Hawaii Okinawa Plaza to Serve as Revenue Stream for the Hawaii United Okinawa Association
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The Hawaii United Okinawa Association is honoring its rich cultural heritage by ensuring that the organization will have a steady revenue stream to help keep Okinawan culture alive for generations to come. Their vehicle for doing that is the newly completed Hawaii Okinawa Plaza, a $6.7-million retail and office building at the corner of Ka ‘Uka Boulevard and Uke‘e Street, directly across the street from the Hawaii Okinawa Center in the Waipi‘o Gentry area of Waipahu.
The Hawaii Okinawa Plaza was formally blessed and opened on the Labor Day holiday, Sept. 3, with some 400 guests from Okinawa — many of whom had donated to the project — and local Uchinanchu in attendance. It marked the climax of a weekend spent celebrating Okinawan culture, Hawai‘i style, at the 36th Okinawan Festival at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.
Construction on the two-story, 12,000-square foot commercial building began in April 2017 and was recently completed.
Thus far, businesses such as a periodontist, acupuncturists/masseuses and an insurance agent have signed leases and are beginning to set up their respective offices in the building. HUOA is actively seeking additional tenants for the building. Each floor of the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza consists of 6,000 square feet of space that can be divided among businesses requiring between 800 and 6,000 square feet of space. The new building is located near one of the gateways to the Waipi‘o Gentry community and is easily accessible for people who frequent the Patsy Mink Central O‘ahu Regional Park or who reside in the surrounding communities of Waipi‘o, Waikele, Mililani and the future Koa Ridge development.
Rather than relying strictly on donations and fundraising events, the HUOA leadership began investigating this avenue to fund its cultural programs and maintain the Hawaii Okinawa Center beginning in the early 2000s. They also wanted to ensure that the HUOA remained financially sound and avoided the financial challenges that the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i faced in 2003 and that the Filipino Community Center confronted earlier this year.
Built on land zoned Industrial-Mixed-Use, the parcel can accommodate a wide range of businesses — medical, insurance and others professionals, to restaurants and even retailers.
One of the newly signed tenants, periodontist Dr. Allison Tran, plans to open her main office in the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza next January. She said there is a need for her specialty on O‘ahu’s west side.
“It’s good timing,” Tran said. She plans to also maintain her affiliation with a dental practice in the Ala Moana area.
The project’s architect was former HUOA president Maurice Yamasato. He said he hopes HOP will generate enough funds to ensure its success into the future.
Yamasato, who is chairman of his own firm, YFH Architects, also designed the Hawaii Okinawa Center in 1989. He is being paid as a consultant on the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza project.
S&M Sakamoto Inc. was the general contractor for both the HOC and HOP projects. In 1989, Gerard Sakamoto oversaw construction of the Hawaii Okinawa Center. This time around, Sakamoto’s daughter, Dale Sakamoto Yoneda, is the company president and responsible for the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza.
“The contractor has done an excellent job,” Yamasato assured the roughly 200 people who attended a February “topping off” party at the Hawaii Okinawa Center.
“It is coming out the way I envisioned it,” he told The Hawai‘i Herald. “It is a very excellent project. It is on time and on budget,” he added.
Yamasato said building “a shopping center is moving in the right direction and I am confident that this will help the next generation learn about business.”
Fundraising to purchase the 1.9-acre parcel began in 2003. HUOA paid off the $3.6 million loan for the land in 2009.
Mark Higa, an architect by profession, co-chaired the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza project with Chris Shimabukuro, who is director of legacy giving for ‘Iolani School. Both previously served as HUOA presidents — Higa in 2015 and Shimabukuro in 2014.
Higa said the HUOA wanted to involve representatives from Okinawa on the HOP project, as they had backed the development and building of the Hawaii Okinawa Center in the late 1980s. This time around, Uchinanchu in Okinawa supported the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza project with $418,000, raised primarily through the Okinawa Hawaii Kyokai, an HUOA support group in Okinawa.
During a visit to Hawai‘i this past March, Okinawa Prefectural Government officials and business executives from Okinawa inspected the building with HUOA leaders.
“To this day, the people of Okinawa remember what the people in Hawai‘i did for them,” said Shimabukuro, referring to the post World War II relief effort Hawai‘i Uchinanchu undertook for their Okinawa “cousins,” sending pigs and goats, clothing and footwear, books and school supplies, medicine and medical supplies, eyeglasses and money to their decimated ancestral home after the Battle of Okinawa.
“Once the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza is completed and generating income for the HUOA, it will help alleviate the annual strain to fund all of its current programs,” explained Shimabukuro. “The funds will also go a long way to covering the maintenance costs for the Hawaii Okinawa Center that is now 28 years old,” said Shimabukuro.
Thus far, more than 1,100 Hawai‘i donors have contributed $1.9 million to the project, including gifts from members in all 50 HUOA member-clubs. Of the 1,100 donors, 86 in Hawai‘i have made pledges of more than $10,000 to be paid in increments over the next five years, Shimabukuro said.
Gwen Fujie, who volunteers with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Legacy Center, Sons & Daughters of the 442nd RCT, Nisei Veterans Legacy and the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, is among the 86. She said she donated to the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza to honor her immigrant grandparents, who worked as pig farmers in Kalihi, and her late mother. This is “a legacy for those who came before us,” said Fujie, who has visited Okinawa six times, most recently three years ago. She said the trip “brought me closer to my ancestors.”
“We are truly unique to the world . . . I signed up because of the past and what they (ancestors) did for us. We are so fortunate.”
Organizers need to raise another $2 million in Hawai‘i to pay off construction and related costs. They hope donors in Okinawa and other out-of-state supporters will add another $500,000 to the sum.
According to Shimabukuro, donors will be recognized in a video that will be played on a monitor located inside the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza.
He calls donating to the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza “an investment in the future of the HUOA.”
“The goal of the HOP project is to provide an annual income stream to support the HUOA and the many wonderful programs it puts on,” he said, listing programs like the annual high school student exchange with Okinawa students; cultural classes in sanshin, taiko, Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language) and ikebana (flower arrangement); the Children’s Cultural Day Camps; Okinawan music and dance performances; and community service projects — all projects that will benefit from the revenue stream provided by the HOP.
In 1989, the United Okinawa Association broke ground on the Hawaii Okinawa Center project on a 2.5-acre parcel in Waipi‘o Gentry. The building stands as a tribute to the Okinawan immigrants who left their homeland to build a new life in Hawaii.
Yamasato, 75, said he donated his architectural services when planning for the Hawaii Okinawa Center began in 1980. In 1988, when he was president of the United Okinawa Association (renamed Hawaii United Okinawa Association in 1995), Yamasato said he was part of a Hawai‘i delegation that visited Peru, Brazil and Argentina to inspect cultural centers the Okinawa Prefectural Government had helped to fund for Okinawan communities living there.
Prior to the opening of the Hawaii Okinawa Center, the UOA stored its artifacts and records in the homes of various members and held its cultural programs at Farrington High School, Yamasato added. The Nuuanu YMCA and the Okinawa Memorial Hall at Jikoen Hongwanji Temple also served as gathering places for Hawai‘i’s Uchinanchu.
The Hawaii Okinawa Center, which was completed in 1990, cost nearly $9 million to build — $7 million of which was raised in Hawai‘i and $2 million in Okinawa. The HOC, which was mortgage-free when it opened, was envisioned as a “home” for the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, its member-clubs and the Okinawan community.
“The long-term goal is to help promote, perpetuate and preserve the Okinawan culture in Hawai‘i,” said Mark Higa, 44, who was born in Okinawa, but moved to Hawai‘i when he was a year old.
One feature that ties the two buildings of the Hawaii Okinawa Center together — the Albert T. and Wallace T. Teruya Pavilion and the Yeiko and Kameko Higa Building — is the red barrel-clay aka-gawara roofing tiles on both buildings. It is an architectural feature unique to Okinawa — and unique to Hawai‘i.
“The Okinawan aka-gawara tile is well-suited for and appropriate for the Hawaii Okinawa Center’s use as a cultural center,” explained Mark Higa. “The kiln-fired tiles and the installation were completely paid for through generous donations and fundraising efforts in Okinawa.” Supporters in Okinawa even sent craftsmen to install the tiles on the rooftop of the two buildings.
However, due to the cost of the tiles and other reasons, a substitute material was used for the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza’s roof.
The Okinawa Prefectural Government provided 15 million yen ($142,000) to help pay for the HOP roof.
At the February topping off event, yonsei Lynn Miyahira Krupa referred to the African proverb that became the title of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 1996 bestseller, “It Takes a Village.”
“It takes a village to raise a child, and I am that child,” Miyahira Krupa said. “This center raised me, and I am very grateful.”
Miyahira Krupa said she was only 9 years old when the Hawaii Okinawa Center opened in 1990. Her late father, Wayne Miyahira, was HUOA president that year and presided over the opening ceremonies. She remembered wiping Waipi‘o’s red dirt from the chairs that had been set up for the opening ceremonies.
“I remember being here every Monday and Thursday night practicing taiko. This was our home.” In 1997, Miyahira Krupa participated in the HUOA’s student exchange program while a student at Castle High School.
In soliciting support for the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza, she reminded the audience of the financial challenges that nonprofit cultural and community centers like the HUOA face to keep their missions alive and their doors open.
Earlier this year, the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu filed for bankruptcy due to a contractual dispute with its caterer. A federal bankruptcy judge later allowed the center to sever its ties with the catering company. And in 2003, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i staved off the sale of its Mö‘ili‘ili facility with an 11th hour fundraising campaign to clear $9 million in debt and to negotiate a deal with the four banks that held its mortgage.
“We cannot take it for granted,” emphasized Miyahira Krupa. “We cannot let that happen — absolutely cannot let that happen here. It’s up to my generation.”
For more information about the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza, or to donate, call the HUOA at (808) 676-5400.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C. and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.