Photo Exhibit on Hawai‘i AJAs Connects in Japan
Byrnes Yamashita and Jon Ishihara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The photographic exhibit, “The Hawaii Nikkei Legacy,” highlighting the story of Japanese immigration to Hawai‘i and the experiences of Hawai‘i’s Japanese Americans from past to present recently wrapped up a successful tour of four cities in Japan, touching Nihonjin (Japanese people) with ties to Hawai‘i. The history of how Nikkei, or Nikkeijin — people of Japanese ancestry who immigrated to other countries — came to settle in Hawai‘i is proving to be of interest to the Japanese.
Thus far, the exhibit has enjoyed showings at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama, in Tökyö, Fukushima City and Hiroshima City. The showings were co-sponsored by the Nisei Veterans Legacy, Japan America Society of Hawaii and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i.
In each venue, Japanese attendees have shared their feelings about the exhibit, including personal stories about family members and friends who immigrated to Hawai‘i. Some attendees shed tears. An older woman who came to see the exhibit at the Minpo Publishing Company building in Fukushima City with her adult son was emotional before she had even seen the panels.
Another woman who saw it at the historic former Bank of Japan building in Hiroshima showed Byrnes Yamashita of the NVL and other exhibit supporters a photograph of her grandfather’s funeral in Hawai‘i and a family tree that she had brought with her. As she shared her family’s Hawai‘i story, she started to weep, which touched everyone in attendance.
A young woman who works for the U.S.-Japan Council in Tökyö attended the exhibit in Yokohama. She wrote that the legacy of the Hawai‘i Nikkei community adds irreplaceable value to history. She also noted that her generation, as well as her parents’ generation, did not know about the wartime experiences of the American Nikkei, and the Nisei soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service and the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion, whose exploits are featured in the exhibit panels. She said those experiences need to be shared.
In Fukushima, a man and his wife came to see the exhibit. The husband’s family name was Kasahara — he told me in Japanese that his grandparents had immigrated to Hawai‘i in the 1890s. His mother was born in Hilo, but the family returned to Japan when his mother was 6 years old. Kasahara-san was born in Fukushima. He remembered receiving white granulated sugar, a precious commodity then, from relatives in Hawai‘i after the war. Kasahara-san recalled that when their neighbors were expecting guests, they would come next door to his family’s home to “borrow” coffee and sugar to serve. He also spoke of receiving Munsingwear shirts, not knowing until later in life that it was brand name clothing.
Also in Fukushima, one of the exhibit greeters spoke with a family who had come from neighboring Miyagi Prefecture to see the exhibit. They, too, shared stories about family members who had immigrated to Peru and Brazil.
Many of the exhibit visitors were older adults with a connection to Hawai‘i. Others said they attended because of coverage in newspapers such as the Yomiuri Shimbun and Fukushima Minpo, as well as other news sources. Hawai‘i groups and others also took in the exhibit. U.S.-Japan Council president Irene Hirano Inouye saw the exhibit at the JOMM in Yokohama during a visit to Japan. Honolulu Fukushima Kenjinkai and Hawaii-Shima Fukushima Kenjin Doshi Kai members saw the exhibit in Fukushima City as part of the city’s 110th anniversary celebration. Professors from Japanese universities have visited the exhibit and asked about the possibility of it being shown at their institutions. And, Americans living in Japan, such as U.S. Consulate staff and U.S. service members, have come to see it, as have former Hawai‘i residents now living in Japan. They supported the exhibit with donations of hula performances and Hawaiian music, photography and wise advice, all of which were much appreciated.
In some locations, special events were held to supplement the experience of visitors interested in learning more about the Hawai‘i Nikkei. For example, in Fukushima and Yokohama, a documentary screening on the Military Intelligence Service by Junichi Suzuki was followed by a presentation and panel discussion.
The exhibit’s closing section spotlights the prefectural roots of prominent Hawai‘i Japanese Americans whose ancestors were part of the large flow of immigrants to Hawai‘i. This section was suggested by Japanese who were interested in the prefectural roots of some of Hawai‘i’s most prominent Nikkei. You could see the strong sense of pride of the exhibit attendees when they saw someone famous with roots in their prefecture.
The exhibit committee was made up of Sansei community members who collected photographs and designed the exhibit panels. The project was a volunteer effort with expenses covered by the NVL and contributions. The reactions and stories from attendees, such as those related in this story, have shown the committee members, co-sponsors and volunteers how worthwhile an effort this has been.
Organizers hope to find venues in Fukuoka, Yamaguchi and Okinawa prefectures to show the exhibit and are fundraising to support those venues. They are grateful to the exhibit’s co-sponsors, NVL, JASH and JCCH, and supporting organizations Denshö, Hawaii Hochi, Hawai‘i Tourism Japan, United Japanese Society of Hawaii, Hawaii Senior Life Enrichment Association and the Yomiuri Shimbun, as well as all who attended the exhibit and shared their stories and tears with us.
Byrnes Yamashita is with the Nisei Veterans Legacy and has been involved in educational programs in Hawai‘i and Japan. Jon Ishihara is a member of the Sons & Daughters of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the exhibit committee. He traveled to Fukushima as a volunteer to assist with the exhibit’s showing there and was humbled by those who shared their family stories with him.