By Ron Katsuyama, VP for Public Affairs Japanese American Citizens League
Following is a reprint of an article that was originally subitted to the Pacific Citizen on Nov. 20, 2010. A longtime contributor to the P.C., Pete Hironaka passed away on March 25, 2015, at the age of 87.
Pete Hironaka’s cartoons have resonated with Pacific Citizen readers for more than 53 years. On May 24, 1957, Pete began a series of thoughtful messages and points of view. His initial publication was prompted by Mike Masaoka’s Washington Newsletter column that raised concern about an apparent decline in public recognition of the supreme sacrifices of Nisei soldiers during WWII. Since then, other themes are identifiable: the value of kindness and compassion and a need for advocacy on behalf of the “underdog” or “outsider” due to cultural insensitivity or bigotry. Perhaps these are best understood with awareness of his humble beginnings, first in Sacramento, then in Salinas, Calif.
Born to Issei parents who eked out a sharecroppers’ living near Sacramento, Pete was the second oldest of what would become a family of six children. When Pete was 6, the family moved to Salinas to take advantage of better farming opportunities. Pete fondly recalls one of his earliest experiences in the Salinas schools. His first grade teacher gathered her colleagues to marvel at a sketch he had made of a pretty, blonde-haired classmate.
However, with a growing interest in sports, obligatory farm chores and dedication to schoolwork, Pete temporarily abandoned his drawing activities. But future developments would prove that he was “hooked” into drawing at an early age, needing only awareness of opportunities during his later high school years for his dormant talent to re-emerge.
Perhaps recognizing Pete’s latent abilities, his father talked him into taking a college-prep curriculum at Salinas H.S. With hard work and a bevy of A’s, he seemed poised in preparation for entry into a prestigious university.
However, Pete’s life path suddenly took an unexpected turn. Following Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 and a temporary stay in squalid conditions at Pinedale, Pete’s father accompanied him, his older sister and his four younger siblings (including an infant) on a train headed toward the unknown. It turned out to be Poston, the WRA’s makeshift city of crudely and hastily built barracks in the heart of Arizona desert. Pete’s mother was unable to return from a visit to Japan, and she died before any opportunity for family reunification.
Pete later wrote about the conditions at Poston: “The sun, which we cursed so often, again begins to beat down on us. Day by day the mercury rises. Again the rattlers and scorpions come out of their hiding places to ‘play’ with us. The ever-buzzing mosquitoes begin their nightly rounds. It was summer in Poston.”
Beginning his sophomore high school year at Poston, Pete enrolled in auto and machine shop, mechanical drawing, arts and crafts, and whatever “electives” he needed to keep his full-time student status. Life was as easy as it was aimless at this time in Pete’s life, and he often meandered from mess hall to the baseball field and back.
Then came Joan Smith (later Mrs. Joan Smith Bodein). She promptly implemented a policy of beginning-of-year interviews with each of her Core Studies students. A life-changing meeting ensued. “Pete, this is ridiculous,” she began. More pointedly, “You’re just drifting through school . . .You CAN go (to college) if you try hard enough and set your mind to it!” The rest is history. Pete became valedictorian and was accepted to Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, sometimes referred to as the “Ivy League” school of the Midwest.
Pete describes his impressions upon leaving Poston to enroll at Miami: “. . . it was like Dorothy leaving Kansas in black and white and arriving in Oz in Technicolor.” But all was not viewed through rose-colored glasses. Not knowing how he would be treated, Pete recalls the trepidation he felt upon entering a barbershop and the relief from anxiety upon completion of his haircut and razor shave.
Most importantly, we can appreciate significant social advances in American society as Pete reflects upon his feelings of triumph upon experiencing at least this level of acceptance. Pete muses with humor upon a later revelation that his barber had assumed he was among the royalty from Siam who had just enrolled at Miami University.
But Pete appreciates the genuine kindness shown by people like Journalism Professor Gilson Wright, advisor to the college newspaper that published Pete’s editorial cartoons, and staff who helped him find odd jobs, including the one washing dishes alongside members of what was to become an illustrious football team.
Now, returning to the discussion of Pete’s more than five decades of P.C. cartoons. Wherein lies his motivation? Perhaps it springs from his deep appreciation and loyalty to those people and institutions that reflect the best in our sometimes flawed human nature and the desire to celebrate these values with others.
When Pete heard that Mrs. Joan Smith Bodein would be vacationing with her husband in California, he went out of his way to arrange a meeting so that he could finally tell her that she was the best, most caring teacher he ever had. And his loyalty to Miami University and pride in his alumnus status remains unwavering in innumerable ways. (Beginning this year at 2-1, having lost only to No. 4-ranked Florida, Pete’s exuberance was palpable as he gleefully announced that the Miami Redhawk football team had just won more games than they did in all of last season.)
JACL’s core values are also very dear to Pete, and his artistic talents permit their expression with unparalleled eloquence. His cartoons resonate through his powerful use of irony (e.g., consider his illustration of various execution devices at the “Museum of Crime Deterrents” with a sardonic-looking visitor holding a bloody dagger and thinking out loud, “Wonder what that word ‘deterrent’ means?”), subtle sarcasm (e.g., consider the depiction of Lincoln holding his 2nd Inaugural Speech in 1865, wherein he exhorts citizens to work for a just and lasting peace, juxtaposed with an observer in 1965 exclaiming, “We need more time . . .”), delightful exaggeration (e.g., I like the one about a messenger reporting to JACL Headquarters that “There seems to be a serious difference of opinion in some of our provinces to the East, as Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds fans in samurai dress face off menacingly, each side gathered behind their respective banners), and classic satire (e.g., my favorite is his depiction of a D.A.R. member who, after having read about a Mexican-American boy holding the U.S. flag, views the USMC War Memorial sculpture of marines raising the American flag during the battle of Iwo Jima and exclaims, “Oh dear! I hope they’re all 100 percent Americans!”
Pete leaves a lasting legacy through his art, which conveys JACL’s values of democratic processes and social justice. These penetrate deeply into our conscious¬ness, reminding us of all that has been right with efforts on behalf of our organization.