When 31-year-old Californian Joyce Hirohata was having difficulty writing her high school valedictory speech, her father handed her a book published by her grandfather, Paul Tsunegoro Hirohata.
The book features 49 graduation speeches by Japanese-American students before World War II.
Although the book helped her speech, she gave it no further thought until she turned 30 and was able to read it through adult eyes.
“I realized the book is a precious historical document, which depicts lively young Japanese-Americans before the war and their sturdy patriotism for America,” said Hirohata.
The book, “Orations & Essays by the Japanese Second Generation of America,” was published in 1932 by Paul Hirohata, a correspondent for The Japan Times in the United States. It is a collection of 49 graduation speeches and essays by high school and college students from 33 cities across California.
As unfathomable racism raged in California at the time, Hirohata is believed to have compiled the voices of the young nisei in an effort to ease strong anti-Japanese sentiment.
After 65 years, only four copies of the book are known to remain.
Last year, Joyce Hirohata decided to update the book with pictures and former students’ life stories after graduation.
“I want to republish my grandfather’s book and distribute it to local schools and libraries free of charge, as it may help future generations of Japanese-Americans in finding attachment to their ethnic origins,” said Hirohata, who recently graduated from a business school.
Hirohata is currently in Japan searching for former students who might have returned to this country before the war.
In the book, the young Japanese-Americans expressed strong patriotism and love for America and its idealism, such as freedom and equality.
“The United States and her idealism is growing. It is growing in that her gestures of goodwill have stretched her greeting hands across every land and people to sing in unison,” wrote nisei Goro Murata in 1926 for his speech at Montebello High School in California.
Such young patriotic feelings, however, sound heartbreaking when considering the harsh anti-Japanese sentiment at the time that eventually culminated in wartime internment.
“The subsequent events of the war, especially the internment, made these essays and speeches so poignant, as all of them bore testimony to how patriotic and faithful they were to America,” Hirohata said.
She said her major reason for republishing the book lies in this sense of tragedy, which she said can be further punctuated by the students’ life stories after their graduation, often characterized by discrimination.
“I believe the book should be republished to prevent further discrimination against a certain group of people in California, where the population is far more diversified,” she said.
Hirohata confessed that her project has not been an easy task, as it is often very difficult to locate the students, whose average age exceeds 80.
So far, she has traced the lives of 27 people, including 10 who are still alive.
Aside from such technical difficulties, she said her project often becomes tough for her as an American, as she realizes how their patriotism was not acknowledged after they wrote the speeches and essays.
She even found some who were unwilling to speak of their past.
“I went through a period of anger and disappointment in my country, as I felt my belief in America was also betrayed,” Hirohata said.
On the other hand, she also found some of the students had attained the American dream, eventually becoming members of a successful ethnic minority in the U.S. in the postwar period.
“In learning about some of the students’ lives, I realized that their young faith in American idealism was eventually rewarded,” she said. “The government compensation for the internment in the ’80s stands as proof that justice still exists in American society.”
The other significance of the book, she said, is that it is a rare documentary on the lives of prewar Japanese-Americans. Studies on the history of Japanese-Americans have focused mainly on the wartime internment experience, which often overlooks the lively pictures of individuals, she said.
“To know them closely from their pictures, young writings and life stories adds vivid pictures of real people to the history of Japanese-Americans,” she said.
Joyce Hirohata is looking for the following people. About five of them probably returned to Japan around the time of the war.
They are Florence Akiyama, Mary Fukuye Asada, Chizuko Doi, Haruko Fujita, Hidemitsu Ginoza, Thomas Hirashima, George B. Inagaki, Mary Toshiko Miyamoto, Kiyoshi Murakami, Goro Murata, Yoshimi U. Nagayama, Michiko Naito, Jimmy Nakamura, George Nishida, Sakaye Saiki, Kazuya Sanada, Yuriko Sanwo, Akiko Sawada, George S. Takaoka, Toshio Yamagata, Dorothy Chiye Yoshida and Michiko Yoshihashi.