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Patti Hirahara Named to OC Register’s 125 Most Influential Persons in Orange county for 2023

By February 23, 2024June 20th, 2024No Comments

By Nori Uyematsu

Patti Hirahara has been a preservationist of Japanese American history as well as a communications facilitator between the United States and Japan since 1974, and in December 2023, she was recognized by the Orange County Register newspaper as one of its “125 Most Influential Persons in Orange County.” She and Major League Baseball’s Shohei Ohtani were the only honorees of Japanese descent to be included in 2023.

Patti Hirahara, as Miss Suburban Optimist/Orange County Nisei Queen, in 1974 and in 2023 (Photos: Alan Miyatake/Toyo Miyatake Studio and Patti Hirahara)

This designation is not just for her work last year in preserving the history of the Orange County Japanese community but also to commend Hirahara for an entire career dedicated to help and ensure that our community’s history will be preserved for future generations.

Hirahara’s family’s story has been featured in many Pacific Citizen articles over the years, but due to her journalistic background, she has contributed to the newspaper as a writer since 2014. As a contributor, she specializes in feature stories that profile Japanese American newsmakers and events that would not be covered in the American press. With her also being a third-generation Hirahara family photographer, she can also take her own photos to accompany her stories.

She unselfishly volunteers her own time and money to help get projects off the ground by providing seed money to get things rolling and has called many high-ranking individuals, without any introductions, to get first-time Japanese pioneer exhibits and documentaries made utilizing her family’s more than 2,000 photographs that were processed in a secret underground darkroom in Heart Mountain, Wyo., during World War II, which is considered the largest private collection of photos taken at the camp.

In addition, she provided unique family artifacts that developed opportunities for exhibitions to be created when people said they couldn’t be done.

Her tenacity afforded other Japanese families to be able to tell their stories in the areas where they lived, and she is helping me to work with the Brigham City Museum in Brigham City, Utah, to now develop its first Brigham City/Box Elder County Japanese Pioneer exhibit, which is set to open next year in February and go through June 2025 for a four-month run.

Patti Hirahara’s great-grandfather, Motokichi Hirahara, came to the U.S. in 1907 from Wakayama Prefecture, and she is a Yonsei, or fourth-generation, Japanese American whose family has been in the United States for 117 years; she is the last living Hirahara surnamed descendant.

This year, 2024, marks the 50th anniversary of her becoming the first Miss Suburban Optimist/Orange County Nisei Queen to represent Orange County in Nisei Week in 1974.

The Suburban Optimists was the second organization that sponsored a candidate to Nisei Week after the Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670 ended its sponsorship in 1970. There has been a total of 55 queens who have represented Orange County in the Nisei Week Japanese Festival since 1958.

Although she did not win the title of Nisei Week Queen, she felt in not winning, this gave her the inspiration and opportunities to pursue projects as a print journalist and photographer, while still attending college, and learn more about her Japanese heritage. She felt bad about not becoming queen that year since she wanted to make Orange County proud, but I think we can all agree that she has done many remarkable things in 50 years that people can only dream about.

Last year alone, she worked to have the 53-year-old Japanese Garden and Teahouse at the Orange County Civic Center preserved due to its significance of representing the Japanese resettlement in Orange County after WWII.

She also worked to help find many of the 55 Miss Orange County Japanese American Queens, who represented Orange County at the Nisei Week Japanese Festival, from 1958-2023, and helped put together their first reunion in 65 years last September.

In addition, she worked with the California State Parks to create its first exhibit “Community Voices: Japanese American Experiences at Crystal Cove (1927-42),” which is running through Feb. 28, and she worked with the Japan Business Assn.’s Orange County Committee to honor the Japanese pioneers at the Anaheim Cemetery by placing flowers on their graves as well as introduced Orange County’s Japanese American history in an introductory YouTube video for the JBA in 2022.

There are not that many people who know the history of the Japanese and Japanese Americans in Orange County, and her wealth of knowledge has helped organizations and people tremendously. With these accomplishments just covering 2023, her résumé also includes work at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, the City of Anaheim, the Yakima Valley Museum in Yakima, Washington, and the Japanese American Museum of Oregon.

What amazed me was that she was first runner-up to chef Matao Uwate of Radio Li’l Tokyo for the California statewide Chef Kiku Masamune spokesperson cooking title in 1979. She is a great Japanese cook and can also speak Japanese.

In 1984, Tokyo Broadcasting Systems’ “Soko Ga Shiritai — Little Tokyo’s 100th Year” program special featured Hirahara, who represented the Yonsei generation to show what Japanese Americans can do to help relations between the U.S. and Japan. This show was broadcast in Japan and in Los Angeles 40 years ago. She was also interviewed by University of Tokyo students for a documentary about Japanese Americans in America in September 2014.

Among Patti Hirahara’s accolades and service roles are positions on the board of directors of the Society of Professional Journalists Los Angeles Chapter; second vp of American Women in Radio and Television’s Southern California Chapter; Nisei Week Japanese Festival board of directors 1980 and 1981; Suburban Optimist Club of Buena Park board of directors and Optimist of the Year for 1995-96; 2010 Community Service Award recipient City of Anaheim, Honorary Alumna Washington State University 2018 and first Japanese American to receive the honor; grand marshall of the Washington State Pioneer Power Show; Woman of the Year — 46th Congressional District by Congressman Lou Correa; Commendation for her Japanese preservation work by the Anaheim Union High School District; and having her name listed on the Orange County Japanese Garden and Teahouse 50th Anniversary Plaque at the Orange County Civic Center in Santa Ana, Calif.

She is also a member of the SELANOCO/Orange County JACL chapter and was honored by the PSW District of the Japanese American Citizens League as the SELANOCO JACL Honoree in 2019. She was a member of the Orange County JACL when she covered events for their Santana Wind newsletter during the chapter’s heyday.

The Hirahara family has lived in the City of Anaheim for 69 years and continues to support the community. She helped to create the first Japanese American exhibition about the City of Anaheim’s Japanese pioneers and their incarceration in Poston, Ariz., which highlighted pioneer stories in Orange County for the City of Anaheim’s “I am an American — Japanese Incarceration in a Time of Fear” at the MUZEO Museum and Cultural Center that ran from Aug. 25-Nov. 3, 2019.

In knowing Patti Hirahara for over 40 years, this is only a fraction of her résumé. I know she will continue to do great things to honor our Orange County Japanese pioneers and ensure our Japanese American legacy will not be forgotten. “There is only one Patti Hirahara, and we are fortunate that she is a trailblazer for our community.”