On August 16, 2022 at the age of 97, Bernice Kisako Yamagata Hirai, the last member of the formidable Hakalau Yamagata family, joined parents Reio and Toshiko Yamagata, older sister Leatrice Yamagata Mirikitani Hadlich, younger brother Carl Yamagata, and husband Henry Hirai.
Born on November 2, 1924 to parents Reio and Toshiko Yamagata, Bernice was raised in Hakalau, Hawaii with sister Leatrice and brother Carl. She met husband Henry at the University of Hawaii Manoa, with marriage on August 6, 1950. When Henry obtained his Juris Doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1953, the Hirais returned to Honolulu.
Bernice was fond of saying that Henry never wanted her to be "just Henry Hirai’s wife," and she embraced his encouragement with the characteristic energy of a member of The Greatest Generation. In a lifetime marked with many accomplishments – including receiving her PhD in Japanese language in 1974 from Indiana University – her central theme was education and appreciation of all facets of Japanese culture in Hawaii – language, genealogy, and the arts. To name but a few, she chaired numerous settings of the Japanese Genealogy Workshops sponsored by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii; past President and advisor to the Hawaii Hiroshima Heritage Study Group; past President and founder of Sawai Koto Kai Hawaii; past President and later, various committee chairs for the Japanese Women’s Society Foundation; Assistant Professor of Japanese Language and later, koto instructor at the University of Hawaii Manoa; and authorship of Japanese language textbooks and books and articles highlighting Nisei and local culture in Hawaii. In recognition of her contributions, she received the 1998 Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Rays (Imperial Decoration, Emperor of Japan); 1995 Koto Shihan rank (master instructor; Sawai Sokyoku-In, Tokyo); and 2015 designation as a Living Treasure of Hawaii (Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii).
Bernice is survived by daughter Anna, and granddaughters Caroline (Pacific Grove, California) and Celeste Gibson (Little Rock, Arkansas). She will rest with Henry at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (private ceremony).
A memorial celebration with friends and family will be held at The Pacific Club, 1452 Queen Emma Street, Honolulu, on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Anna, Caroline, and Celeste hope friends and family will stop by for a belated celebration of Bernice’s 98th birthday and share remembrances at this informal and non-traditional memorial event.
The family wishes to give heartfelt thanks to caregiver Rose, Rose’s ohana, and the St. Francis Hospice team for the outstanding support and care given to Bernice during her last year, and to all who have extended kind thoughts and offers of help during this time.
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Notice #: 0001391833-01