The Kishi-Hirasaki Saga

Growing up Japanese in Southeast Texas after Pearl Harbor

By Vicki Parfait

Henry Hirasaki grew up in a family where only Japanese was spoken. Toki, Kishi's daughter and Henry's mother inherited her father's strong will and determination to get things done. Unlike most American women of the time, Toki wanted short hair instead of the traditional long. "She 'ding-donged' her father into letting her cut it despite his wishes," Becky laughed. "She was persistent until he relented and let her have her way."

Toki also wanted a higher education, and was bound and determined that she would have one! "She 'ding-donged' her father again and just kept at him until he let her go!" Becky Hirasaki said, "He finally let her go away to school and she graduated from Texas Women's University in Denton, where she got a degree in home economics. Toki fell in love with Tokuzo Hirasaki. She was determined to marry him, even though she would have to wait several years, and after being
engaged for seven years she and Tokuzo married. Hirasaki had not wanted to marry her during the depression for fear he could not care for a wife and family. They wed in December 21, 1936 at Terry Chapel. They had six children, Henry, George, John, Hana, Ida and Frances. Kichimatsu Kishi had grandchildren at long last who he adored. George and Henry were born before the war. John, Hana, and Ida were born during the war years, and Frances was born after the war.

Toki and Tokuzo were a devoted, loving couple. Both had been born in Japan in the near the turn of the 20th century. Both held college degrees. He died at 84 in 1980. Toki literally grieved herself to death afterward. "She told me over and over, very rhythmically, 'Some widows just wither away,' " Becky related, "And that is exactly what she did. She willed herself to die at the age of 75 in 1981." The Hirasaki children, as were most of the little ones in the Kishi colony, were sheltered as much as humanly possible. They did have to go to school, and Henry remembered vividly going to school not understanding English and being very unhappy at being there. He burst into tears on his first day," his wife, Becky related. "His teacher, Mrs. Frances Davis, didn’t know what to do, so they gave him ice cream to comfort him. Henry might not understand English, but that didn't mean he wasn't bright. After that, every day he walked into school he started crying and be given ice cream!" The incident brought changes in the Hirasaki household. His parents decided the children should be taught English, and began to speak that language solely to their children. Together, and with the older family members, they spoke Japanese. The children, however, became English speaking only. Henry still remembers some Japanese, but not enough to hold a conversation in Japan without an interpreter.

The Hirasaki children did well in school. They were relatively happy. Then on December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. They were well aware that they were Japanese, but people from another country they had never seen dropping bombs on a place they had never heard of for no reason they were aware of totally disrupting their lives was perplexing. George, in particular, was hurt by the fact that the bus driver dropped them off way at the end of 1135 and they had to walk the long way home because he didn't want to take the "Japs" to their home. Their grandfather had been taken away and interned for a few months when the war began. They were just children. It made no sense at all to them. The war had been going on in Europe long before Pearl Harbor. Kishi had used German prisoners of war to help work the farms. There was a small camp at the edge of Beaumont where the Germans were interned. There was also a camp near Buna, Texas, and others. The families fed the prisoners. There may have been a small monetary amount paid for the work, but no one seems to remember. It is known that families who took advantage of the help from the labor of prisoners of war fed the men, and most said they were always polite, quiet, and ate well. Many were very young. None were American citizens

There was a lot of prejudice against Germans, Italians and Japanese during and following the war, but the Japanese, having actually attacked the US, bore the brunt of it. An odd side note, there are few pictures of Henry or George as small children, and none of the younger siblings as babies. Japanese were not allowed to have cameras during the war when they were born. Some of Henry's cousins on the West Coast were interred in "segregation camps" and he and Becky have a tablecloth one cousin made while incarcerated. Becky explained that there was little to do inside the camps, so they did crafts, sewed and made useful things. Some of the descendants of Kishi's original colonists fought during the war, on the US side. His immediate family kept their children inside their own community and didn’t allow them out in public because of the war. Henry is still reluctant to talk about the occasional bad times. "It was war," he said simply. "I don't feel animosity or bitterness about anything that happened. For the most part, I think I had a wonderful life growing up and was generally happy."

Next week, the descendants of the
Kishi Colony in Orange County