Karleen C. Chinen
Beloved Hawai‘i astronaut Ellison Onizuka’s 71st birthday was remembered and celebrated on June 24 with the opening of “The Ellison Onizuka Remembrance” at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. The collection is now part of the center’s “Okage Sama De: I am what I am because of you” permanent exhibit.
The remembrance includes a collection of photographs and artifacts celebrating the life of Hawai‘i’s first astronaut — and America’s first astronaut of Japanese and Asian ancestry. Among the artifacts are a nine-foot model of the Challenger space shuttle, a spacesuit worn by Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, a piece of moon rock and a bust of Onizuka, who inspired countless children to dream big and work hard to realize those dreams.
Onizuka and his six Challenger crewmates were killed instantly when their space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 28, 1986.
For more than 24 years, the collection had been displayed in the Ellison Onizuka Space Center at Kona International Airport on Hawai‘i island. However, plans to expand the airport forced its closure in March 2016. (Earlier this year, the airport was officially renamed the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keähole.) The artifacts were placed in storage while the Onizuka Memorial Committee searched for a new venue to share Ellison’s story with the public.
With the late astronaut’s Hawai‘i family members in attendance — brother and Onizuka Memorial Committee chair Claude Onizuka and sister Shirley Matsuoka, along with other family members — the remembrance was opened to the public at JCCH.
The Onizuka-JCCH relationship was facilitated by JCCH’s Hawai‘i island board member Daniel Kamitaki; University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa American Studies professor Dr. Dennis Ogawa; businessman Duane Kurisu, a Big Island native; and Mililani optometrist Dr. Ron Reynolds.
In a phone interview with the Herald, Reynolds said he was dismayed to learn that the Ellison Onizuka Space Center was being shuttered, so he called Kurisu, his longtime friend. “It’s not right that they’re not going to have anything on Ellison Onizuka for the kids,” he told Kurisu.
Empathizing with Reynolds’ disappointment, Kurisu contacted Ogawa, who had gotten to know the Onizuka family intimately while writing the book, “Ellison S. Onizuka: A Remembrance,” with the late Glen Grant. Ogawa, in turn, contacted Claude Onizuka. The four met and agreed that they needed to find a new home to display the tangible reminders of Ellison’s life, passion and work. They felt the JCCH would be the ideal place and approached its president and executive director Carole Hayashino, who was very interested in accepting the collection for JCCH.
Everyone whose kökua (help) they sought came through, said Reynolds — the Shiotsuka family, owners of Kona Trucking, which stored the collection until it was ready to be shipped to Honolulu; Young Brothers, who shipped the crates to O‘ahu; Hawaii Air Cargo owner Brian Suzuki, who stored the crates in his warehouse until they were ready to be transferred to JCCH — all because they believed in the project. The Sekiya of Fukuoka/Hawai‘i Endowment Fund of the Hawai‘i Community Foundation and the HouseMart Family Foundation provided additional funding for the design and installation of The Ellison Onizuka Remembrance.
Reynolds emphasized that the effort was accomplished without the involvement of any politicians. Quoting Kurisu, he said this was a project that brought together “the right people to do the right thing for the right reasons.” Everything came together “like the script of a movie,” Reynolds said.
Hayashino said the collection is at home in the JCCH’s “Okage Sama De” exhibition because Ellison Onizuka “epitomized the value of okage sama de.” Even now, 31 years after his death, Ellison Onizuka “continues to inspire all of us to work to make the world a better place,” she said.
Consul General of Japan Yasushi Misawa, who attended the opening ceremonies, said he visited the Ellison Onizuka Bridge in Fukuoka on a trip to Japan. Onizuka’s grandparents immigrated to Hawai‘i from Fukuoka. Misawa said Onizuka was a representative of the Sansei generation. “His family provided him with a good education . . . . His life was short, but he was what he was because of his family.” Misawa added that the collection at the JCCH would attract more visitors and students who will learn about the astronaut.
Astronaut Col. Edward Michael Fincke, who represented NASA at the ceremonies, said it was “chickenskin” to walk through the exhibit. A veteran of two tours aboard the International Space Station, nine space walks and one space shuttle mission, Fincke said there are aspects of the “story of Ellison Onizuka that are especially Japanese, but not uniquely Japanese. What a nice birthday present for Ellison,” Fincke said.
Ideally, said Claude Onizuka, his family would have wanted to keep the collection on Hawai‘i island, where Ellison was born and raised in the coffee-growing community of Keöpü, where his Nisei parents operated a small grocery store. However, he said the JCCH is a good alternative that will keep his brother’s legacy alive for many Hawai‘i children.
Onizuka acknowledged the presence and support of Kauai Kookies founders Mabel and Norman Hashisaka, whose products were a favorite of the astronaut. The Hashisakas always packed their cookies and treats as omiyage for their favorite astronaut. Onizuka added that Ellison’s Space Shuttle missions were always well-stocked with goodies such as macadamia nuts and Kona coffee from Hawai‘i.
Also in attendance for the opening of the Ellison Onizuka Remembrance was former Hawai‘i Gov. George Ariyoshi, who brought along the photograph of his family that Onizuka had taken aboard the 1986 Challenger mission. Both Ariyoshi and Onizuka had family roots in Fukuoka. Much to the governor’s surprise, the photo was recovered in the shuttle wreckage. NASA officials had it cleaned and framed, added the photos of Onizuka’s Challenger shuttle mates and returned it to the governor.
Ariyoshi also recalled that whenever Ellison was back home in Hawai‘i, he would always contact the governor about visiting schools to speak to schoolchildren.
Hayashino told the Onizuka family that JCCH was “honored that you entrusted it (the collection) to us.”