I first came across the name of Jesse Hiraoka in a magazine he ran coming out of Bellingham, Wash. entitled “The Journal of Ethnic Studies,” as published by Western Washington University. At that time I was a college student in California, and being a practicing poet and artist myself, that magazine came as a revelation. Interspersed between scholar’s essays, one could fine a rich mix of current literature and discussion of art by ethnic American artists, many of whom were Asian American. It was here that I first stumbled upon the fountains of George Tsutakawa, and caught new poems by Lawson Inada or Alex Kuo. In many ways, it was ahead of its time and published the work of folks you didn’t often have a chance to catch in mainstream publications. It followed in the footsteps of Joseph Bruchac’s “Greenfield Review” and Ishmael Reed’s “Yardbird Reader.”
Later on, I would be humbled by Professor Hiraoka’s sensitive and erudite look at one of my poems during an Asian American Writer’s Conference in Seattle. Sometimes as a writer, one can only look on in dismay as scholars apply their far-fetched ideologies in trying to explain your work instead of coming to the work itself. Jesse Hiraoka showed keen insight and sensitivity with an eye towards history when discussing my poem the way the best criticism does. When it’s done well, a review will bring out ideas and possibilities in your work that you hadn’t even considered when you wrote the piece. Jesse was that kind of critic.
And later when I was to meet him, you realized he also possessed a sincerity and sharp sense of wit, always accompanied by a twinkle in the eye as he spoke. Even in the brief encounters I had with him and his artist wife, Louise, in Seattle where he eventually retired, one could sense a worldly perspective and an awareness of being “in the moment.” A cursory glance at his resume would show you a multitude of experiences that paved the way as to how he got like that.
Born in California, the eighth child of first-generation Japanese immigrants, he was the last of a Nisei generation that experienced the internment camps. A graduate the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, he had a doctorate in French language and literature, and would go on to teach at Roosevelt University, Portland State University, California State University, San Bernadino, before ending an illustrious career at Western Washington University. Here he founded and became Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies and later Chairman of the Foreign Languages Department. Retirement meant more travels as he worked as administrator of the exchange program at Asia University in Tokyo and then lived in Paris.
Jesse was a “bon vivant” of life and took whatever it had to offer. One got the feeling that whatever his myriad interests were, he would always be thorough and unrelenting in his pursuit of knowledge. He could tell you where the best french bakery in Tokyo was and how to find it as easily as he could de-construct the novel, “No No Boy.” So it came as no surprise to me to learn that in his later years he continued to teach and enlighten as a docent for the Seattle Japanese Garden. In the garden blog, he is fondly remembered for his lectures on haiku and and Japanese aesthetics. He informs the writer that he doesn’t like his lectures to be recorded or videotaped because once published, his thoughts would be ‘closed” and set in stone. Jesse Hiraoka was a Renaissance man who always “ lived in the moment.”
You can read Jesse’s obituary, sign the guest book and leave a message at www.Legacy.com. Ceremonies for him will be private and in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Seattle Japanese Garden.