A Champion for Equal Rights
Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i
Editor’s note: This series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interviews with Hiromi Peterson and Naomi Hirano-Omizo, the subjects of this feature, are available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. They can also be read online at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/9722 (for Peterson) and jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/8775 (for Hirano-Omizo). Additional information for this feature was accessed through a talk story series, “Nurturing Peace Builders” presented by the Matsunaga Institute for Peace.
Thirty years ago, high school teachers Hiromi Nakai Peterson and Naomi Hirano-Omizo recognized that the conventional texts for learning the Japanese language were either largely geared toward college students or too elementary for their high schoolers. This led them to develop their own textbook series, “Adventures in Japanese,” that has since become the best-selling Japanese language text series for secondary schools in the world. While Peterson was born in Japan and Hirano-Omizo in Hawai‘i, their different family backgrounds played a huge role in the strength and appeal of their texts. What they initially envisioned as a five-year undertaking evolved into three decades of text revisions and garnered them international audiences. Importantly, they extended their vision to embrace the message of global peace.
Hiromi: Raised in Hiroshima
A native of Hiroshima, Peterson is a Hibakusha Nisei, a second-generation A-bomb survivor. She wasn’t born until 1948 but the rest of her family experienced the horror of the bombing in 1945. Her parents, two sisters and brother were in the city when the atomic bomb hit. They tried to evacuate using a cart for her father who had incurred horrible burns. As they struggled through the rubble, they saw corpses everywhere and people, burned beyond recognition, begging for medicine and water. Luckily, her father survived. Years later, both her mother and older sister succumbed to leukemia resulting from the radiation poisoning. In total, the bombing claimed the lives of 140,000 civilians, which was over a third of the city’s population.
Coming to Hawai‘i
Peterson attended school in Hiroshima and was an avid athlete in baseball and basketball. She studied English at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and had a dream to “fly all over the world” as a flight attendant. Although she didn’t achieve that goal, she worked at the Osaka World Exposition in 1970 that resulted in a trip to Hawai‘i where she attended the UH summer session. Peterson said that she was attracted to the beauty of islands and enjoyed taking field trips around O‘ahu. Luck struck when she met her future husband in the dormitory’s cafeteria. He was William Wesley Peterson, a professor and director of the UH computer science department who later passed away in 2009. They wed in 1972. In Hawai‘i, Peterson pursued a license to teach English as a second language and served as a drill master in Japanese at Kaimukï High, then taught the language at Maryknoll for four years. When Punahou advertised a position in Japanese language in 1984, she applied and got the job.
Naomi: Childhood on the Big Island
Hirano-Omizo was born in Glenwood, a tiny community about ten miles from the Volcanoes National Park on Hawai‘i. Her grandfather, Naojiro, arrived from Hiroshima in 1908 to work in the sugar plantations and at Parker Ranch. An enterprising young man, he enrolled in English classes and became manager of the Ola‘a Plantation Store. In 1918, he built his own store that became the social hub for the Glenwood community. Hirano Store has been operating for over a hundred years and is still being managed by family members. Naojiro also opened a Japanese language school across from the store. His language school, business success and consular work for Issei farmers resulted in Naojiro being interned during the war at Fort Missoula, Montana, and then at Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Hirano-Omizo graduated from Hilo High in 1971 and decided to study Japanese at UH Hilo. She admitted that her Japanese was “a country version of Hiroshima Japanese.” When she signed up for Japanese 101, she learned the basics of correct grammar from Tazuko Monane, a dynamic young teacher. Under Monane sensei’s tutelage, she received grants including the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship to expand her language studies.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Hirano-Omizo spent a year pursuing further studies in Japanese at International Christian University in Tokyo. She lived with a host family and found the experience broadened her appreciation of life in Japan. Upon her return to Hawai‘i, she spent several years at UH doing graduate work in Japanese and linguistics while also working on a professional diploma to teach at the secondary level. She taught at McKinley High before landing a language teaching job at Mid Pacific Institute in 1980. She married Waimänalo-born Stanley Omizo, who was employed at Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel, in 1988.
Bonding as Teachers
While Hirano-Omizo was teaching at Mid Pacific Institute, she met Peterson who was teaching at Maryknoll and then at Punahou. They were both young instructors involved with the Hawai‘i Association of Teachers of Japanese and crossed paths while supervising students at summer language camps. Peterson encouraged Hirano-Omizo to try for an opening at Punahou. She applied and got the post in 1988. This began a productive thirty-year teaching and writing partnership for Peterson and Hirano-Omizo.
Collaborating as Textbook Writers
Hirano-Omizo credits Peterson with the vision for the text series. In the 1980s, the books being used for language learning were “too elementary” and there was really no text for high schoolers. The college texts were not appealing since the topics were intended for an older audience. Peterson notes, “I felt that I might not be a professional linguist, but I could create a better textbook for teenagers.” She asked her daughter about things she and her friends were interested in and discovered they chatted about “what they did on weekends, how to tackle tests and homework, their favorite sports and what they liked to eat.” These life topics became part of the series.
To help create the text, Peterson turned to Hirano-Omizo. As Hirano-Omizo recalls, “Hiromi is a native Japanese speaker. I’m a native English speaker. To write a language textbook, you need both. Peterson was the lead teacher. She had the insight and the structure. But she needed someone to write the grammar notes. I could write the grammar and cultural notes and do the English translations. She did the Japanese. It was a beautiful partnership.”
They started modestly by mimeographing and later photocopying pages as handouts for the students at Punahou. As other schools requested the handbooks, the partners decided to formally publish their work. Ultimately, they worked with Cheng and Tsui Publishing Company for national distribution. They also decided to donate the royalties made from sales to Punahou, thereby gaining the school’s support to make the text writing part of their official workload. According to Peterson, the school received about $2 million in royalties over time.
Merging Stories and Values
Over three decades, the team produced a five-level text series. Level 1 deals with daily life activities and Level 2 focuses on the Japanese language and culture in the community. An exercise might be going to a restaurant and giving directions to the visitors. Level 3 centers on a home stay in Japan. Level 4 involves a student returning to Hawai‘i after visiting Japan and thinking more deeply about the two countries. The students explore historical, cultural and religious aspects of a country and compare the impact on people’s lives. Peterson and Hirano-Omizo also included their own family stories of the bombing and the internment in Level 4 along with the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young Hiroshima victim who became a symbol for peace building. Level 5, which is intended for advanced placement students, examines Nihon no kokoro, the spirit of the Japanese, and values such as ganbare (perseverance), gaman (quiet endurance), and shikata ga nai (acceptance of fate and circumstances).
Creating Peace Builders
Peterson and Hirano-Omizo have always pursued a broader goal for students to become compassionate champions for world peace. In 2009, they established the Hiroshima Peace Scholarship to build an exchange program between Punahou and Hiroshima Jogakuin. In the past, two or three students from Punahou were selected to visit Hiroshima. They lived with host families and visited sites such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The students also participated in a Youth Peace Symposium and attended the annual memorial service that commemorates the dropping of the bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. Upon their return, the students share their experiences with faculty and students at Punahou. Since 2018, the program has also included representatives from public schools in Hawai‘i. During the pandemic; however, the last group of three students were from Punahou. They could not travel to Japan; instead, they pivoted to peace-related projects locally and online with students at Hiroshima Jogakuin.
Prior to the pandemic, their students were involved in two other major peace building initiatives. In 2012 when the Japan Society in New York proposed the donation of one of Sadako’s original paper cranes for exhibit at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, students raised over $6,000 for the project by creating and selling omoiyari (feeling compassion) cards and seeking donations with folded paper cranes at fairs and festivals coordinated by Punahou, the Hawaii United Okinawa Association and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. In 2016, when students at Sofia University sent paper cranes to Hawai‘i, Peterson and Hirano-Omizo created the Sadako Peace Cranes Project for students to distribute the cranes at Pearl Harbor to visitors from around the world. Since then, local community groups have also been contributing paper cranes for this initiative.
Expanding Their Vision
Peterson retired from teaching in 2014 and Hirano-Omizo in 2020. Since their retirement from Punahou, they have transferred funding from Punahou to the Japan America Society of Hawaii to allow for a larger number of public and private school students to benefit from the HPS program. The goal of the program, which will restart in the summer of 2023, is to select one public and one private school student as scholars to Hiroshima. As a counterpart to HPS, Peterson has also initiated a second peace scholarship for two students from Hiroshima high schools to visit Hawai‘i so they may learn about the war experiences in Hawai‘i and elsewhere in the world. This new scholarship is being funded privately by Peterson in memory of her parents. The inaugural pair of Hiroshima scholars will arrive in spring 2024.
Over the years, both educators have been recognized for their exceptional achievements. Hirano-Omizo and Peterson have both received Teacher of the Year awards from the Hawaii Association of Teachers of Japanese. Peterson also received a teaching award from the National Council of Japanese Language Teachers, and in 2016, she garnered the Kiyoshi Tanimoto Peace Award for her efforts to promote peace education and international exchange efforts. This year, the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented her with the prestigious Foreign Minister’s Commendation for her achievements in promoting friendship between Japan and the U.S.
From a modest beginning with a mimeographed handbook, these two teachers created an invaluable learning resource for students across the globe. Importantly, they have been educators, who have actively championed a global vision for students as builders of a better world. In their words: “Through these efforts, we hope to fulfill our dream of nurturing young peace builders who will lead us to a more peaceful world.”