|Born||March 18 1925|
|Died||July 26 2012|
|Birth Location||Gilroy, CA|
Nisei philanthropist and strawberry grower. Manabi Hirasaki began farming strawberries after World War II in California's Monterey County and later established a significant operation in Ventura County. Although he was not introduced to the crop until his early thirties, he became the first Japanese American board member of Driscoll Strawberry Associates, the world's largest commercial strawberry distributor. A 522nd Field Artillery Battalion veteran, he has been committed to support history-oriented institutions like the Japanese American National Museum and Go for Broke Education Center.
The eldest of eight children, Manabi Hirasaki was born on March 8, 1925, in San José, California. His father Kiyoshi "Jimmy," a native of Kumamoto, Japan, had come to the U.S. at the age of fourteen and farmed with family members primarily in the Santa Clara Valley. After working for a seed company, Kiyoshi opened up his own retail and wholesale seed shop in San José's Japantown and then moved his growing family to a 400-acre farm in Gilroy which he purchased under a U.S.-born relative's name in the 1930s and later transferred to a trusteeship.
The farm expanded to 1,600 acres, where chili peppers, tomatoes, sugar beets and spinach were planted and harvested. In addition to seed stock, Kiyoshi began to grow garlic, which would become Gilroy's hallmark crop. By 1940, the Hirasaki farm was reported to be the largest garlic grower in the U.S.
Around this time, Kiyoshi, who was an aficionado of Japanese architecture, had purchased a portion of the Japanese Pavilion that was on display at the Golden Gate International Exposition. The Nishiura brothers, well-known craftsmen in San José, facilitated the construction of a Japanese-style house next to the Hirasaki ranch house. (Placed on Santa Clara County's historic registrar, the house, unfortunately, was completely destroyed in a fire in 2007.)
In 1941, Manabi enrolled at the University of California in Davis, only to return to Gilroy a few months later upon the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Leader of Gilroy's Japanese school association, Kiyoshi was arrested by the FBI in January 1942. He was confined at Sharp Park, a military park ten miles south of San Francisco, before being moved to an alien detention center in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Just turning eighteen, Hirasaki instantaneously became the male head of his family's household. The farm trustee, John Hardin Rush, was a implement dealer in Gilroy and Kiyoshi's best friend. When it was announced that Japanese Americans would be allowed to "voluntarily" move out of excluded military zones until March 29 (see Voluntary evacuation), Rush traveled with Hirasaki to Grand Junction, Colorado, to purchase a home for the family. Hirasaki then raced home to pick up his two teenage sisters to prepare the house. Experiencing a few mishaps, their Issei mother, Haruye, then made it out of California with her five younger children. The family was joined by Kiyoshi when he was released from Bismarck in September 1942.
With the return of his father, Hirasaki first attempted to enlist into the U.S. Army, but was denied at his physical in Denver because of his Japanese ancestry. After the establishment of the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Hirasaki was called to active duty. He was assigned to the 552nd Field Artillery Battalion, C Battery, otherwise known as Charlie Battery.
Deployed to Europe in May 1944 with the rest of his battalion, Hirasaki worked in communications, physically laying down wire over possible minefields. Prior to the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the 552nd entered a thirty to forty mile area, Dachau, in Germany. Hirasaki described an encounter with some Jewish Holocaust survivors who had wandered into their camp: "One day, after cleaning our mess kits, I noticed some Jews were picking leftover food out of the soapy dishwater we had thrown out. They were that hungry."
Honorably discharged in 1946, Hirasaki retuned to the 1,200-acre family farm in Gilroy. Shortly thereafter, he married Sumi Iwata, a Nisei from Mountain View, in January 1947. They would have two children, Mark and Marcia.
Hirasaki Farms, Inc. ended its operations in 1950, enabling Hirasaki to finally strike it out on his own. Working as a manager for a San José-based produce shipper for a few years, he began to grow strawberries with a partner, Robert K. Byers, in Gilroy in 1955. Gilroy Berry Farms soon became the largest independent strawberry grower in Gilroy, attracting the attention of Driscoll Strawberry Associates (DSA), a distributor with its own patented varieties. Hirasaki then expanded into nearby Watsonville on land where the Driscoll family had once grown early varieties developed by the University of California.
In 1965, Hirasaki was recruited to oversee the Oxnard-based farm operations of Nod Driscoll, the brother of Ned Driscoll, the founder of DSA. Later, Hirasaki became the general manager of E.F. Driscoll Farming Trust, with agricultural holdings in Salinas, Watsonville, Santa Maria and Oxnard. In 1978, he became the first Japanese American to serve to the board of directors for DSA. Also appointed to the California Strawberry Advisory Board, he started his own farming operation, Manabi Farms, Inc., in 1978 and farmed strawberries until 1994.
Through his veteran connections, Hirasaki began to become more involved in philanthropy in Southern California. Hearing about a museum for veterans in Little Tokyo from Colonel Young Oak Kim, one of the leaders of the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, Hirasaki became a staunch supporter of what would later become the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). First pledging a donation of a million dollars anonymously, the self-effacing Hirasakis then relented in having their contributions be publicized as some potential donors were skeptical that anyone had donated that large a sum of money.
JANM's Hirasaki National Resource Center, which helps the public access research material from the museum's archives and collections, was named after the couple in 1999. The Hirasakis have also supported numerous Nisei veterans groups, including the Go for Broke Education Center, which is headquartered in Torrance, California. Manabi Hirasaki died at his home in Camarillo, California on July 26, 2012 at the age of 89.
For More Information
Hirasaki, Manabi, with Naomi Hirahara. A Taste for Strawberries: The Independent Journey of Nisei Farmer Manabi Hirasaki. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2003.
Hirasaki, Manabi. Interviewed by Corey Yamamoto. Dreams Finally Realized: Manabi Hirasaki. California Nisei College Diploma Project. Uploaded December 10, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcyCLG2UtD4.
- Manabi Hirasaki with Naomi Hirahara, A Taste for Strawberries: The Independent Journey of Nisei Farmer Manabi Hirasaki (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2003), 33.
- Cheek, Martin. "A Beautiful Home Stood as Symbol of Community Strength," Gilroy Dispatch, July 28, 2007. http://www.gilroydispatch.com/lifestyles/columnists/martin_cheek/a-beautiful-home-stood-as-symbol-of-community-strength/article_afd2702f-a96b-5c2f-b1a7-00ebf17f4d22.html.
- Hirasaki, A Taste for Strawberries, 79.