Photo of the talented, Jake Shimabukuro
‘Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro paid a musical tribute to the families of those who died aboard the Ehime Maru. Behind him is Earl Okawa, who co-chaired the commemoration events.

Sixteen years ago, the USS Greeneville, a nuclear-powered submarine practicing a high-speed surfacing maneuver off O‘ahu’s south shore, struck the Ehime Maru, an Uwajima Fisheries High School training ship from Ehime, Japan, puncturing a hole in its hull. Within minutes, the ship began to sink. The Feb. 9, 2001, tragedy took the lives of nine people, including four students. Killed instantly were students Takeshi Mizuguchi, Katsuya Nomoto, Toshiya Sakashima and Yusuke Terata; teachers Hiroshi Makizawa and Jun Nakata; and crewmembers Toshimichi Furuya, Hiroshi Nishida and Hirotaka Segawa. Mizuguchi’s body was never recovered.

The accident could have jeopardized, or at the very least, set back the good relations that had developed and flourished between Japan and the United States in the aftermath of World War II on a number of levels: diplomatic, economic and cultural, among others.

As the governments of Japan and the United States worked on a diplomatic level to help ease the unbearable grief of the family members, especially, Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community organized and swiftly established the Ehime Maru Fund to accept donations of sympathy and support. In November of 2001, the Ehime Prefectural Government requested that the nonprofit Ehime Maru Memorial Association — EMMA — be established by the state of Hawai‘i to coordinate the construction of a memorial. Then-Hawai‘i Gov. Ben Cayetano offered a site for the memorial at the state-owned Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park. The site overlooked O‘ahu’s south shore, where the ship had gone down.

Within a year of the accident, the monument had been completed and the family members of those who were killed in the tragedy came to Hawai‘i for the traditional Buddhist memorial observance.

EMMA was subsequently transferred to the nonprofit Japan-America Society of Hawaii, which is administers the project and manages the upkeep of the memorial with the assistance of a number of Japanese community organizations who take turns cleaning it. The ties between Hawai‘i and Ehime continued to grow. In 2003, then-Gov. Linda Lingle formalized a sister-state relationship between Ehime and Hawai‘i.

Fast forward to 2017 and the 17th anniversary memorial, which was held Feb. 9. (In Buddhist tradition, the date of the person’s passing is considered the first-year anniversary.) The memorial service at the memorial site at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park was attended by Hawai‘i Gov. David Ige; city managing director Roy Amemiya Jr., representing Mayor Kirk Caldwell; Consul General of Japan Yasushi Misawa; Ehime Prefecture Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura; Uwajima City Mayor Hirohisa Ishibashi; other government officials from Honolulu, Ehime and Uwajima; and the families of the men and boys who died aboard the Ehime Maru.

Bishop Clark Watanabe of Koyasan Shingon Mission of Hawaii presided over the service, which was emceed by U.S. Navy veteran Ken Saiki, who co-chaired the memorial events with retired JASH president Earl Okawa. Gov. Ige, Gov. Nakamura, and Mayor Ishibashi all offered messages of sympathy and remembrance. Nakamura and Ishibashi expressed gratitude for the support shown to Ehime Prefecture and Uwajima over the years. Also offering gratitude was Uwajima Fisheries High School students Rikuto Oya and Tatsuyoshi Mizuguchi, representing the families who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

A moment of silence was observed at 1:43 p.m., the exact time the Ehime Maru was struck. Government officials and organizations presented floral wreaths at the memorial and senbazuru (one thousand paper cranes) were offered by students from the Uwajima Fisheries High School and St. Louis School’s Japanese Club.

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro paid a musical tribute to the families. His original composition was inspired by Hawai‘i’s aloha spirit and the bridge that has been built over the years between Hawai‘i and Ehime. Shimabukuro asked the families to take comfort in knowing that with each passing moment, they are one moment closer to being reunited with their loved ones.

That evening Consul General Misawa and his wife Yoko hosted a reception for the guests from Ehime, EMMA volunteers and other community members. Misawa recalled that one of the first things he did after arriving for his new post in Honolulu about a year and a half ago was to pay his respects at the Ehime Maru Memorial. Since then, he has honored the memory of those who died in the tragedy many times.

Misawa said the collaborative efforts between Ehime and Hawai‘i empower him to continue working to furthering relations between the two states. He said he was glad that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made time in his schedule to visit the Ehime Maru Memorial during his December 2016 visit to Hawai‘i to join President Barack Obama in paying their respects at the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Moriyuki Kato, then-governor of Ehime Prefecture, recalled the grief and anguish the families and Uwajima and Ehime communities felt upon learning of the tragedy. Of utmost importance to them was having the remains of their loved ones returned to them. That request was granted to all of the families with the exception of the Mizuguchis, whose son Takeshi were never found.

Kato thanked the 17th anniversary commemoration co-chairs Ken Saiki and Earl Okawa for their efforts and reflected on returning to Hawai‘i 16 years after the incident. “Today’s memorial service — some things remain the same, such as the warm hearts of Hawai‘i people,” he said. “Never forget Ehime Maru and never repeat [what happened].”

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