‘The Yakima Valley Japanese Pioneers’

February 9, 2018 • Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth

Pictured is one of the displays in the award-winning exhibit at the Yakima Valley Museum. (Photo: Patti Hirahara)

Having successfully documented the valley’s rich cultural and important history, the Yakima Valley Museum is now set to host its first DOR event.

By P.C. Staff

With the success of its exhibition the “Land of Joy and Sorrow — Japanese Pioneers of the Yakima Valley” now celebrating its eight-year anniversary in 2018, the Yakima Valley Museum is now set to hold its first-ever Day of Remembrance event on Feb. 18.

The exhibition has been one of the museum’s most successful endeavors, collecting several accolades during its run, including the 2011 “Award of Exhibit Excellence,” given by the Washington Museum Assn., which noted that “the museum went beyond textbooks and documentaries, seeking out personal histories and artifacts concerning the community’s past and present. Not only is it a significant contribution to the understanding of a community, it also enhances the rich history of Washington State.”

Patti Hirahara shared her family’s Yakima, Wash., story — and the history behind the more than 2,000 photos that were taken by her grandfather and father in Heart Mountain, Wyo., from 1943-45 — at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., last October. She is shown standing next to five of WSU’s George and Frank C. Hirahara Collection photos that were on display at the FDR exhibit. These photos are significant since they were taken by two amateur photographers who were incarcerated behind barbed wire during World War II. (Photo: Courtesy of the Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections)

Last year, the museum commemorated the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which resulted in the imprisonment of 75,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry and 45,000 Japanese nationals in prison camps across the country. The Yakima Valley has focused on this history, which devastated its vibrant Japanese community in 1942.

Tammy Ayer, features/reader engagement editor of the Yakima Herald Republic, started a yearlong monthly series highlighting this anniversary, in February of last year, to focus on this relatively unknown and vanishing community story.

“Concerning my series, I’ve most enjoyed solving mysteries created by the loss of local knowledge and the passage of time,” Ayer said. “I relished seeing the response to the story about Japan Town in Yakima. The comments from readers amazed me; so many were from people who grew up here, who have lived here for decades and never learned that Yakima had a thriving Japan Town.

“Readers have sent me snail mail and emails about the series, as well as adding their own memories,” Ayer continued. “One woman was 4 years old when she heard her mom talking about members of the valley’s Japanese community being forced to leave everything they had for imprisonment at Heart Mountain. ‘I remember Mom saying it was wrong,’ the woman said in a letter. Many of her friends were sent to Heart Mountain and never returned to the valley.

“In terms of what has resonated most for me while doing this series was that in the beginning, I didn’t think much about the ramifications of just 10 percent of a community returning to the Yakima Valley. But the more I learned more about this community, I realized how much was lost. The valley would be a very different place today if E.O. 9066 had never happened,” Ayer concluded.

Japanese Community Float, Yakima, May 18, 1935. (Photo: Courtesy of the Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections)

Ellen Allmendinger, a Yakima historic tour guide and speaker, worked with Ayer, detailing the valley’s rich history. Allmendinger has led walking tours of Yakima’s Japan Town, Downtown Yakima, Historic Tahoma Cemetery and other vicinities since 2016.

“Researching the multilayered facets of the residents, businesses and buildings within Yakima’s once-thriving Japan Town has been a fascinating journey. Having the means to share the information via tours and speaking engagements has been both an honor and a blessing,” Allmendinger said.

Allmendinger is also a public speaker and has given many presentations on Yakima’s history at a variety of venues, meetings and engagements. Currently, she is completing her first book, “The Hidden History of Yakima, Washington,” with Arcadia Publishing. The book, which will include Yakima’s Japan Town history, is scheduled to be published this year.

As a wrap-up of the Yakima Herald Republic’s yearlong focus on the Yakima Japanese community and E.O. 9066, the Yakima Valley Museum will host “The Yakima Valley Japanese Pioneers — Their story Continues to Educate New Generations” event from 1-3 p.m. on Feb. 18, with the museum opening especially for this event from Noon- 5 p.m. that day.

A panel discussion and audience Q & A session will include Allmendinger, Ayer and Patti Hirahara, from Anaheim, Calif., whose personal family story has been instrumental in telling Yakima history across the U.S., as well as serving as the inspiration for the creation of the museum’s current exhibit.

Hirahara has been promoting the Yakima story since 2008, when she contacted the Yakima Valley Museum to see if it had ever done an exhibition on the Japanese pioneers in the Central Washington region.

With nothing ever being shown before, Hirahara donated her family’s artifacts, documents and photos to help create a Japanese American collection that would allow the museum to develop an exhibition that would educate the public at large.

Three generations of the Hirahara family lived in the Yakima Valley before World War II, where they made a living through farming and owning the 60-room Pacific Hotel in Yakima’s Japan Town.

Of the 1,018 people that left from the Wapato, Wash., train station in June 1942 to the Portland Assembly Center and then to Heart Mountain, Wyo., only 10 percent returned following the war — the Hirahara family was among the first to return.

The Hirahara family then spent 79 years in the Yakima Valley. In 1987, Patti Hirahara’s grandfather, George, was named grand marshal of the Washington State Pioneer Power Show; in 1988, he was named a pioneer of the Central Washington State Fair.

George Hirahara became active in establishing the Central Washington Antique Farm Equipment Club as a charter member and was the 49th member of the national Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. He enjoyed serving as a local ambassador to visiting Japanese businessmen and being part of the Yakima Valley community until he and his wife left Yakima in 1992 to come to California to be close to their only child and his family.

“I am very happy to come and participate in this very important Day of Remembrance program and share what I have learned about my own family history in the valley before WWII through documents in the National Archives and see what still remains of my family in the valley today,” Patti Hirahara said. “This was my family’s home and where two generations are buried. So, even though I was born and raised in California, this has become a second home to me.”

In 2013, the museum held a Yakima Valley Japanese Pioneers reunion that was attended by more than 200 people. The first one was held in Yakima and Wapato in 1973 by the Yakima Valley Japanese community. But since those 40 years, many had never had a chance to return or learn about their family history. Therefore, this reunion, which was held at the museum, was a homecoming of sorts for family descendants to hear what really happened from those that survived. People still talk about this reunion to this day.

“The museum is proud to host its first Day of Remembrance event,” said Peter Arnold, executive director of the Yakima Valley Museum. “The story of the Yakima Japanese community and E.O. 9066 encapsulates the very purpose of history — that is by studying the past, we can make better decisions in the future. We are very grateful to the panelists for all the work they have done to make this event a reality.”

Following the panel, guests are invited to visit the “Land of Joy and Sorrow” exhibit. Admission to the panel and exhibit is free for all event attendees. Due to limited seating, the museum requests that attendees please RSVP by calling (509) 248-0747.

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