotel any longer and became a farmer in the early 1950s. He retired in his 50s and then started his hobby of collecting gasoline engines. I am particularly looking forward to seeing my grandfather’s donated gas engine, which is currently fully operational and spouts smoke rings to the delight of visitors.”

Hirahara has also been working with Ellen Allmendinger, author of the upcoming book “Hidden History of Yakima” (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press). Set to be released in October, the book highlights the Hirahara family’s ownership of the 60-room Pacific Hotel in Yakima, Wash.

“I am eager to see Ellen’s book being published since it will have a more detailed look at the history of the Japan Town in Yakima from the early 1900s-1942.

She could not cover everything, but it will give readers a better idea of the robust town of Yakima during that time,” Hirahara said.

Last year, Hirahara, a member of the Greater Los Angeles JACL, closed her company and is now fully focused on continuing her work in promoting the Japanese American legacy.

Patti Hirahara’s Honorary Alumna Award.

The wording on the WSU Honorary Alumna Award perhaps reflects Hirahara’s own personal journey: “You have tirelessly worked to tell your father’s story and utilize his photography to enhance the public’s knowledge of Heart Mountain and the Japanese American experience during WWII. Your efforts have helped to illuminate a painful chapter in American history. You have honored your father’s legacy and brought distinction to his alma mater, Washington State University. Your generous donations of his collections have informed and inspired people today and for generations to come. For all this and much more, the WSU Alumni Association is proud to bestow upon you the Honorary Alumna Award.”

“Receiving this award now is significant because this year marks the 75th anniversary of when my father and grandfather began taking photos in the camp,” said Hirahara. “WSU’s history is unknown to many people, especially the fact that the university allowed Japanese American students to continue their education during WWII. It is an extreme honor to be recognized by my father’s alma mater, and it has been a wonderful partnership with WSU over the last eight years.”