Robert Hironaka is a respected member of the international scientific community who has also devoted a lifetime of volunteer service to support multiculturalism, education and those less fortunate in his community and province. He is a founding father of Lethbridge’s internationally renowned Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden and he has worked to foster greater understanding through cultural and scientific exchanges.
Robert Hironaka was born on January 18, 1928 in Raymond, Alberta to Yoichi “Harry” and Tsuki (Kanehiro) Hironaka. His father was an immigrant from Yamaguchi, Japan who arrived on the West Coast of Canada in 1907 and quickly began working for Great Northern Railway in Fernie, B.C. He moved to Lethbridge in 1910 where he found work as the cook at the Hotel Dallas. In 1913, Harry opened the Sugar City Café in Raymond, Alberta. That same year, Tsuki arrived from Japan after exchanging photos with her future husband and they were married shortly after her arrival in Vancouver. The couple worked hard to build a prosperous life together and operated their own restaurant for two years before beginning a full time life of farming wheat and potatoes. They had eleven children, including two who died shortly after birth. Robert and his siblings Fusae, Akira, Tucker, James, Florence (Senda), Misae (Masuda), Marshall, and Arthur all joined in every aspect of the farming operation. It was on the family farm that Robert discovered a passion for agriculture and animals that would shape his professional career to come. He also was influenced by the tradition of service that he learned from his parents and that ultimately led to his father being recognized as one of the “100 people who made a difference” during the Province of Alberta’s Centennial Celebrations in 2005.
Education was a high priority for the Hironaka family and all the children went on to attend college or university. After receiving a diploma from the Olds College of Agriculture in 1947, Bob went on to earn a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agriculture from the University of Alberta in 1951. Bob continued on at the U of A to complete a Master of Science Degree in Animal Nutrition in 1953 and then completed his studies in 1959 with a PhD in Animal Nutrition from the University of Illinois.
In 1959, Dr. Hironaka joined the staff of the Lethbridge Research Centre where he worked diligently and built a strong reputation as a highly regarded scientist and research expert in the area of animal nutrition, specifically as it relates to cattle and other farm animals. He authored or co-authored close to 60 scientific papers and over 100 miscellaneous papers. In the mid-1980’s, he served as the assistant editor of the Canadian Journal of Animal Science. His research has been used over the years by fellow academics and industry workers in a range of areas, from animal and plant science, livestock production and the study of nutrition for human cancer patients, to agricultural engineering, agri-business and economics. Throughout his career, Dr. Hironaka generously shared his insights with both local farmers and with colleagues and producers around the world. His work has also earned numerous recognitions, including the Golden Award from the Canadian Feed Industry Association, membership in the Olds College Alumni Association Hall of Fame and an honourary lifetime membership with the Canadian Society of Animal Science. Bob retired from his work with the Research Centre in 1991.
While Bob’s scientific career flourished, he also found ample time to tend two very important aspects of his life – his family and his commitment to serving others. In 1950, Bob met Shizuko (Susie) Kohashigawa in Edmonton and the couple married in 1955. They had three children, daughters Lorelei and Tamiko (who died in 1982) and son Wes. Susie was a loving mother and wife who supported Bob until her death in 1995. She was a volunteer with the Canadian Heart Foundation and Beta Sigma Phi and, like Bob, she was proud of their families’ pioneering roots in Southern Alberta.
Among Bob’s considerable list of contributions to the City of Lethbridge as an active volunteer and community leader is his contribution to the planning, building and stewardship of a place to enhance the quality of life enjoyed by his fellow southern Albertans. In the mid-1960’s, Bob joined the dream of Reverend Yutetsu Kawamura and Cleo Mowers to build a traditional Japanese Garden and the project was quickly embraced as the city’s Canadian Centennial project. The Garden was built to honour the many Albertans of Japanese heritage who have called Lethbridge and area home and to bring some of the beauty and serenity of such gardens to the community. The result of this dream, made real by Bob’s considerable dedication and hard work, is the world renowned Nikka Yuka Japanese Garden which was named for the friendship between Canada and Japan. A popular Lethbridge landmark, the garden has been lauded as a treasure of Alberta and one of the finest examples of Japanese Garden architecture outside of Japan. Bob was central to the gardens every step of the way, from his initial efforts as a charter member of the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden Society, to his extensive service as president and a member of the board of directors. Bob has taken particular pride in his work to prune and care for the garden’s principal juniper tree, a responsibility entrusted to him after training with a master gardener. Bob’s efforts at Nikka Yuko have created a place that will long stand as a source of peace and inspiration for all who visit there.
There have been other volunteer efforts over the years that have furthered Bob’s contributions to the spirit of friendship that exists between Alberta and the province’s friends from around the world. He was a charter member of the Lethbridge Twinning Society where he helped to establish and maintain partnerships with communities in California and Russia. Bob has also contributed as a longstanding member of Lethbridge East Rotary Club and has greatly contributed to the club’s goal of promoting cultural exchange and understanding. He headed a group study exchange team to Japan, has served two terms as club president, hosted countless exchange teams from around the world, been a strong advocate for the young voyageur program and aided in many local efforts.
In 1983, Dr. Hironaka took on a three year term as a member of the University of Lethbridge Senate and was proud to return to the university in 1995 to serve as Chancellor. He received an Honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the U of L in 2002. He is an honourary member of the U of L Alumni Association and also received the Alumni Honour Award from the University of Alberta. In 2007, Bob was given the key to the city in recognition of his extensive and longstanding contributions to his community and he received the key to the University of Lethbridge in 2011. His commitment to education and lifelong study can also been seen in his work as co-author of the book Garden of Serenity with Dr. Van E. Christou and June Flanagan. A longstanding student of Buddhism Bob also authored Now is the Moment, a book about the connection between that faith and science.
One of his fellow community leaders describes Robert Hironaka as “an exemplary ambassador for the University, Lethbridge and Southern Alberta and in fact, all of Alberta,” adding that “his contributions have made this community a better place to live, work and study.” Bob is more humble in his own assessment, stating simply that “you get out of your life what you put into it. And if you don’t put much into it, you don’t get much out of it.” It is clear to all who know him that Robert Hironaka has given much to the world around him and his fellow Albertans are all the richer for his efforts.