By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer
PASADENA — Brenden Kirgan stared at the stone and bronze monument with a mixture of pride and puzzlement, but overall, seemed impressed. If the 11-year-old seems a bit disconnected, it’s only natural; among the names on the plaques is that of his great-grandfather, a man who passed away nearly 40 years ago.
Jiro Morita was one of those being honored March 8, at a ceremony to dedicate the monument bearing the names of the pioneering members of the Pasadena Sister Cities Committee. A native of Japan who came to the United States as a teenager, Morita spearheaded the efforts that led to the establishment of a sister-city relationship between Pasadena and Mishima, in Shizuoka Prefecture, not far from his childhood home.
“He wanted to go to the country of Abraham Lincoln,” said Helen Matsunaga, one of Morita’s two daughters, both of whom attended the ceremony.
After staying with a host family – a practice that continues to be a key component of sister-city programs worldwide – Morita relocated to Pasadena, to live with his uncle. After graduating from Pasadena High School, he attended Throop College, a science and engineering school that later became the California Institute of Technology.
With the U.S. being drawn into World War I, all the students at Throop were drafted to serve as engineers. The service made Morita eligible for U.S. citizenship, which he embraced enthusiastically.
Racial prejudice kept Morita from working as a civilian engineer, so he ran a grocery store and became part of the greater Pasadena community, attending church, volunteering with the Boy Scouts, and serving as president of the local YMCA. He was also a kind of public liaison, assisting the local authorities in communicating with Japanese-speaking residents.
Morita’s other daughter, Elise Osajima, said that while raising four children, her father and mother, Reiko, lived very public lives, keeping active is civic and community events and organizations.
When the order for persons of Japanese ancestry to evacuate the West Coast was issued in April of 1942, the Morita family was sent to the assembly center in Tulare, before being sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. Osajima said she was taken aback at one of her father’s first tasks at the Tulare facility.
“The first week we were moved to a relocation camp, he told me he was going to start an exercise class. I was a little embarrassed that he wanted to do this out where all the barracks were,” she recalled. “He picked a football field that was basically empty and started with five people. What impressed me was that within a few weeks, that football field was full.”
After the war, Morita was part of a movement between cities in America and towns mainly in Germany and Japan, to establish cultural and personal relationships in the hopes of preventing the misunderstandings that led to the kind of war the entire world had just suffered.
Pasadena formally became a partner city with Ludwigshafen, Germany, in 1948, and with Mishima in 1957. The committee added a sister city in Finland in 1983, and two more in the 1990s, in Armenia and China.
Mayor Bill Bogaard said at the March 8 ceremony that in this age of budget-strained municipalities eliminating programs that are not deemed essential, the Sister Cities members have made a tremendous commitment to carry out the program without governmental support.
“City Hall support in monetary terms is very modest for each sister city,” Bogaard said. “The costs and activities go far beyond that small budgeted amount, but the program is successful because of the generous volunteer spirit of the people who are active in Pasadena Sister Cities.”
Morita’s story has been added to the archives of the Digital History project at Pasadena City College, curated by Prof. Susie Ling.
In her remarks at the dedication, Osajima said Morita’s living legacy can be seen in his 11 grandchildren, among whom are three doctors, a lawyer, a poet, a professor, and – fittingly – an engineer.
Osajima, now 88, said her father would be humbled by all the attention being paid to his efforts of so many years ago.
“He wouldn’t believe all the fuss,” she said. “He liked to boast at home sometimes, but basically, he was a pretty modest man.”