The 41st annual Living Treasures of Hawai‘i™ program, initiated by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, was held on Feb. 13 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Coral Ballroom. The program, modeled after the National Living Treasures (Ningen Kokuho) of Japan program, honored five individuals for their sustained contributions toward enriching the community in Hawai‘i. Honored were: Lillian Noda Yajima, Dr. Dennis Masaaki Ogawa, Paul Leland Breese, Muthukumaru Sooriyakumar (Sooriya Kumar) and Dr. Puakea M. Nogelmeier.

Prior to the luncheon, the honorees gathered in the foyer of the ballroom, where they were greeted by well-wishers and presented lots of lei, á la graduation day in Hawai‘i.

Emcee Dennis Sekine introduced each honoree with one-phrase descriptions: Yajima teaches others how to live life fully with joy and enthusiasm. Ogawa was thanked for the stories he shares. Breese shows compassion for animals. Sooriya Kumar is known for his creative energy, and Nogelmeier shares his wisdom of the Hawaiian language with others.

A Hawaiian welcome oli (chant) by Keola Kalani and Lehua Matsuoka opened the day’s events. Pieper Toyama, president of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii kyodan, or membership, delivered opening remarks, and Rev. Yuika Hasebe offered the invocation.

Following lunch, Rev. Tatsuo Muneto, who has served in a number of capacities at various temples within Honpa Hongwanji for the past 50 years, was recognized after announcing his retirement as rimban, or head minister, of the Hawaii Betsuin. In his thank you remarks, Muneto thanked his wife Edna for her tireless efforts and unwavering support while he was a minister. Now, as they help care for their new grandchild, the tables have turned and Muneto promised to now do whatever his wife asks him to do. “It’s the least I can do after all she’s done for me,” he said.

Attentions then turned to the five honorees, each of whom was recognized with a video presentation.

Lillian Yajima, the only honoree born in Hawai‘i, is 95 years old and “demonstrates more energy, passion and creativity than most people half her age,” stated a biographical sketch on her in the program booklet. Yajima is a founding member and former president of the Japanese Women’s Society Foundation and founding member of the Wakaba Kai Sorority at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Among her community affiliations are the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, the Japan-America Society of Hawaii, the United Japanese Society of Hawaii, Shufu Society of Hawaii, Honolulu Fukuoka Kenjin Kai and Kumamoto Kenjin Kai. Additionally, Yajima shares her knowledge of Japanese manju making, arts and crafts, and is very active and supportive of the Cherry Blossom Festival. In lieu of a thank you speech, Yajima, who leads the Japanese Women’s Society Hula Aloha Ladies, danced “Lovely Hula Hands.”

Dr. Dennis Ogawa was born in the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. In the program booklet, Ogawa was described as follows: “He creates positive outlooks for shared experiences through storytelling, documentaries, movies and sports in order to help all people to have a better understanding of multi-ethnic relationships and cultural appreciation.” Ogawa is an American Studies professor at UH-Mänoa and is founder and board chair of Nippon Golden Network, a cable station that presents Japanese films and programs. Ogawa is author of numerous books, including “Jan Ken Po: The World of Hawai‘i’s Japanese Americans,” “Kodomo No Tame Ni – For the Sake of the Children” and co-author of “Ellison S. Onizuka: A Remembrance.”

Paul Breese, a Minnesota native, was appointed the Honolulu Zoo’s first director in 1947. In that capacity, he developed the master plan for the construction and acquisition of zoo animals and initiated a number of breeding programs to help propagate various birds and animals such as the koloa (Hawaiian duck), Japanese sacred cranes, birds of paradise, giraffes and Galapagos tortoises. As noted in the booklet, Breese was described as having a “keen intellect, avid curiosity and vast interest in preserving animals in their natural habitat. He supports and mentors those who have an interest in maintaining the delicate balance of nature through education and conservation so that future generations can enjoy them, as well.” Through the Nene Restoration Project, Breese was instrumental in saving Hawai‘i’s state bird, the nënë (Hawaiian goose), from extinction.

Sooriya Kumar “embodies the philosophies of forgiveness and healing and he connects with others through self-reflection. He takes life experiences and transforms them into mantras for compassionate change and unconditional love.” As proprietor of Mouna Farm Arts and Cultural Village in Wai‘anae, Kumar grows organic fruits and vegetables that help feed the hungry. The area also supports tree cultivation and provides community children a place to explore their inner artist and farming skills. Kumar is also a master copper artist and has been commissioned to create several pieces, including the Coat of Arms for His Majesty King Tuheitia, Maori King of New Zealand; a copper bowl to honor U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka at his retirement reception and creating a surfboard to honor surfing legend Buffalo Keaulana. “I see the beauty of art in its purest form,” said Kumar, adding, “since we are all connected to nature, we are all nature.”

Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier “embodies wisdom and compassion by sharing knowledge through mentorship and collaboration.” A professor of Hawaiian language, culture and history, Nogelmeier planned and proposed the UH Institute for Hawaiian Language Research and Translation, now being considered by UH, to implement a system-wide collaborative institute for Hawaiian language research, translation and training. “His deep passion and dedication to the research and translation of Hawaiian writings a century ago has been profoundly critical in the continued revitalization of the Hawaiian language movement,” noted the program booklet.

Since its introduction in 1976, 219 individuals have been recognized as “Living Treasures of Hawai‘i.”


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