The Hirasaki Family Story
By: Vicki Parfait
Tokutaro, the patriarch of the Hirasaki family in Orange County, Texas, came to the US in the early 1900's, bringing his son Tokuzo, who was between 14 and 16 at the time, with him. Tokutaro enjoyed horses and gambling, but had returned to Japan long before his grandchildren were born, and they know little more about him.
After, his father went back to Japan, Tokuzo remained behind in California. He worked his way through high school and Davis Agricultural College while in California. He heard about the Kishi colony, and came to Orange County seeking employment. He was to become the manager of the Kishi Farm, and eventually Kishi's son-in-law, when he married Toki Kishi.
Tokuzo had two brothers. One stayed in California, and the other remained in Japan. To their knowledge, none of the Texas Hirasaki's were ever interned during the war years, or even interviewed.
Becky Hirasaki, Henry's wife, remembered Tokuzo as "Papa", her father-in-law, and said he was a complete perfectionist. He subscribed, she said, to a Japanese newspaper and read it daily. "Henry's mother, Toki, would come out with his "dinner", which was lunch and the large meal of the day for the hard-working farmer, and she'd say, 'Lunch is ready." Papa seemingly never even heard her. Again, in the same exact tone, she would say, "Lunch is ready." He continued reading his paper. Finally she would say, "Gohandesu!" which was the same thing in Japanese and he would immediately smile and come to the table. He still thought in Japanese." In the years before "Papa" died, his son, John and daughter -in-law, Parrish would bring him math puzzles, which he loved, and he would work them out on paper, in the Japanese method of calculating math.
Becky said much of what they learned about the family was learned when she and her daughter Amy went to Japan with Henry's parents and on subsequent trips with Henry. After a visit from his brother who had remained in Japan, Tokuzo Hirasaki desired to make a visit home. It was his only visit back to the place he had left 60 years earlier. And, it was the first time Toki had seen Japan since she was four. Henry felt that they would need some assistance on such a long trip and sent along his wife to help them. Becky, at the time, knew very little of the Japanese language and wanted to take their daughter, Amy, along for comfort. The family was greeted with "red carpet" treatment everywhere they went. The couple was able to visit all their known living relatives, some for the first and last times. It was during this trip that Tokuzo turned 80. Within months of their return, Tokuzo's brother passed away, and within six and a half years both Tokuzo and Toki were also gone. It was a memorable trip for all.
Becky said that Toki talked all the time about how good her children always were. She claimed they were never any trouble, and they never had to spank them. "Toki turned to her husband and said, "Wasn't that so, Papa?" He couldn't say it was so," Becky chuckled, because Henry's dad had once spanked all three boys all the way home when they knocked his levees down running or walking on them. He had built those levees by hand and they were narrow and they had been handcrafted perfectly. Truth is, though, it is the only spanking Henry ever remembered."
Becky said that Henry's mother was very strong, and a Methodist who was serious about her Christianity. She was highly involved in WSCS, and also loved flower gardening. "It was much like an English Flower garden," Becky recalled. "She had many varieties of daylilies. Her garden was where it had once been a chicken pen, and everything grew well there," she added, "When she died, we dug every single plant and brought it to our house. We still have an old pink rose bush. Lots of the daylily varieties died out, but there are still a lot here that are doing great."
Toki, Becky related, was a bit of a social butterfly, enjoying visits with old friends and classmates, members of the Vidor Garden Club and church friends. "She would have liked to have done more, but couldn't," Becky said. "She was very proud of her grandkids and liked to take our daughter Amy with her and show her off."
Becky's father Lester (Dutch) Dupree, was in the Bataan Death March and later interred in Japan as a POW for 3 ½ years, however, he never held any animosities toward his captors. So when she fell in love and married a man of Japanese descent it was not a problem to her father. Henry often makes the comment that "Becky is more Japanese than I am". Becky said, "After I was expecting our first child I wondered how our children would look," she smiled. "Henry replied, 'Don't worry! Half-breeds are always pretty!"
The oldest of the girls, Ida and Hana, both love and keep horses now. Ida was in band in school. Henry said it is no secret in the family that Ida loved to primp and make herself pretty. "She always looked like she just stepped out of a band box," Henry said. "She was very social, like her mother. She got a degree in office management at Lamar, married Nathan Bush from Panola County, Texas, and they have a married son, Kurt. Ida and Nathan live in Dallas." "Hana married a fellow artist," Henry noted, "Mike Case. Both of them graduated from Lamar. They have two grown daughters, Jodie and Wendy. Hana while once a commercial artist sells real estate. She once worked at Astroworld making backdrops. For a long time on the riverboat ride her sun drawing was displayed, and she also did some geisha girls, as well as other things, for other exhibits there. Her husband is retiring soon from where he works in Houston and the two of them plan to move to an artist's colony in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
John Hirasaki works at NASA for a sub-contractor. He provides technical support to the Russian spacecraft, Soyuz and the unmanned programs. Soyuz carries a crew. "We've engaged Russians to make modifications on the vehicle so more astronauts can fit in it," he said. "I've had to learn Russian. I have been working for Muniz Engineering for a little over a year doing this, but have been in this field since the mid '80's." John, who was born in 1941, is married to Parrish and has two children. His son, Kitt, is a Harvard graduate, and daughter, Parrish, named for her mother, is in college at Rice University.
"My first recollections from childhood are during the harvest, when they brought the German POW's to the rice farm to work in the fields. I would go out in the fields, find a comfy haystack and lay down," he laughed, "My brothers got worried and would go looking for me and would find me fast asleep! "We werent even aware that those men working there were POW's," he said, "They laughed and played and enjoyed their work. They played with us, too. They would toss us in a tow sack and swing us around. It was great fun!"
Yes, John said, as a Japanese child he endured some prejudice. "After the war, in school I got a certain amount of flack," he agreed, "But I picked big friends," he laughed. "My friends were my friends, and that was it! Our grandfather, Kishi, had established the colony and much of the community, and was respected. We knew who we were and were comfortable with that fact, and understood that the prejudices were in ignorance.
John graduated from Lamar Tech in '64 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He said he would love to go up in Soyuz and had mentioned the fact at work, "But I'm too old," he said.
Frances Hirasaki Ackart, the youngest child, was born in '48, after the war. She now lives in Averill Park, New York with her husband David. She has three children, Forrest, Robert and Jiro. She said she never ran into any prejudice at all. Frances graduated as highest-ranking girl at Vidor High School, where all the Hirasaki children went to school. It was not surprising. Henry was valedictorian in '56. George was salutatorian in '58. John was named highest-ranking boy with his class. The Hirasaki children were expected to be super-achievers and they were.
"I don't remember my grandfather much, but I do remember a newspaper taking a picture of me when I was five serving tea to my grandfather. But I didnt serve tea! They set the picture up! The quote made it look as if I had just come in to serve him tea, but it was all set up. I didn't like it!" Frances said. "It wasn't true! I enjoyed growing up in the country, going for walks with Hana in the woods. We girls enjoyed nature. The boys were always working on cars. We girls would also swim in that awful, muddy canal," she chuckled.
Vacations were a one-day trip to the beach annually, and were much anticipated by the whole family. Henry remembered the Kondo family going along and everyone brought Japanese food to eat. "Papa would drive down with the boys in the pickup early and set up a tarp," Frances recalled, "We'd come in the car and watch for the tarp. The beach was so special. We only got the one day because Papa was always working," Frances said, "He didn't have any helpers!"
George, second of the children after Henry, was born in 1939. He is married to Darlene, and never had children. The couple resides in Belaire, Texas, a suburb of Houston. George also went to Lamar Tech, but got his Ph.D. at Rice University in Chemical Engineering. After a 26 year career with Shell Oil and Shell Developing Company, he has become an A.J. Hartsook professor in chemical engineering, an endowed chair, at Rice. He is a member of the National Academy of Science, one of the highest honors granted to a professional in engineering or medicine.
Despite the fact that he is a happy and friendly man who has had an exemplary career, George was old enough to see the prejudice many Japanese people faced. By the time he finished Lamar, he was happy to see the area in his rear-view mirror. " I was interested in agriculture. I was on the tractor one day and told my father that I wanted to go to A & M. He said if Ag was what I wanted, he could teach me everything I needed to know at home on the farm." George said," I couldn't bear the thought of spending the rest of my life on that farm, not seeing the rest of the world." Summers on the farm, George theorized, were long. They were isolated. To alleviate boredom, he started playing with a Chemcraft chemistry set his father had. His father had a college chemistry book that taught him even more, and George began experimenting, creating some beautiful orange crystals. It was TNT! He tried to launch rockets, but joked that they blew up more than they flew.
"Mother was more concerned about the holes in my clothes from the chemicals," George laughed. "Mr. Coppenger who taught 8th grade science at Vidor would discuss chemistry with me, and I enjoyed it so much I'd cut class to talk to him....til I got caught by Mrs. Stripling," he said. "I was studying organic synthesis and quantitative analyses long before I took high school chemistry. It became natural." His chemistry teacher will always be thought of fondly, but children, and sometimes adults, can be cruel.
"When I first went to school the kids would ball their hands over my head and say, 'Bomb Tokyo," he recollected, "And some called me 'Jap.' I tried to explain that I was Japanese, not a Jap. I had no recourse but to fight some. After a few incidents, it stopped. We had cousins in a relocation camp in Colorado," he added. "The cousins still say my mother wrote all the time saying, "George got in another fight again!" A Mrs. Harrington usually drove the school bus, but a day came when her husband subbed for her. The bus didn't have to take them to their home, but Mrs, Harrington did. On this day, her husband opened the school bus door and let them out. George tried to explain that his wife usually drove them all the way to the house, and Mr. Harrington told him, "You Japs can walk!" "I was in the sixth grade," George said, "I was so mad all I could do was pick up a rock and throw it at the bus, he stated, "But I didnt hit it."
George further related, "Mother always told us to do well and behave because people would judge not only our family, but all Japanese, by the way we behaved. We felt responsible to do well so we could reflect proudly on Japanese people and our family, but after the war, the word 'Jap,' he said, "Was an insult! And our eyes were slanted, but we were brown, not yellow!"
"A number of times when my father had me alone, he mentioned that he'd like for one of us to become a diplomat or a scientist," George said, "And I knew I wasn't very diplomatic. I wish my father could see me now, he said wistfully. "He does have a scientist in the family."
Henry and Becky still live in Orange County, on Jap Lane. Their sons Jon and Ron as well as a foster son, Hiro, still live at home with them. They are highly respected members of a family that helped settle Orange County and bring it into the Twentieth Century. Their children don't experience prejudice, and are extremely proud of their heritage. The war is a long past memory that they only know through their parents and education.
"Some kid on the school bus once called our daughter Amy a Jap when Amy was in school," Becky said." The bus driver immediately stopped the bus and corrected the child. Amy couldn't figure out why, and came to the defense of the boy. Her answer was, "But, I AM Japanese!"