Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto — a Pacific soul.
Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto — a Pacific soul.

Betty Lou Kam
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

When a distinguished scholar or mentor passes, we are reminded that expanding knowledge is grounded in the work and dedication of earlier generations of thinkers who asked critical questions, considered rare possibilities, proposed new theories and established proven fundamental truths based on their keen observation and careful analysis. This is what we are left remembering following the passing of Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto, Bishop Museum’s Kenneth P. Emory Distinguished Chair in Anthropology, who died Oct. 4 in Honolulu at the age of 93.

“Dr. Sinoto is recognized globally and will long be cherished for his tremendous achievements and contributions to the world’s understanding of Pacific peoples and their history,” stated Linda Lee Kuuleilani Farm, Bishop Museum’s interim president and chief executive officer in the museum’s press release announcing Sinoto’s passing.

The Tökyö-born Sinoto began his career at Bishop Museum in 1954 under the tutelage of the esteemed anthropologist, Dr. Kenneth Emory. Those who knew Dr. Sinoto will recall the often-told story of how he was encouraged to remain in Hawai‘i once Dr. Emory recognized his great potential. The 1950s were an exciting time in the field of Pacific anthropology and Emory and a few other noted anthropologists and archaeologists had made great strides in defining the areas of cultural study in the Pacific during the earlier three decades. In the young Sinoto, they recognized someone who would continue the work of exploring and understanding the Pacific’s various cultural groups and their relationships to the Hawaiian Islands.

With interest in archaeology growing, Dr. Emory was kept busy. And so was Dr. Sinoto, who was sent off to do field work almost immediately, serving as Emory’s research assistant.

Dr. Sinoto had earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Hawai‘i while working as Dr. Emory’s research assistant. He took some time off to complete his doctoral dissertation on Polynesian fishhooks at Hokkaido University in Japan.

When Dr. Emory retired, Dr. Sinoto was appointed chair of Bishop Museum’s Anthropology Department in 1970 and began building a team of young local archaeologists whom he carefully mentored. Their devotion to the field and to him, personally, was constant and deep. Dr. Sinoto advocated for stronger preservation laws and educational programs to increase public understanding of the importance of protecting Hawai‘i’s endangered cultural legacy.

Dr. Sinoto served as Bishop Museum’s senior anthropologist from 1970 to 1989, the year he was named the Kenneth Pike Emory Distinguished Chair in Anthropology. He generated a great deal of excitement about Pacific archaeology by organizing and leading field trips to sites he had excavated. The trips weren’t just for students — they were for anyone who was interested in his work, even if they did not have any academic training.

Dr. Sinoto was recognized for his work in the classification of fishhooks, which he had unearthed during many of his excavations. He believed that the classification of fishhooks — by their form and construction — provided evidence on the nature and possible origin of specific peoples associated with the location of the archaeological find.

Besides the fishhooks, Dr. Sinoto will be remembered for his work in Huahine, in French Polynesia, where he excavated a 1,000-year-old voyaging canoe that measured 65 feet in length. The canoe provided valuable information on traditional Polynesian voyaging and contributed greatly to the field of Pacific archaeology.

Bishop Museum benefited greatly from Dr. Sinoto’s dedication and wisdom — he brought dignity and academic recognition to the institution, to which he dedicated his life for over 60 years, and to the fields of anthropology and archaeology in Hawai‘i.

Dr. Sinoto received many honors: In 1995, he was conferred The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, by the Emperor of Japan. He was knighted in 2000 and received “The Order of Tahiti Nui.” In 2002, Dr. Sinoto was named a “Living Treasure of Hawai‘i” by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.” His lifetime achievements were also heralded by the Society of Hawaiian Archaeology and the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation, and in 2005, Bishop Museum awarded him its prestigious Robert J. Pfeiffer Medal.

In September of 2016, Dr. Sinoto’s work was documented in the book, “Curve of the Hook: An Archaeologist in Polynesia,” which he co-authored with Hiroshi Aramata. It was published by University of Hawai‘i Press. He also co-authored with Rick Carroll the 2005 Bishop Museum Press book, “Huahine: Island of the Lost Canoe.”

In addition to his work in Pacific archaeology, Dr. Sinoto was dedicated to recognizing the contributions of the various immigrant groups that settled in Hawai‘i and worked in the sugar and pineapple plantations in the 19th and 20th centuries.In the early 1970s, he and his late wife Kazuko and community members opened the Hawaii Immigrant Heritage Preservation Center on the grounds of Bishop Museum. HIHPC, as it was known, was one of the first institutions of its kind to chronicle the history and the impact Hawai‘i’s immigrant people had made on Hawaiian society. The center collected the stories and artifacts of the immigrants who had settled in Hawai‘i in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their hard labor and contributions to our multiethnic and multicultural society would strengthen Hawai‘i going forward into the future.

Dr. Sinoto actively supported his wife’s work in collecting Hawai‘i’s immigrant histories and worked on her behalf — supporting her, but never interfering in it.He was immensely proud of her accomplishments.

Those who worked at Bishop Museum during Dr. Sinoto’s tenure have heartwarming memories of him — his character, his steadfast ways and his dedication. It was always a pleasure to listen to his thoughts or requests when he stopped by your workspace. I especially enjoyed his visits when he had a story to share.Dr. Sinoto solved problems with clear-minded determination and a straightforward approach — he liked finding solutions that would be implemented quickly.

Dr. Sinoto could quickly recognize opportunities to excite and teach the curious. If a class of university students touring near his office recognized him, he would smile at the students — after all, many of them were familiar with his work. Oftentimes, he would delight them with an impromptu lesson. Dr. Sinoto listened patiently as questions were asked, or when others shared their thoughts. As inquiries were being communicated, you could see his mind clicking, thinking through a response that would not only satisfy, but also encourage more thought. His sense of humor was quiet, but definite, and he could certainly be playful if the occasion was fitting.

Dr. Sinoto brought together great community leaders to participate in crucial projects, in Hawai‘i as well as in other parts of the Pacific. People from all walks of life visited his office — students, accomplished scholars, community members and visitors from all over the Pacific.

Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto was a dedicated researcher, teacher, community member, friend to many, a great contributor to our understanding of the Pacific and a devoted family man to his wife Kazuko and their son Akihiko and his family. The people of Hawai‘i and of the Pacific were blessed that he came here, to our shores, to study as a young man and that he decided to make Hawai‘i his home.

Betty Lou Kam worked with Bishop Museum’s cultural collections for 34 years before retiring in 2014. The various positions she held afforded her the opportunity to get to know Dr. Sinoto and to learn from him.


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