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Nadine and Don Hata: One For the History Books



Photos courtesy of
Donald Hata; additional captions below

Nadine and Don Hata: One For the History Books

A small room in Donald Hata’s home provides a sanctuary for the emeritus professor of history. In it, the walls are covered with mementoes of his wife, Nadine Hata, who died last Februrary. Alongside the numerous citations and awards for her 30-year career at El Camino College, the former CSU Dominguez Hills professor of history, is shown in photos as a young bride, as a nationally recognized historian, and as a courageous breast cancer patient.

“I come here to talk to her,” admits Hata, who worked closely with his wife in their shared world of history and academe. One of their last collaborations, two chapters in City of Promise: Race and Historical Change in Los Angeles (Claremont: Regina Press, 2006) was published in time for the one-year anniversary of Nadine’s death. The book is dedicated to her.

Nadine and Don Hata: One For the History Books

An active member of the Organization of American Historians, Nadine Hata was named a Fellow of the Historical Society of Southern California and a Distinguished Humanities Educator of the Community College Humanities Association. She also received the Award of Merit from the California Historical Society and the California Community College Chancellor’s John W. Rice Award for Promoting Equity and Diversity.

Donald Hata, himself having retired from his 33-year career at CSU Dominguez Hills in order to become a full-time caregiver for his wife, describes her legacy as an educator and an advocate for community college faculty in the academic history realm.

“She had no pretensions, and really liked what she was doing," he says. "She was an agent of change. I can’t think of a more powerful role in making changes than being a teacher. It was her crusade to make community college historians equal [to university historians] in higher education. Why did she become an administrator? She didn’t like what she had to put up with, but unless you get in there, who’s going to change things?”

Change was a constant theme in the Hatas’ work. The couple met as doctoral students in Japan in the mid-1960s after Nadine had graduated from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in Japanese studies, and Donald had completed his master’s degree in Asian studies at USC.


“She was interested in doing her dissertation on medieval Japan, dealing with the evolution of the Japanese estate, and the feudal domain, and I was doing a dissertation on modern Japan and the birth of the Japanese navy,” recalls Hata. “But when we were in Japan, we heard about Alex Haley, who wrote Roots. So during the course of the year, we asked ourselves, ‘Why are we really here? We’re here in search of our roots.’”

The young pair, both yonsei, (fourth-generation Japanese American) were puzzled by the immigration of Japanese to a racially turbulent United States, which had shown little compassion to Chinese and Filipino immigrants before. Donald Hata, who was evacuated as a political prisoner to a Gila River relocation camp during World War II at the age of two, describes the denial that followed the imprisonment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

“Japanese American kids who were going to college at UCLA, Stanford, and Harvard, would come home and ask, ‘I heard in a U.S. history class, that some Japanese Americans were sent away to camps, did that happen to you?’ And their parents would clam up. Many sansei (third generation Japanese Americans) thought their parents had actually done something wrong, and therefore didn’t want to talk about it.

“That’s when the students began to lead the discussions on what happened in World War II, causing bitter divisions where the parents stonewalled, saying, ‘Don’t even talk about it.’ There would be blowups, and explosions, and estrangements. But that’s what it took for Japanese Americans to finally come together. They forced and shamed their parents into talking. Increasingly, more and more people said, ‘We’ve got to break the silence.’ But it was not easily done.”

Bringing a consciousness of the history of Asian Americans in the United States was a mission that the Hatas shared, hoping to dispel the myths of a “model minority” and bringing issues to light that, for the most part, have been excluded from mainstream knowledge, often because of the very groups who were marginalized.

Nadine and Don Hata: One For the History Books

“Nadine and I realized as we saw pictures of the civil rights movement in the 1960s of people being hosed down and dogs ripping at them that we didn’t see many Asians protesting at all,” he says. “What more appropriate group for protest than those who were put into concentration camps en masse because of their race alone? We began to look carefully at so-called ethnic leadership, and came to the conclusion, as many others did, that there was a reason for nicknames like ‘oreos,’ ‘pinto beans,’ and ‘bananas.’ People in some cases had no political conscience, but many others were just scared.”

The final project that will bear both the Hatas’ names is a 30-page supplement to elementary school history texts on Japanese Americans in World War II, a topic that is usually glossed over or completely ignored.

“We published this originally in 1995,” says Hata. “School districts don’t want to update their U.S. history coverage to include women and laborers and people of color because they don’t have the money,
so decided to publish something small and inexepensive. My publisher knew Nadine and I were thinking about updating it, and said, ‘Do it, and her name will go on it because she deserves it.’ So, two days before the anniversary of her death, I sent it in.

“The subtitle is ‘Exclusion, Internment and Redress.’ Internment is not accurate, it’s a word you use for enemy aliens. If you and I went to war, and you were a citizen of the enemy country, I’d intern you. But what if you were a U.S. citizen? You don’t get ‘interned,’ you get ‘imprisoned.’ So the subtitle will be changed to ‘Mass Removal, Imprisonment and Redress.’ Between this project and City of Promise, those are the memorial projects that I wanted to meet by the one-year anniversary of her death, they sort of bring closure to my own memorial of her.”

But yet another memorial remains for Donald Hata to build, that of a promise that he made to Nadine.  

“Her final exhortation to me was, ‘I want you to lead a full life,’” he remembers. “That’s now my opportunity and my challenge. By the way we lived, it’s going to mean finding some redeeming projects to do. I remember her talking about how we’re going to need to move into the civil rights dimension of health in the United States. We are not anywhere near an equitable society in terms of our health care. After going through two or three years of being a full-time caregiver and watching this incredibly brave soul just…die because of the treatments because the chemo was more brutal than the cancer in many cases, I think I would like to focus on something that we don’t like to talk about in America, aging.

“This is a cult of youth,” says Hata, who turned 67 in March. “How much real emphasis do we have on getting old, death and dying, or grieving? I’ve hit retirement, and what do I find? I’m sitting here reading a newspaper every day, and seeing senior activities as bingo games and line dancing. That’s got to be totally redefined.”

While contemplating a redefinition of retirement, Hata looks fondly at his days as a professor at CSUDH as “a great career. You’re like that moment when a relay runner passes that baton. That’s the role of a teacher.”

Nadine and Don Hata: One For the History Books

A writing assignment that he and Nadine used, called “The Scavenger Hunt,” was meant to break the ice in their classes at Dominguez Hills and El Camino, both very diverse campuses. The experience would expose the wealth of knowledge and sharing that were the benefits of a multicultural, multigenerational, and multiethnic student body.

“The scavenger hunt is a list of about 50 terms. We would ask them to write a story using these terms and to help each other out,” he says. “I would say, ‘Look at this list. Does anybody know how to pronounce this term?’ It would be something like, ‘chitterlings.’ Usually some African American kid would giggle and I’d say, ‘You, what does it mean? How do you pronounce it?’ And he’d say, ‘Uh, chittlins’

“Suddenly, you’ve validated a kid who felt they had no role to play in this class, but now they are an asset. Then I’d have a term like ‘DC3,’ that older students would be familiar with, and they are validated by sharing that. By midterms, you’d see the most interesting combinations of people in study groups. They’ve all gained respect each other for each bringing something different to the table. Students who have told me, ‘This experience forced me to get together with people I would never have worked with before.’

“At Dominguez Hills, you have the raw materials that some other institutions don’t have to begin with, because they don’t have the diversity,” he says. “What you do with that is a challenge.”

Posing a challenge to his students is something that Hata never shied away from. He tells the story of a woman who was moved by the fact that he expected the best from all of his students, no matter what their circumstances.

“As a teacher, you have an obligation to take students out of that mediocre place that people have allowed them to exist in and say, ‘Look, you are somebody,’” he says. “I had an African American woman in one of my classes who was about 60. After the first day of class with my 30-page syllabus, I was walking down the hall and saw her. She saw me and she turned away.

“I walked on, but sensed something and walked back. She saw me and looked away again. I went up to her and asked, ‘Are you okay?’, because she was silently weeping. I asked her, ‘Am I the cause of your weeping?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Is there something I can do to rectify whatever bad thing I’ve done?’ She said, ‘It’s not a bad thing. You respect me. That’s why I’m crying.

“‘I came here to go through the system, that’s what they told me this place is all about. We’re losers. Dr. Hata, you really expect us to be able to meet your standards. You’re a real professor. You’re teaching us to have a fighting chance.’”

Fighting the odds is familiar territory to Hata, who, with his wife, sought to make sense of their often misunderstood origins, not only for themselves, but for their students and their colleagues. He describes the couple’s way of supporting each other through their professional challenges.

Ronin is the Japanese word for ‘masterless samurai,’” he says. “You’re a lone warrior, like Paladin in ‘Have Gun-Will Travel.’ Nadine and I lived like ronin. We were back to back, each other’s devil’s advocate and alter ego. She was my lover and my most severe critic, as I was hers. We watched each other’s backs.

“Nadine and I were rebels in the best sense, in our professional lives. We never believed in institutions as they existed, but that they needed improvement. It’s hard to live alone now because I don’t have that kind of warrior beside me. Now to lead a full life, I’m going to have to define some things that will maybe, by the time I die, can let me go knowing that I’ve made a little bit of a difference, too. Nadine certainly did. So that’s what I’m about now.”

- Joanie Harmon

Photos above: The Hatas in 2004

Nadine Hata in 1980

The newly married couple surrounded by their library in their first home in Gardena in 1970

Donald Hata with his own charcoal drawing of Nadine in their home; photo by Joanie Harmon




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Last updated Sunday, April 2, 2006, 2:45 p.m., by Joanie Harmon