Hiro Higuchi

How the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Brought Him Full-Circle

When Chaplain Hiro Higuchi returned to Hawaii at the end of World War II, he was a man on a mission: He was determined to meet with the family of every soldier in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who was killed in action during the war, return the soldier’s personal effects, and let that soldier’s family know that their son, their brother, their father had died for a noble cause. And when he completed that mission, he planned to leave the ministry.

For months, the questions of one young soldier had haunted Chaplain Higuchi: “What is God to me? What am I to God?” The young man had asked Higuchi for some explanation of the meaning of his life before he subsequently died in battle. Higuchi’s inability to respond with a suitable answer troubled him and in 1946 caused him to question whether he should even be a minister at all.

Hiro Higuchi was never far from religion. He was born in Hilo on January 31, 1907, the son of the Reverend Kwan Higuchi, an itinerant Congregational minister based in Hilo who traveled up and down the Hamakua Coast, preaching the Christian gospel to Japanese plantation laborers who were overwhelmingly Buddhist. It was an austere upbringing for young Hiro and his four brothers and sisters, who were expected to dress in formal clothes and spend every Sunday in church as role models for other young people in the community.

Higuchi soon developed other interests. He had a charming personality, spoke Pidgin English, told good jokes, danced the hula and was extremely athletic. He was also president of his class at Hilo High School and captain of the school’s football and basketball teams.

Young Hiro soon chafed at his role as a minister’s son. After graduating from Hilo High School, he was awarded a scholarship to Oberlin College in Ohio, only to drop out of the school. He was the only one of the five Higuchi children who would not graduate from Oberlin.

Higuchi returned to Hawaii, took some time off and then enrolled at the University of Hawaii. He then decided to pursue a law degree at the University of Southern California (USC).

Much to the surprise of his family and friends, he suddenly dropped out of law school, deciding instead to pursue a degree in divinity at USC, while also working at the Union Congregational Church in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district.

There, by chance, he met Hisako Watanabe, who was pursuing her master’s degree in sociology at USC. While conducting a study on the Japanese in California, she acquired a mailing list of students with Japanese surnames. Assuming that “Hiro” was short for the name Hiroko, she sent a note to Hiro’s address, requesting an interview to get “her” perspective on the lives of the Japanese in California. Higuchi wrote back, informing Hisako that Hiro was his real name and that he was not a woman, but would be happy to be interviewed by her. The interview led to a date and mutual attraction. They fell in love, and when Hiro completed his degree in 1935, he asked Hisako to come to Hawaii and marry him.

With a degree in divinity, Higuchi was offered a ministerial position at the small Waipahu Community Church and also as a youth program coordinator at the Ewa Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Hisako, who had been unable to find a job as a social worker in California because of the widespread prejudice against Japanese Americans, joined him in Hawaii shortly thereafter. Upon her arrival, and with the $30 she had in savings, they were married at the home of a Congregational minister in Nuuanu. They made their first home in a small room in the Marigold Building, an old structure with neither hot water nor privacy in the predominantly Filipino community of Waipahu. It was a far cry from the comfortable West Hollywood neighborhood in which Hisako had grown up.

After war was declared in 1941, Higuchi did not rush to join the 100th Infantry Battalion like many of his contemporaries. He considered himself a pacifist and had no strong urge to prove his loyalty to America. As the war progressed, however, and he saw increasing numbers of 18- and 19-year-old boys from the YMCA, where he worked as a youth minister, volunteering for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), he felt compelled to go with them. “My father joined because he was anti-fascist and he wanted to take care of the boys from Hawaii,” said Higuchi’s daughter, Jane Fukunaga.

Higuchi’s application to join the U.S. Army as a chaplain was initially rejected because the Army did not want chaplains of Japanese ancestry, even if they were Christian. It took letters from Lieutenant Colonel Farrant Turner, commanding officer of the 100th Infantry Battalion, and others, writing on Higuchi’s behalf, before he was finally accepted.

Hiro Higuchi was well into his thirties when he left Hisako and their two young children, Peter and Jane, to join the 442nd RCT in training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. From that point on, he began to find his new assignment challenging.

The Mainland Japanese and the Hawaii Japanese soldiers differed in their cultural upbringing and mannerisms, which led to an intense dislike for each other by the two groups and, inevitably, fist fights. His daughter Jane said her father worked hard to build trust between the two groups with little results — until he realized that the problem would not be resolved by lecturing to the soldiers. Instead, Chaplain Higuchi, who was assigned to 2nd Battalion, arranged for the Hawaii AJAs to a visit to an internment camp in Arkansas so that they could see for themselves what the Mainland AJAs were being forced to endure. He was correct in his belief that the Hawaii AJAs would develop their own sense of empathy once they saw the conditions at the camp.