Japanese-Americans were vilified during World War II. The very idea of one of them serving as a local community leader would have seemed absurd at the time. However, Masako Hirata accomplished this when she became the first Japanese-American teacher in the city of San Bernardino.
Born in San Bernardino on June 24, 1915, Masako recalled in a 2005 interview that when she was growing up, San Bernardino had a community of 100 or so Japanese-American residents living in clapboard-style homes scattered along D Street between Rialto Avenue and Third Street along Second and Fourth streets, and on B Street (now known as Mountain View Ave.).
The business establishments in the area - restaurants, a barber shop, a tofu shop and grocery stores - were strung along Third Street between Arrowhead Ave. and D Street, with a couple near F Street. There were also two hotels, both of which were managed by Hirata's father, Kumajiro.
Shortly after arriving in San Bernardino in 1902, Kumajiro Hirata started running the Pacific Hotel (formerly known as Starke's Hotel) at 292 Third St. He also co-managed the White House Hotel on the north side of Third for a while.
After leaving the hotel business, Kumajiro opened up a general store on the south side of Third Street that had a little of everything - produce, lunch meat and an eatery. Patrons always called him "Jack," and his popular place of business became known as Jack's Place.
Masako enjoyed childhood days at Fourth Street School and never felt singled out by either the teachers or students there, she recalled. She also had a good experience at Sturges Junior High, San Bernardino High School, San Bernardino Valley College and at the University of Redlands.
Life for the Japanese-American community deteriorated when World War II arrived. On February 19, 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the incarceration of all Japanese- Americans.
The Hirata family spent the next three years at an internment camp in Poston, Arizona (block 4-13-C). It was here that Masaka began her career as an elementary-school teacher. "My students were great. They were very industrious, sweet, very driven. They had motive to do their best and I enjoyed that."
After the war ended, Masako went to New York, where she worked for one year. After that she taught in Northbrook, Ill., for three years. Masako returned to San Bernardino in 1949 and became the city's first teacher of Japanese descent. She taught in the city for 31 years, retiring from Northpark School in 1980. Now 95, she continued making San Bernardino her home for many years until about three years ago, when she moved to the Bay Area city of Albany to live with her sister Phyllis.