S. Sanae Tokumura, ACFRE, APR
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
They don’t make ‘em like that anymore
Standin’ shoulder to shoulder with him now,
I still feel small
And I’m still lookin’ up to him like he’s ten feet tall
There’s somethin’ about that generation
These days I think we need ‘em
More than we ever did before
But they don’t make ‘em like that anymore
— Jason Blaine
Hiroshi Arisumi was recently accorded lifetime “President Emeritus” status by the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center after 25 years of board leadership — 23 of them as president. When asked how his leadership reflects his personal values, his response was simple and typical of the 95-year-old Maui native: “Hmm, I never thought of it that way.”
But when Arisumi appeared for an early-morning interview, the word kansha, meaning “gratitude,” was emblazoned across his bright lime-green T-shirt, free advertising for Kansha Preschool.
Arisumi, his board and a supportive community have seen to it that a variety of Maui social service programs are supported by the NVMC, including Kansha Preschool and Maui Adult Day Care Center, both of which are located on the NVMC campus. Educational programs and historical displays sponsored by the “living memorial to lost Nisei vets” reflect the organization’s mission to “nourish lives that are just unfolding, nurture lives well-lived, and through educational outreaches and resources, teach youth throughout the country about the valor and sacrifice of the Nisei soldiers who rose above prejudice and distrust to serve their country with unsurpassed honor and bravery.”
Their ultimate goal is that the values the Nisei lived to be embraced by all generations and practiced in all levels of society. They believe those values resulted in the famed “Go for Broke” valor of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II.
Arisumi hasn’t only led the NVMC — he has also been a benefactor to its facilities and operations. For example, the preschool building was permanently named the “Hiroshi and Edna Arisumi Preschool Building,” in honor of Arisumi and his late wife, while the archival studio — or “workroom,” as it is known — in the new Education Center bears the name of Arisumi Brothers, Inc., the general contracting company that Arisumi and his brother Mitsuo founded in June 1952.
Whether or not he thinks about the values by which he lives, one thing is certain: Hiroshi Arisumi is a grateful man. He is grateful for his life in America. He is grateful for his Issei parents — mother Masu Murata Arisumi and father Aikichi — and his nine siblings. He is grateful for his three children — Lloyd, June and Adele; grandchildren Sandford, Nicole, Ross, Jaclyn, Andrew, Rick, Randy; and great-grandchildren Kamea, Takuma and Alima. He is grateful for his country.
Oddly enough, Arisumi doesn’t recall his parents or any other elder sitting him down and lecturing him about kansha or any of the other values that some presume molded him and his generation.
Nevertheless, along with the cultural traditions associated with food, dress and seasonal celebrations, the Issei brought with them the deeply wired ancient code of conduct called bushidö, or the way of the warrior. Its principles include gi, or right action, duty; yüki, or courageous energy; jin, the benevolence that unites human beings to one another; rei, politeness or respect shown in social behavior; makoto, truth in word and action; meiyo, honor; chügi, loyalty. These values were the code of conduct in not only Arisumi’s family, but in many other Japanese American families in Hawai’i and on the Mainland. They were demonstrated daily in action and service.
In time, family expectations of good behavior blended with American patriotism.
Hiroshi Arisumi’s testimonies of his World War II experiences — accessible in local, national and international media archives and on YouTube — never detail his own personal actions. Rather, he always speaks of his unflagging devotion to the “boys who couldn’t come home with us.”
Arisumi’s carpentry background provided a platform for his placement with the 232nd Engineer Combat Company of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The Nisei soldiers’ actions on the battlefield led them to a place forever acclaimed in American history. Many of them have been honored individually, including Arisumi. As a military unit, the 100th Battalion/442nd RCT remains one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history. Earlier this year, France awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (Knight of the French Legion of Honor) medal to 18 Maui Nisei veterans, including Arisumi.
“In the hills above Bruyeres in October (1944), I saw a jeep trailer loaded with dead soldiers, all 442,” said Arisumi in the quiet living room of his Kula home. “These were all our Hawai‘i boys who died rescuing the ‘Lost Battalion.’ I’ve never seen anything that can equal the terrible things I’ve seen in war.
“You know, I didn’t like the idea that our government was putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps while this was going on,” Arisumi continued. But he maintains that his decision to enlist was the correct one and the most important decision he ever made.
In fact, there wasn’t much of a choice for the young men faced with this threat to their country and the honor of their family.
“When you gotta fight something, you fight. When we signed up . . . no one did so lightly. Each person accepted that it was a one-way ticket. It was a very big decision.
“Also, I did have to think about who would be taking care of the family,” recalled Arisumi, who was born and raised in the Olinda area of Upcountry Maui. The eldest of 10 children, he left school at the age of 12, just out of the eighth grade, to begin working so that his younger siblings — six brothers and three sisters — could go to school. He had a “knack” for carpentry and excelled at the craft. At age 15, Arisumi began studying advanced carpentry. By the time he enlisted in the Army six years later, he was already an experienced and advanced carpenter.
“I sent all the money I earned back to the family during my service. I accepted inside myself that I wasn’t going to be coming home,” he said. “You know, we were ready to die for our country to prove we were loyal Americans, but when we were there, we sure wanted to come home. We fought with everything we had — everyone did, even though we wanted to come home. Even the ones who didn’t make it — they wanted to come home, too. That’s the hard part, to watch your buddies die when they really wanted to come home,” he said.
Arisumi’s memory of his return to a peaceful Hawai‘i in 1946 is bittersweet, as he was keenly aware that the rebuilding of the society and the establishment of successful enterprises, including his own construction company, Arisumi Brothers, Inc., sprouted from the ashes of the men with whom he had served.
“The best decision I ever made was to start Arisumi Brothers,” he said. “There was always the thought of, ‘Hmm, what if I don’t make it?’ But, honestly, after looking for holes to jump in, escaping artillery fire and working in the freezing rain and snow for weeks when we didn’t know what was going to happen, and burying my buddies someplace I didn’t even know . . . I pretty much wasn’t afraid of anything after that,” said Arisumi.
The company started small with Arisumi and kid brother Mitsuo as partners. Innovative building techniques, power equipment and modern technology helped to position Arisumi Brothers as leaders in the homebuilding market. The company eventually became the largest homebuilder on Maui with over 200 employees. It has employed many Arisumi siblings and family members over the years.
Wendy Higa, administrative assistant/human resources and Arisumi’s niece, said the company’s had a unique, one-stop approach in those days. “We had in-house cabinetry, plumbing, electrical, painting and cesspool departments. We did it all,” she said.
Arisumi’s sister, 85-year-old Helen Aiko Yamashige, has been with the company for 35 years. He gratefully credits her for having “kept us in line” with her bookkeeping and accounting skills. She was essentially the corporate controller, with the title secretary-treasurer.
Yamashige recalled that her brother allowed the company to become unionized because he was concerned for their employees’ welfare. It was an act of respect for the democracy he fought to preserve, she says. “We were one of the first companies to be organized. That’s just Hiroshi,” she added, when asked why a business owner would invite unionization.
“Hiroshi has always looked after everyone’s welfare. The corporation always contributed to many community concerns and continues to support charitable groups, including NVMC, scholarships for higher education, churches, and other cultural and service organizations,” said Yamashige.
“Arisumi Brothers was the dominant homebuilding construction company on Maui during the ’60s and into the ’80s. No one could put a house together more efficiently than they did,” said David Fukuda, past president of the Maui Homebuilders Association. “Hiroshi estimated that they had constructed around 2,000 homes during those years, which would have been equal to almost 10 percent of Maui’s single-family inventory, for a population that was between 50,000 to 70,000 at the time. Big projects included Kilauea Mauka in Lahaina (200 units), Skill Village in Pä‘ia and Hana Housing,” Fukuda recalled.
“He cared about everything,” continued Fukuda. “I remember Hiroshi going around this building site, picking up pieces of usable, discarded armored 220 electrical cable to save the homeowner money.
“They are the lone major local contractor on Maui that has remained in existence over all these years. Names from the past include Global Construction, F&M, Fuku, Service, Yamamoto . . . . Then about 20 years ago, they moved away from housing toward commercial construction — they just completed the Kahului Bank of Hawaii branch,” noted Fukuda.
“But we still receive calls every single week asking us to build a home,” added Wendy Higa.
Retired Maui contractor Edmond J. Tavares recalled looking up to Arisumi when he started DNL Construction, Inc. nearly 40 years ago. Arisumi mentored young Tavares.
“Till today, I have the deepest aloha, appreciation and respect for Hiroshi. I will never forget how he was there for us. We were young, inexperienced — for somebody like Hiroshi Arisumi to offer his advice and spend time with us, that’s amazing. He explained his operations, cost controls, the computer system. He allowed us to tour his facility and offices. He is such a gracious man. No one else would have done that,” said Tavares.
Tavares’ admiration for Arisumi isn’t only history. He described working on a project with him just a few years ago at the NVMC Education Center.
“We were measuring things and putting things together over there and he’d measure something and then calculate everything in his head! He was at least 92,” marveled Tavares.
Yamashige noted that Arisumi did all of the estimating for the company until he retired. “He was a self-educated engineer,” she said.
Arisumi also researched technical manuals at the Army Reserve library in order to bid on government jobs so that Arisumi Brothers could compete against other contractors whose estimators were professional engineers. The bids went their way, according to Yamashige.
“Yes, they made some money, but you know . . . Hiroshi never spent on cars, nice clothes or trips. He was not a wasteful man. He was never the type to go to bars; he never spent money on himself,” said Yamashige. “He’d rather help others. He’s not flashy.
“We lost our youngest sister in 1986 when she was 41,” said Yamashige. “And do you know, even until today, Hiroshi will bring me flowers each week to place on her grave on weekends. Every single week since 1986. My brother, he’s so good to me. I hate to brag, but he was good to everybody,” said Yamashige.
Arisumi decided to go for a walk and rose from the furniture he made himself over 50 years ago. Beside the sofa were his chairs, a table, a bookshelf. Plain. Solid.
He shook his head as he walked through the shade of his dense grove of 100 kaki (persimmon) trees. The healthy trees are over 100 years old. Fifty Cherimoya and dozens of Kula peach trees also added to the canopy. In years past, the farm produced 10 tons of kaki each year, requiring hordes of pickers to harvest the fruit that blanketed the trees. “Imagine all of this,” said Arisumi, gesturing expansively, “just . . . full . . . orange with kaki!”
For the past five years, however, the 2-acre farm has hardly produced any kaki. Arisumi explained that the flowers come, the fruit starts and then they all fall off before growing not much bigger than a bambucha marble. He attributed the phenomenon to Kula’s much warmer climate. After over 100 years of bearing tons of fruit, things have changed.
His advice? “Some things you cannot change, so no sense fight. I’m going to grow avocadoes now,” said Arisumi, happily, demonstrating how a proper graft should be made.
One thing Arisumi believes is still worth fighting for is the next generation of patriots. He said he admires individuals who demonstrate sound, wise, courageous leadership and those who achieve higher education. “Those are the individuals who can make the biggest difference in our world,” he said.
At the age of 12, Hiroshi Arisumi began working to help support his family. He honored his family by offering his life to his country in war. Fearing nothing ever again, he built a major construction enterprise that eventually supported his extended ‘ohana, hundreds of individuals and other companies, all while using furniture at home that he had built himself. Though he has done much to support America in both war and peace, one of the most important things he has done is to give the opportunity to go to college to students he has never met, even though he himself never had a chance to attend high school. And, for as long as he can, he will never let people forget the actions and motivations of the World War II Nisei soldiers — his leadership of Maui’s 442nd Veterans Club and the NVMC are testimony to his commitment.
Hiroshi Arisumi does not consciously think of the values by which he lives. The words are invisible, but his actions and service throughout his life speak loudly: Kansha — gratitude; giri — sense of duty; chügi — loyalty; sekinin —responsibility; gisei — sacrifice; ganbari —persistence, quiet endurance; and meiyo — honor.
S. Sanae Tokumura is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. She assisted the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center in the completion of the final segment of its campus and remains a close friend of the NVMC and supporter of its mission. She is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.