Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
I hear that constantly from Kiele, my 4-year-old granddaughter. “Why do we have to wait?” “Grandma, why do you have to put on so much makeup?” I hope she will eventually ask about her great-grandparents, whose wedding photographs hang in silver frames in her home, built by her great-great issei grandfather from Hiroshima.
Asking questions. That is our Sansei strength, even when our Nisei parents cracked us on the head and retorted, “Because I said so.” They were our bridge between two cultures, forcing us to attend Nihongo gakko (Japanese language school) after English school, repeating Oshögatsu New Year rituals and reminding us that “Nihonjin wa Nihonjin (Japanese is Japanese).” When I finally fled to graduate school in Illinois, I vowed never to return to this Rock.
When I did come back, however, I asked different questions. “What is indigo?” “How did Hawaiians pattern their kapa, bark cloth?” With Reynold Choy, then a Roosevelt High School science teacher, we began searching for answers. We established TEMARI, Center for Asian and Pacific Arts, in 1979 and discovered that there were others also who wanted to learn. TEMARI offered hands-on workshops taught by international visiting artists who were masters of papermaking and Edo Period paper crafts, weaving baskets into containers of space and resist-dyeing with Japanese stencils. We discovered local craftsmen who were already dedicated to reviving Hawaiian kapa-making, and a former Peace Corps volunteer, who demonstrated a different lei-making style, learned while serving in Micronesia. Talented students evolved into enthusiastic instructors, challenging new students to first understand the cultural and linguistic contexts of a craft before adding their own interpretations.
Then the late Bud Morrison walked in and asked, “What does kadomatsu mean?” He could replicate the bamboo trinity, but that wasn’t enough. Together, we found answers. Bud taught hundreds how to make kadomatsu at TEMARI. It all started because he asked the question and we shared what we had learned: Placing those arrangements of bamboo and pine at the entrance to your home or business ensured a coming new year of good luck and great fortune.
As TEMARI approaches its fourth decade and the approaching Monkey Year, we face the intimidating responsibility of circulating our knowledge and skills without our departed sensei (teachers), kupuna (elders) and parents. We are not alone. Others have responded to the call, “Who will carry it on?”
The Bamboo Ridge writers, among them Juliet Kono, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Marie Hara and Mavis Hara, have captured our Issei’s heartaches, defined our parents’ struggles to traverse that cultural bridge and led us to ponder what we would leave behind. For nearly 45 years, Grant Kagimoto has skillfully printed visual puns of growing up local. His Cane Haul Road T-shirts of ducks afloat in a bowl of saimin, or a pair of daikon (radish) wearing spikey high heels were, and still are, nostalgic and acerbic. Sara Oka, curator of textiles at the Honolulu Museum of Art, has mounted thoughtful exhibitions. George and Willa Tanabe, retired University of Hawai‘i professors, continued their scholarly pursuits and co-wrote “Japanese Buddhist Temples in Hawai‘i: An Illustrated Guide.”
There is more to come. Grant’s journals are chock-full of sketches. Only time limits his translation of ideas into new silk-screened images. His generous mentorship of yonsei Brandt Fuse and his Sumo Fish designs ensures that there is another artist to capture our stories on T-shirts. In books, on kapa or washi (Japanese hand-made paper), on indigo-dyed cottons, in hula, at poetry slams and in social media, the next generations are already boldly expressing their opinions.
We pass on to our children and grandchildren an inherited devotion to our ancestors, regardless of where they were born: Japan, Wales, Germany or Slovenia. I hope they also continue to speak up, ask more questions and seek out more answers.
Ann Asakura is co-founder and executive director of TEMARI, Center for Asian and Pacific Arts.