There is a scene in the Okinawan movie, “Nada Sou Sou.” It’s near the end . . . after the hardworking Yoota dies suddenly after collapsing while checking on his hänai (adopted) sister Kaoru during a typhoon. He is burning up with fever, so Kaoru calls for an ambulance to him to a hospital. Shortly after being admitted, Yoota, in his early 20s, succumbs, probably from something like walking pneumonia from working so hard.
The film shows Yoota’s small rooftop apartment, where he and Kaoru lived together as brother and sister until her acceptance to college. That apartment, once so full of life, is now empty. The only movement is from the breeze that blows the mismatched curtains.
This is the scene that comes me when I think of Jane Serikaku, longtime executive director of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, who died on July 6 at the age of 79 after a battling cancer. Like Yoota, Jane was a fixture at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. She fell ill late last year and never returned to the job she was so passionate about.
Actually, serving as HUOA’s executive director was Jane’s second career. She was an accomplished public school educator, who was the principal at ‘Iliahi Elementary School in Wahiawä. She was also a Milken Family Foundation award-winning principal and a staunch advocate for public school education — a commitment she passed on to her only child, daughter Michelle Whaley, an award-winning professor at the University of Notre Dame.
While having lunch with friends Roy Kaneshiro, George Kaneshiro and Ken Kiyabu after her passing, I mentioned that I hoped Jane had had time to enjoy her life between her two careers. Roy quickly responded, “She loved doing this.”
He was right.
Everyone could see that. When I informed former Hawai‘i Herald editor Mark Santoki about Jane’s passing recently, he was stunned. Mark had gotten to know Jane while helping with publicity for the Okinawan Festival years back — Mark is the guy responsible for the beautiful festival banners that will be hung from the overhead streetlights along Kaläkaua Avenue about a week before the festival. Unsolicited, he said of Jane: “Her dedication to the organization was unbelievable! It certainly wasn’t for the money.”
Jane was one of those smart leaders who always kept an eye open for people’s special talents and skills and enlisted their help for specific projects. She understood that everyone is busy — with family and work and any number of commitments. So with Jane, you didn’t have to help with everything. She just asked for an hour or two of your time to pick your brain, to help her strategize.
Last year, she and 2017 HUOA president Vince Watabu visited Grant “Sandaa” Murata at our office to get our thoughts on helping two former World War II Okinawan prisoners of war who were held at Sand Island get their story out to the public. We shared some ideas with Jane and Vince, which resulted in their press conference being held on Sand Island, at the former site of the camp.
When Herald contributing writer Gregg Kakesako asked Jane to help him find some relatives or people who’d had contact with the Okinawan POWs, Jane lined up a good group of people with interesting stories to share.
Jane understood what a huge commitment it was to serve as an HUOA officer. So she supported them in every way she could. She always kept an eye out for prospective leaders, especially young people, and mentored with them. She would never ask them to help and then disappear herself. Jane would stand by their side and make sure that they succeeded in whatever they did.
At her memorial service, which, fittingly, was held at the Hawaii Okinawa Center, only three officials were asked to speak. Consul General of Japan Koichi Ito announced that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had awarded a posthumous commendation to Jane. And, in front of the 900-plus people in attendance, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell admitted that he realized early on that Jane was a tough lady — you don’t mess with her.
But the most touching comments came from Gov. David Ige, who said he first met Jane through the Hawaii-Okinawa Student Exchange Program. The students had come to pay a courtesy call on Hawai‘i’s — and America’s — first governor of Okinawan ancestry. Thereafter, Jane “assigned” the governor to play his ‘ukulele as he led the 1,800 Hawai‘i attendees in the opening parade of the 2016 Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival in Okinawa. Whenever they met up, she always checked on his progress.
What moved Ige most was the Jane made sure that he had time to meet and spend time with his relatives in Okinawa. It was the first time her was meeting them. She also arranged for him to visit the homestead his paternal grandfather had left behind to begin a new life in Hawai‘i.
Like Yoota’s rooftop apartment in “Nada Sou Sou,” it will feel for a while like something . . . someone . . . is missing at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. That will be Jane Fujie Serikaku. But Jane, in her new home, will be telling everyone that the best way they can remember her is to move on and continue to do good work to preserve, perpetuate and share Okinawa’s culture with all. That, we will do.
Ippe nifee deebiru and Aloha ‘Oe, Jane . . . until we meet again.