The Life and Legacy of Harry Honda: A Study of Nisei, LMU, and Personal History

LMU students in Associate Professor of English Julia Lee’s first-year seminar course were given an inside look at the life and career of Harry Honda, a prominent Japanese-American journalist, historian, editor, and community leader.

Lee is Korean-American, born and raised in Los Angeles, and has always had an interest in the history of communities of color, as well as racial cooperation and conflict in L.A. In 2018, Lee received an LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts Faith and Justice grant to study the role of faith and the Catholic Church during WWII/Japanese American incarceration. During the course of her research, the name of Harry Honda kept resurfacing.

Born in Los Angeles in 1919, Honda attended Maryknoll School in Little Tokyo and served in the U.S. Army during WWII while his family was incarcerated at a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. Following the war, he attended Loyola University, which became Loyola Marymount University in 1973, and graduated in 1950. For fifty years, he worked at the Pacific Citizen, the newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a civil rights organization that was critical in securing redress and an official apology from the U.S. government for its role in the internment of Japanese Americans. Honda spent 30 years as its editor and subsequent years as general manager, editor emeritus, and archivist.  He passed away in 2013 at the age of 93.

Upon discovering that Honda was an alumnus, Lee reached out to a couple of people. J.D. Hokoyama ’67, M.Ed. ’75, is a member of the BCLA Advisory Board and tapped into his deep-rooted relationships in the LMU, Maryknoll, and Japanese American communities to connect Lee with many helpful resources. Lee also emailed Cynthia Becht, head of LMU Special Collections and Archives, to see if the William H. Hannon Library had any of his papers. Serendipitously, Becht had been corresponding with Honda’s daughter, Patty Arra, about the possibility of lending or donating his materials to LMU. Becht put Arra and Lee in touch, which led to further discovery of the family’s multigenerational ties to LMU.

Arra graduated from LMU in 1985 and her son Joseph Arra graduated in 2017. Her eldest daughter, Michelle Arra, graduated from Loyola Law School in 2019 and her son, Benny Arra ‘22, is a current student. Arra also shared the story of Honda’s father, her grandfather, who had great difficulty finding employment after the war due to rampant discrimination. Father Whelan, president of Loyola University at the time, hired him and several other Japanese American camp veterans to work on campus. For three years, Senbei Honda worked as a janitor. Afterwards, he was able to re-establish himself as a shoemaker/repairman, which was his business before the war.

“Harry Honda was a proud Loyola Lion and Angeleno.  At home his diploma hung on his office wall and he wore his school ring so much that my mother had to replace the original crimson colored stone when it fell out,” said Arra. “It is without a doubt an honor for my entire family to have had Professor Lee create this course around my father’s legacy and writings.”

Honda left behind a trove of newspapers, WWII photographs, and a mirror that was given to his parents in the internment camp. He even kept his Loyola University lecture notes, which provide a glimpse into what he was learning and how his education influenced his career and civic involvement. In creating this first-year seminar, Lee aimed to use Honda’s original documents and artifacts as a way for students to think critically about history, as well as their own lives and time at LMU.

Early on in the semester, students visited the library to analyze and discuss Honda’s comprehensive personal collection. When the course moved online in March, the plan to have Arra visit class was canceled. Arra pointed out, however, that while the Covid-19 pandemic has caused many unfortunate disruptions it also provided students with a personal context for more deeply understanding the Japanese American experience.

“Since my father lived through the Great Depression and world wars, I believe he would have handled our current situation with grace, resilience, reflection, and of course prayer being a devout Catholic,” said Arra. “Also, what comes to mind is that we are working and sheltering-in-place from the comfort of our homes. My father’s family was incarcerated and forced to live in internment camps in a harsh barren desert during WWII while he was in the US Army. Perhaps the students can now more clearly imagine and grasp what life was like for the Nisei.”

Students wrote final papers inspired by Honda’s purposeful life as a journalist, civil rights advocate, and patriot. One first-year student, Josh Nutson, interviewed Arra as part of his research process. “Honda was not just a symbol for the Nisei generation, but a lasting representation for ethnic justice, ethical journalism, and effective leadership,” wrote Nutson. “His actions serve as a symbol of vitality for his culture, further establishing his enduring significance in American history.”

In addition to studying Honda, students also read works by John Okada, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Angie Thomas dealing with themes of identity, history, purpose, and memory. “Ultimately, I want students to read literature or study history and have the capability to put themselves in the shoes of someone very different from themselves – in other words, to practice empathy,” said Lee.

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