A sainted life: Hiram Hisanori Kano turned internment camp into mission field

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Jul 2, 2015
Taiko drummers perform at the July 1 Eucharist honoring the late Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano. The 78th General Convention passed a resolution including Kano and others in “A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations.” Photo: Pat McCaughan/Episcopal News Service

Taiko drummers perform at the July 1 Eucharist honoring the late Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano. The 78th General Convention passed a resolution including Kano and others in “A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations.” Photo: Pat McCaughan/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Salt Lake City] The fierce thunder of taiko drums reminded worshippers at the July 1 Eucharist of the intensity of the life and witness of the late Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano, who transformed his imprisonment in World War II internment camps into a mission field.

Asian Americans refer to the World War II camps that housed Japanese nationals, and Japanese Americans as concentration camps.

With the passage of Resolution A055, the 78th General Convention officially included commemorations for Kano and three other men and one woman in “A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations,” for use in the next triennium.

The late Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano’s memoir, “Nikkei Farmer on the Nebraska Plains,” was published in English in 2010.

The late Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano’s memoir, “Nikkei Farmer on the Nebraska Plains,” was published in English in 2010.

Bishop Scott Hayashi of Utah presided at the Eucharist that honored Kano, who died in 1988 just short of his 100th birthday. Oct. 24 will serve as the official day for the commemoration of Kano, who authored “Nikkei Farmer on the Nebraska Plains,” a memoir tracing his early life in Japan to his move to America (Nikkei refers to people in the Japanese diaspora). It included stories of his time in the various camps where more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent were forced to live during World War II. In the camps, Kano led worship, ministered to and taught those around him, including his jailers, other prisoners, and German prisoners of war.

“He was gone three years,” recalled his son Cyrus Kano, 94, who along with other family members and friends attended the convention worship service.

The Rev. Fred Vergara, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for Asiamerica ministries, said it is important for voices and witness such as Kano’s to be commemorated and included in the church’s ongoing conversations to inspire future generations.

Adeline Kano, 87, said she watched the live-streamed Eucharist from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in Fort Collins, Colorado, where her father had served occasionally in retirement.

Myrne Watrous, a St. Paul’s parishioner who attended the Salt Lake City convention Eucharist, said the honor was fitting. “If you look at the lives of saints, it was him,” she said of Kano, whom she knew. “He left a life of wealth to become a farmer in Nebraska and to preach the word of God, to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Granddaughter Susan Kano said she was amazed at the size of worship and the commemoration. The only inkling she had of her grandfather’s role in the community came at a 50th wedding anniversary celebration for he and her grandmother, Aiko Ivy Kano. “People kept shaking my hand – hundreds of them – and saying ‘your grandfather is a saint,’” she recalled.

She said that he considered his time in the camps a gift to his ministry. “He had an amazing life,” she said.

The others included for liturgical commemoration in Resolution A055 were: Charles Raymond Barnes (who was commemorated at the July 2 Eucharist), Artemisia Bowden, Albert Schweitzer and Dag Hammarskjold.

The Rev. Hiram Kano

The Rev. Hiram Kano

Cyrus Kano, a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, said his father would want to be remembered “as a man of God.”

About his camp experiences, Kano turned adversity into fertile mission territory: “He said, well, God put me here, what does he want me to do?” recalled his son.

In addition to organizing a camp college where he taught English and other courses, he conducted nature studies and led worship services while incarcerated.

Kano immigrated to the United States after a youthful encounter with William Jennings Bryan in his native Japan stirred his sense of adventure, according to his daughter, Adeline Kano. His background was that of privilege: “My grandfather was the governor of the prefecture of Kagoshina,” explained Kano, 87, during a telephone interview from her Fort Collins home.

Initially, Kano earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska, and just as quickly became an activist and leader among the Japanese “Issei” or the first-generation Japanese-American community, many of whom had come to farm or to work on the railroads.

The Rt. Rev. George Allen Beecher, then bishop of the missionary Diocese of Western Nebraska, heard about Kano’s activism in 1921, when state lawmakers were considering legislation that would preclude Japanese immigrants from owning or inheriting land, or even leasing it for more than two years. The bill also would have forbidden them from owning shares of stock in companies they had formed.

Kano and Beecher met and traveled together to the state capitol to address lawmakers, who eventually passed a less restrictive measure, according to Kano’s memoir.

Beecher persuaded Kano several years later to become a missionary to the Japanese-American community, estimated at about 600. In 1925, Kano complied and the family moved to North Platte. He was ordained a deacon three years later and served two mission congregations, St. Mary’s Church in Mitchell and St. George’s Church in North Platte. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1936.

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a member of the Episcopal News Service team reporting about the 78th General Convention.


Comments (1)

  1. Paula Sayoko Endo (maiden name, Tsukamoto) says:

    I enjoyed the story and I am so gratified that the author and the Episcopal Church have a strong sense of social justice and are willing to bring to the attention of members of the national church the a period in our nation’s history when this sense was forgotten by our leaders due to fear and prejudice. The potential of all of us followers of Jesus to give in to fear and forget his message and example of reaching out to all, and especially the “other,” and the needy, is always with us.
    I believe our family met the Rev. Hiram Kano, which I’ll mention later.
    Our family and my husband’s family were also interned in camps–I was in Topaz and my husband, Todd I. Endo, was in Roher, Arkansas. His mother told him stories of the camp since he was still a baby and toddler. One vivid story he heard was of how his mother, when she rode a special bus that took women in the camp to shop outside the camp, was struck by the African American and some white Americans in this poor area of the Arkansas Delta region, and she especially remembered a woman coming up to the bus, rapping on the window, and then asking how she could get into a camp like Roher–where the internees were provided with meals, medical care, and education with good teachers.
    I was old enough to have very vivid memories (age 3 to 5) of playing in the very fine desert mud of Topaz, the dust storms, the lines at the mess hall and the bathrooms, which were a walk away, and going to school toward the end of our stay at “Camp.”
    My father, the Rev. Joseph Tsukamoto, was an Episcopal priest with a ministry to a majority Japanese and Japanese-American congregation San Francisco at Christ Episcopal Mission, for 26 years, starting around 1935 or 1936. After the internment, we had a two-year stay in Spokane, Washington, when the Diocese of California recommended we live since it was outside the Western Command zone. There he assisted a priest named Father Mason in his parish. We returned to San Francisco in around 1946 and my father re-established his mission. After In the mid 1950’s our whole family lived for a year in NYC, where my father studied at the Gen’l Theological Seminary, thanks to the amazing generosity of the Rev. John Byers and his wife, Nancy (John was a seminarian who served with my father). We drove to NYC in an old suburban wagon and it was either going there or returning to San Francisco that I believe we met the Rev. Kano! My father ended his ministry after being called to Los Angeles to assist an uncle, a priest who had a large parish with a majority Asian ministry, and he ended up (after officially retiring) at a largely white church in Gardena where he was tasked with encouraging the many Asian Americans in the area to join. At the end of his few years the church had a number of active Asian-Americans.
    What amazes me is that my parents were not really very bitter toward the U.S. government–though they felt the internment was unjust, they also felt a responsibility to do their best in this period of crisis and make the very best of a bad situation–realizing that the emotions arising in wartime were irrational, and their contribution to their country would be to continue to live as good citizens and provide a positive example to others.
    My father and mother felt they were both called in their different ways to minister to all–the needy, the discriminated against, the stranger. (ironically, there were those of Japanese origin had a prejudice against the Okinawans, the Koreans, and even the Hawaiian Japanese-Americans. They were “the other” to them!) They welcomed all these other minorities. I suspect that their experience of internment only strengthened their desire to fight against prejudice!
    Incidentally, I have a batch of sermons my father wrote and delivered as part of the ecumenical ministry at the Topaz camp. I must take time to study these; they have languished in a box of old, old papers!
    Thank you for this feature story. It’s an important reminder to us not to let fear distort our perceptions and action, which is especially pertinent in the time of fear of Muslims!

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