Because Homeland Matters, Contends Hawaii Japanese Center Head

Arnold T. Hiura
Published with Permission

Editor’s note: The following is the text of a talk Hawaii Japanese Center executive director Arnold Hiura delivered at the East Hawaii Hiroshima Kenjinkai’s shinnen enkai on Feb. 25 at Hilo’s Sangha Hall. We thank Arnold for sharing this text with our readers.

At the Hawaii Japanese Center, one of our main objectives is to preserve the lessons of the past for future generations.

Visitors to the center are often surprised to see how much stuff we have in the center’s collection — everything from old toys, tools and furniture, to kimonos, books and works of art.

The Hawaii Japanese Center also has a series of display cases that are dedicated to individual kenjinkai groups, including one for the East Hawaii Hiroshima Kenjinkai.

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of this organization, the question in the back of many of our minds is whether the kenjinkai is destined to become a mere relic in a glass display case, or if it will continue to function as a living entity with meaning for the generations to come.

In order to answer that, I believe we must ask an even more basic question, “Why kenjinkai?” Well, all of us in this room are connected to each another by the fact that we all have some sort of familial tie to Hiroshima. We trace those ties through our Issei forbears, who made the perilous journey from Hiroshima to Hilo a century or so ago.

Many of us here today are old enough to remember our Issei — whether they were our parents, grandparents or maybe even great-grandparents. If we’re lucky, we might have known them well enough to appreciate the difficulties they faced and the sacrifices they made to make a good life for us.

For them, homeland did matter. It meant a great deal. Hawai‘i was thousands of miles away from everything that they cherished. With no money and only limited means of communication, they could only cling to memories of what they had left behind and dream of what could be.

And so they formed these prefectural groups with those they shared something in common, joining others who came from the same place seeking familiarity and perhaps placing a heightened degree of trust in one another.

Is this odd or foolish behavior, or simply human nature?

Let’s look at some current-day examples. Many Hawai‘i-born folks have relocated to cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Las Vegas. Many of our kids and grandkids go away to colleges all across the U.S. continent. And what do these people do when they get there? They form Hawai‘i clubs.

Yes, in this era of smartphones and mobile connectivity — where we can constantly chat and text and share photos of everything we do and everything we eat on a daily basis — it seems as though we were next door to each other rather than half a world away.

Like the Issei, we still feel the need to connect with those whom we share the most things in common. It doesn’t matter that someone living in L.A., Seattle or Portland today can easily buy a poke bowl or Korean kal bi taco right around the block. People still want to make those human connections: “Eh, you from Hawai‘i, eh? Where you from brah? Big Island? Nah, me too. What part Big Island? Hilo? What school you went? Hilo High? What year you grad?” And, before you know it, we are all practically related. “You know so-and-so? Wow, laulau, ’ass my cousin’s sistah’s friend’s aunty dat.”

Where we come from, what school we went to, where our ancestors came from . . . these are the layers that form our identity and define who we are as a person, and collectively as a people. These are the building blocks of community and of culture, as we know it.

If all of this still matters today, it certainly must have mattered a thousand times more to folks back then. No Google, no Facebook, no Instagram. They simply banded together and supported each other in times of need.

For us today, being from Hiroshima almost seems like a matter of chance. But to have it mean anything is really a matter of choice. We are not just descended from people who came from Hiroshima; more importantly, we are people to whom the experiences and sacrifices of our Issei forbears still matter . . . and will always matter.

Our family trees are firmly planted on Hawaiian soil. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that our roots extend across the Pacific to those places that our first generation pioneers came from.

So rather than asking, “Why kenjinkai?” shouldn’t the question we ask ourselves be: “How can we not remember and appreciate those who made our lives here possible?” And to do so, we must perpetuate the ties that they felt towards their homeland and thus honor their life’s journey from Hiroshima to Hilo — as well our own life journey . . . here.

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