Discover Nikkei

https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2023/5/17/wasuke-hirota/

A Miraculous Family Gathering: Wasuke Hirota’s Mixed-Race Descendants Celebrate at Ireichō

Wasuke Hirota family at Ireichō

The sound of joyful voices and poignant emotions echoed through JANM’s Aratani Hall when on April 27, 2023, some 50 family members of Hispanic, Native American, and Japanese descent gathered for the 150th birthday celebration of their Issei ancestor, Wasuke Hirota. Adults and children of all ages arrived from as nearby as Azusa, California, and as far away as Osaka, Japan, to pay their respects by stamping Ireichō, the sacred book in which the former detainee’s name was listed among some 125,000 others forced into mass detention.

Hirota family, c. 1928. From left top: Rafaela, Wasuke, Rose, Louis. Front row: Murray, Henry. Rafaela is pregnant with Herbert. Courtesy of Hirota family.

Family members were also among the first to mark special amended pages to Ireichō that included the names of Hirota’s wife Rafaela Martinez; their 5 children, Rose Hirota, Louie Hirota, Murray Hirota, Henry Martinez Hirota, Herbert Hoover Hirota; and 4 grandchildren, Lillian Hirota Alvarez, Paul Alvarez, Peter Alvarez, and John Albert Dominguez, all held at temporary detention assembly centers in Pomona and Santa Anita.

After being released from the second detention center in Pomona because of an amended governmental policy freeing those of so-called “Caucasian background,” Hirota’s wife and family returned to their home in Azusa in August 1942, without their beloved husband and father who was sent alone to be incarcerated at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. Tragically, Hirota’s heart would stop forever when he died there from heart failure in 1944.

Despite giving many of them the Japanese name they carry to this day, the patriarch never got to know any of the people at his birthday celebration. His present-day descendants would only know him through memories of his surviving wife of Mexican and Chumash/Shoshone heritage, Rafaela or “Grandma Rae,” who would often say, “He left us walking and came back in a box.”

Wasuke Hirota at Heart Mountain. Courtesy Hirota family.

What remained was a photograph taken at Heart Mountain that loomed large at this special gathering along with the precious gold watch that was one of the objects featured on the camp history website, 50objects.org, whose director Nancy Ukai was responsible for putting together this gathering. As family members gazed at the photo in which the gold watch could be seen in Hirota’s pocket, it was as if his spirit soared above the camp dust.

In the center of the gathering were two Japanese women meticulously dressed in cream-colored kimonos, looking a little out of place in this room full of descendants with surnames like Alvarez, Morales, and Martinez. It wasn’t long before the two from Japan were enthusiastically embraced by members of the large crowd in the room who they had only recently discovered to be their long-lost relatives in America.

From far away in Osaka, 81-year-old Kiyomi Kazue Toriyama and 26-year-old Karin Kosako had been searching to find a descendant of Wasuke Hirota, who turned out to be the same Issei man who died at Heart Mountain. In fact, Toriyama’s mother was one of three children Hirota fathered with his Japanese wife, Ryu.

Hirota’s first wife, Ryu, and their child in Japan.

Wasuke and Ryu had immigrated to Hawaii in 1899 and separated there; Ryu returned to Japan while Wasuke headed for California. When Toriyama was in grade school, her mother told her that her grandfather had gone to America and had a family there.

Toriyama grew up knowing that the grandfather she never met had an American family but knew no other details. When she turned 81, knowing it was the same age at which her mother died, she asked her granddaughter Karin to do some internet sleuthing.

The internet savvy granddaughter began helping her grandmother look for stories about the mysterious grandfather and great-great-grandfather they never knew. Astonishingly, they made startling connections after searching such sites as 50objects.org, Ancestry.com, janm.org, and others, as well as social media sites.

As a result, less than a year after their search began, they were face-to-face with relatives of whom they had dreamt about but had no actual information. Bowing before the crowd, Toriyama beamed with joy at traveling across the globe to meet them and mark Ireichō as she said, “In the Buddhist tradition, to think of someone who has gone before us is the biggest offering we can give.”

In many ways, this tribute was much more than the celebration of a single person’s life. It involved the meticulous exploration of generations of family camp history made possible through painstaking efforts by intrepid Japanese American investigator and 50objects.org director Nancy Ukai.

As Ukai put it, “I was initially drawn to the Wasuke Hirota story because of a ‘mixed marriage families’ report written by authorities at the Pomona concentration camp. . . . the top page of his WRA file was marked ‘deceased’ and my heart sank.”

She continued, “To see his descendants on both sides of the ocean come together like this, nearly 80 years later, feels magical. I hope the children will carry on the stories of their ancestors and remember this day of coming together.”

50objects.org director Nancy Ukai with Karin Kosako (center) and Kazue Toriyama.

Many Hirota family members who settled in nearby Azusa had not known much about the Japanese American ancestor whose name they carried, though there were suspicions that he had another family in Japan. According to grandchild Larry Hirota, his father Herbert never spoke much about confinement in Pomona as a teenager.

The 63-year-old grandson did remember that as a child other kids would make fun of him because of his Japanese surname, and the teasing would infuriate his younger sister, Helen. Helen would go on to say that their father never wanted them to learn Japanese because he insisted they were American. In deference to his father and grandfather, Larry and his wife would name their son William, an homage to Wasuke.

April Gilbert, Wasuke’s great-granddaughter, was 10 years old when she found out about him and later inherited the role of family historian from her uncle Raymond. As she learned more about her family’s history, she was adamant about the importance of passing it on to her two sons to enlighten them on the importance of ethnic identity.

Family historian April Gilbert stamping Ireichō assisted by project director Duncan Ryuken Williams.

Ireichō project director Duncan Williams summarized the day’s proceedings by referring to the Buddhist concept of goen, translating it as the mysterious but fortuitous karmic connections that make strange things possible. Williams said goen was present when against all odds, Japanese immigrant Wasuke Hirota married Mexican/Native American Rafaela Martinez in Tijuana, Mexico, at a time when interracial marriages were illegal in California.

It was also goen that kept this mixed-race family together despite unjust detention, family separation, and ultimate death. Something magical was also at work when two women in faraway Osaka read about Wasuke Hirota on the internet, traced back their own lineage to him, and arrived in Los Angeles to join their relatives to celebrate his life.

Following the joyful yet solemn observance of stamping Ireichō, the family traveled the next day to the Azusa cemetery where Wasuke and Rafaela were buried so Toriyama, in a ritual act, could clean her grandfather's gravestone with water she carried all the way from Hiroshima.

Kazue Toriyama at gravesite of Hirota’s second wife, Rafaela. Photo by Louie Hirota, Jr.

The celebration continued when she and her granddaughter jumped on the modern-day equivalent of the Harley Davidson shown in a 1941 photo of the four Hirota sons.

(left) Kazue Toriyama and Karin Kosako on Hirota family’s Harley Davidson. Photo by Louie Hirota, Jr.; (right) Herbert, Henry, Murray, and Louis Hirota, c. 1941, Azusa, CA. Courtesy of Larry Hirota.

What began as a commemoration of Wasuke Hirota’s 150th birthday culminated with the joy and laughter of a family forever bonded together. Perhaps most empowering of all were the sacred moments provided by Ireichō to gather to honor the past, to learn from it, and to ultimately heal from it.

 

© 2023 Sharon Yamato

Heart Mountain Heart Mountain concentration camp intermarriage interracial marriages Ireichō Irei (project) marriages Mexican Americans Mexicans mixed marriages United States Wasuke Hirota World War II World War II camps Wyoming
About this series

A series of articles related to the Irei: The National Monument for the World War II Japanese American Incarceration, a three-part installation listing the names of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry imprisoned in 75 U.S. detention camps. This series will honor those individuals that are listed by interviewing people personally connected to the incarceration and offer insights into the impact this project has made on their lives.

Learn More
About the Author

Sharon Yamato is a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles who has produced and directed several films on the Japanese American incarceration, including Out of Infamy, A Flicker in Eternity, and Moving Walls, for which she wrote a book by the same title. She served as creative consultant on A Life in Pieces, an award-winning virtual reality project, and is currently working on a documentary on attorney and civil rights leader Wayne M. Collins. As a writer, she co-wrote Jive Bomber: A Sentimental Journey, a memoir of Japanese American National Museum founder Bruce T. Kaji, has written articles for the Los Angeles Times, and is currently a columnist for The Rafu Shimpo. She has served as a consultant for the Japanese American National Museum, Go For Broke National Education Center, and has conducted oral history interviews for Densho in Seattle. She graduated from UCLA with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English.

Updated March 2023

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More

Discover Nikkei Updates

NIKKEI CHRONICLES #13
Nikkei Names 2: Grace, Graça, Graciela, Megumi?
What’s in a name? Share the story of your name with our community. Submissions now open!
NIMA VOICES
Episode 16
June 25 (US) | June 26 (Japan)
Featured Nima:
Stan Kirk
Guest Host:
Yoko Murakawa
PROJECT UPDATES
NEW SITE DESIGN
See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon!