Why Family Reunions Matter
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
When I meet people from Wahiawä for the first time, they usually ask me whether I’m related to so-and-so Nakasone. My answer is usually yes, because virtually all of the Nakasones in Wahiawä are related. Believe me, there’s a lot of us! Longtime Wahiawä residents know at least one Nakasone, if not more.
On July 6, our Nakasone ‘ohana gathered in Wahiawä, of course, for our 35th — and final — Nakasone Family Reunion and Golf Classic. After 35 years, there were mixed emotions. But it was time to bring it to a close.
The fact that it was the final reunion might have attracted the especially large group. A total of 132 family members came from around O‘ahu, the neighbor islands and across the continental United States to see each other and spend time together as one big family.
Issei Roots in Hawai‘i
My paternal grandparents, Jiro and Kamei Nakasone — the grandparents I grew up calling “Jian” and “Baban,” respectively — came to Hawai‘i in 1919 and eventually settled in Wahiawä by way of sugar plantations on Kaua‘i and in Wai‘anae and ‘Aiea on O‘ahu. Baban’s older sister, Ushii Nakasone and her husband, Matsukichi, as well my grandfather Jiro’s first cousin, Yeiso Nakasone, and his wife, Tsuruko, all followed a similar route to Wahiawä. These three Nakasone families — Jiro and Kamei, Matsukichi and Ushii, and Yeiso and Tsuruko — are the founding families of the Wahiawä Nakasone clan. They planted the roots of our Nakasone yaaninju, our Uchinanchu family, in Hawai‘i and America.
It’s a tangled web, but this is how we are related by blood. (Get out your pen and paper so you can map this out. Haha!) My grandfather Jiro and Yeiso were first cousins: Their fathers, Bunchu and Yeison, were brothers. Yeison was the first Nakasone relative to immigrate to Hawai‘i. Again, my grandmother Kamei and Ushii were sisters — they were also Yeison’s cousins. All three of these Wahiawä Nakasone families hailed from Aza Yogi, a village in the area known today as Okinawa City.
Settling in Wahiawä provided the three families with a support system in times of need, and there definitely were times when support was needed. Wahiawä also provided them with job opportunities with the pineapple plantations and civilian jobs at nearby Schofield Barracks.
Nearly all of the Issei’s Nisei sons served in the U.S. military; the Nisei daughters married men who served our country, as well. Although some made careers of the military and traveled and raised families abroad, most of them returned to Wahiawä.
When the Sansei came of age, we were already a big family in a small town. There was a period when it seemed like there was at least one Nakasone cousin graduating from Leilehua High School every year. My two brothers and I were part of that string of graduations. In 1974, seven Sansei cousins graduated from Leilehua — and three cousins living elsewhere graduated that year, as well.
The three generations of the three Nakasone families got together regularly. “Although we were a big family, we felt close,” Aunty Sueno (daughter of Jiro and Kamei) often said.
Then came the 1980s and a major cultural shift. American workers started logging the longest hours of any developed country other than Japan and South Korea. The hours got even longer when we started to take work home. Family time fell victim to this shift, and this was even before we became glued to our Smartphones. This cultural shift did not escape the Wahiawä Nakasones.
“Keep the Family Together”
It was wise Uncle Jimmy Iha, who was married to Aunty Marian (daughter of Matsukichi and Ushii), who suggested to cousin Jeffery (grandson of Yeiso and Tsuruko) that the Sansei organize a family reunion. Uncle Jimmy, who passed in 2011, understood the “cultural shift” that was threatening to unravel our always-tight family bonds. He said we needed to keep the family together.
Uncle Jimmy was always a leader. He retired from Leilehua High School as principal after a long career as a teacher and administrator. He had also served in the Hawai‘i Army National Guard and had retired from the U.S. Army Reserve as a colonel. He also served as president of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association in 2001. Uncle Jimmy always saw the big picture.
Heeding his advice, cousin Jeffery called some of the Sansei cousins together for a meeting. As a result of that meeting, we organized the first “Nakasone Family Reunion and Golf Classic” in 1985. It wasn’t like we were on any grand mission; we just enjoyed getting together with family and had lots of cousins to help carry the load. Through the planning, set-up, the reunion itself and the tearing down after the reunion, we Sansei cousins grew closer to each other.
The reunion started out as a potluck gathering at one of the family homes. The golf tournament was only for family members, too. But then the Nisei uncles started inviting their friends. The Sansei started to do the same, and the numbers began to grow. After 20 years, the Nakasone family reunion and golf tournament was attracting more people than one house could accommodate. The relationship between the Sansei cousins had grown even stronger. A core group of seven — I refer to us as the “7 Sansei” — took on the planning, preparation and execution every year.
In time, however, coordinating the potluck; setting up tents, tables and chairs; and tearing down after the reunion became more work than we wanted to spend time doing.
By 2005, the group had gotten so big that we decided to rent the Wahiawa Hongwanji Mission social hall. We also started to order the food from Wahiawä-area catering companies, except for the desserts, which we kept as potluck. We grew the golf tournament by including more friends and added a raffle to the reunion. With donations, we were able to cover all of the expenses and still have more than enough seed money for the next year’s reunion. With this growth, our family reunion had also evolved into somewhat of a “hometown” reunion for friends. Word of the reunion spread by word of mouth, and even more friends began attending.
Now that we had a financial model that could sustain itself, we started looking at our family reunion as a “grand mission” — an opportunity to honor our Issei ancestors and Nisei elders, and to inspire their Sansei and Yonsei descendants. Sharing our families’ stories and our cultural heritage were meaningful ways to fulfill that mission.
Stories That Bind Us
As I noted earlier, the idea for our family reunions began rather innocently. As the years passed, however, we all began to realize and appreciate the family ties that held us together.
So I was even more intrigued when I came across a story in The New York Times titled “The Stories That Bind Us” in the March 15, 2013, edition. It was about a study that Emory University psychologists Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush had done, exploring whether children whose families shared their history going back generations are influenced in a positive way.
They asked 48 children 20 simple questions — questions like: “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”
Drs. Duke and Fivush concluded that the more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their own lives and the greater their self-esteem. They were more resilient and tended to do better when faced with challenges than those who did not know their family’s story. Dr. Fivush described that self-confidence as a strong “intergenerational self” — knowing they are part of something bigger than themselves.
In 2004, for the 20th anniversary of the family reunion, three Nisei Nakasone aunties (all in-laws) — Norma (daughter-in-law of Jiro and Kamei), Reiko (daughter-in-law of Matsukichi and Ushii) and Betty (daughter-in-law of Yeiso and Tsuruko), with help from their families, researched the history of the three Issei families. They compiled the histories of the three families, detailing how we were all related, and shared it with family members at the reunion.
Those histories opened my eyes to the full extent of our Issei grandparents’ struggles and the sacrifice and fortitude it took for them to overcome all that adversity. It was an awakening. In their stories, I found my identity as a Nakasone.
My immediate family’s story includes a chapter from the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, which impacted my family and intersects with Matsukichi’s and Ushii’s family. It’s a sad, yet compelling story, which, for most of our lives, had remained a mystery . . . a missing chapter. I was fortunate to have solved that mystery and wrote about it in the April 5, 2019, edition of The Hawai‘i Herald, in a story titled, “Touched by War.” That story was shared with family members in the Islands and across the Mainland with the urging that they share it with their children.
My first cousins, John Toguchi and Alice Toguchi-Matsuo, and I, along with our Uncle Satoru and Aunty Sueno, presented that story this past June at the HUOA’s “Irei no Hi” Battle of Okinawa commemoration program at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. It was heartwarming to see that of the roughly 200 people in attendance, nearly 40 were our family members — Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei — who came to support us and to hear our family’s war story told from our personal perspectives.
Sharing Our Culture
The entertainment for our family reunions began with family talent shows. Our Nakasone ‘ohana has plenty of talent. In recent years, though, with finances sound, we were able to invite and give honorariums to Okinawan performing arts groups. It was another way for us to pay tribute to our Issei and Nisei and inspire our Yonsei and Gosei generations to get to know their culture. Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii, Hooge Ryu Hana Nuuzi no Kai Nakasone Dance Academy, Ryukyu Koten Afuso Ryu Ongaku Kenkyuu Choichi Kai Hawaii, Hawaii Okinawa Creative Arts and Chinagu Eisa Hawaii all performed at our family reunions, enabling us to connect with our cultural roots through the traditional performing arts.
The majority of our Yonsei cousins from the Mainland were seeing these performances for the first time. They don’t have the opportunities to see and enjoy our culture like we do in Hawai‘i. Uchinanchu families in Hawai‘i are fortunate to have so many groups keeping these traditions alive. We need to support these groups whenever we can.
As the evening came to an end, many family members said they were sad that this reunion would be our last. But we have natural leaders in our Yonsei generation, so we’re hopeful that there will be a reunion reboot in some form in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, the Nakasone family hasn’t seen the last of the “7 Sansei.”
After 35 years of holding reunions, we had accumulated a substantial amount of savings and wanted to pay it forward. We decided to make a $10,000 donation to the Hawaii United Okinawa Association on behalf of the Wahiawä Nakasone ‘ohana (past and present) and the friends who supported our golf tournaments and reunions over the years. We felt that perpetuating our Okinawan culture is the most meaningful way we could celebrate 35 years of Nakasone family reunions.
During the course of the reunion evening, I posed this question to several family members: “If the three founding Nakasone family members could see us now, how do you think they would they feel?”
Some people said they would be proud. Others said they’d be amazed at how big our family had grown to become. Aunty Taeko (daughter-in-law of Yeiso and Tsuruko) had a different response. “They would be surprised at how multicultural we are,” she said.
True. The Issei held on to their traditions from the old country by marrying only their fellow Uchinanchu — and usually from the same village. But those old-country traditions didn’t stand a chance of surviving after they immigrated to Hawai‘i, which has the largest mixed-race population in the country (nearly 25 percent as opposed to 7 percent in the rest of the U.S.).
I’ve heard comments from many of our friends who have attended our reunions over the years. “You have a great family,” they say. Or, “You don’t see family reunions like this anymore.” “We need to do this with our family.”
They weren’t just their words — I could see those sentiments in their faces and in the longing in their voices. It made me understand why they wanted to be a part of our reunions. The dissipation of family affects everyone. What they saw in our reunions was a family holding tight to each other. It’s deeper than mere nostalgia: With a close family, there is a sense of comfort that everything will be all right in our rapidly changing world. It’s the meaning of family unfolding in real life and in real time that is difficult to describe. It’s a feeling you get when you see a family living the values that keeps them close. All around us, we see it slipping away, so we want to hold on to that feeling. Our family reunions helped us to hold on and keep our family together, just as Uncle Jimmy Iha urged us to do 35 years ago.
Near the end of the evening, I found myself talking story with cousin Dickie Shimabukuro, the eldest Sansei in the Matsukichi and Ushii Nakasone family. In our 35 years of holding reunions, this was the first Dickie had attended, flying in from his home in Utah, where he has spent most of his adult life and where he raised his family. He said he could not miss this last reunion.
We had invited members of Ryukyu Koten Afuso Ryu Ongaku Kenkyuu Choichi Kai Hawaii back up to the stage for an encore performance. Dickie said hearing the Okinawan music — the sound of the sanshin and the taiko — made him teary-eyed as he remembered how, as children, we would watch our babans, sisters Ushii and Kamei, dance kachashi, the festive Okinawan freestyle dance, at the annual Wahiawä Okinawa Kyo Yu Kai shinnenkai (New Year’s party). I can still see my baban and Ushii baban dancing their hearts out with unbridled joy. It was as if they had been transported back in time to their old village in Aza Yogi and were dancing kachashi at a family gathering.
As I write this, tears fill my own eyes, for it is memories like these that gave those gatherings over 35 years greater purpose and make me so proud to be a Nakasone. Okagesama de . . .
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and served as a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.