Visit to Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i Gallery Prompts Soul-Searching by Herald Intern
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
While I was growing up in Honolulu, lessons about the lives of the early immigrant plantation laborers were integrated into the curricula of all of my history classes. I remember taking field trips to Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu in elementary school and doing a cultural project on various immigrant groups in high school. With classmates of various descents, I was taught the significance of the pioneers who settled in Hawai‘i as laborers and about the prospect for a “better” life that they provided for young people like me. I was taught to appreciate them for all they had done for my generation and those beyond. And yet, I was never challenged to connect my own life with the lives of those who came before me. Their lives seemed so distant, so far away.
It was not until I stood at the entrance to the “Okage Sama De” exhibit at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i that I began to realize how little I knew about my own heritage. The first display that visitors see in the exhibit are the values, or kachikan, that guided the lives of the early immigrants, ranging from gambari, perseverance, to meiyo, or honor. I was immediately struck by the sacrifices that those who came before me had made for future generations, for people like me, as depicted by the metaphorical rules by which they lived.
I was impressed even more by the wealth of information that awaited me as I made my way through the displays, all of which were designed to immerse visitors in the lives of the Japanese in Hawai‘i. The lifelike representations of the hardships of plantation life broke my heart — from the lyrics in the holehole bushi, or folk songs, describing the hellish life on the plantations, to the lack of childcare, which resulted in high infant mortality rates. But my heart swelled with pride as I saw how the generations before me overcame these major challenges and created opportunities for future generations.
I immediately forged a new personal connection when I heard the story of Fred Kinzaburo Makino, who founded the Hawaii Hochi, the Japanese-language sister-publication of The Hawai‘i Herald. The Hochi had played a major role in advocating for Hawai‘i’s Japanese community. Makino fought for higher wages for workers in the 1909 plantation strike, ethical reporting in his founding of the Hawaii Hochi, and justice and equal rights in his involvement with the Myles Fukunaga case in 1928. His refusal to submit to the discriminatory views of the higher authorities eventually resulted in many opportunities becoming available for Americans of Japanese ancestry in Hawai‘i. It is thanks to Fred Kinzaburo Makino that I was able to explore my passion for journalism as a summer intern with the Herald. Furthermore, his story helped me realize that the links between my life and the lives of those a century before me are even stronger than I previously thought.
My visit to the JCCH made me suddenly curious about my ties to my own ancestors. Most of the Ja-panese immigrants who settled in Hawai‘i came from the southwestern prefectures of Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto and Okinawa, all of which had strong farming traditions. I learned from my grandparents that my own great-great-grandparents had emigrated from Hiroshima and Nagasaki prefectures and that they had worked on the sugar plantations. And yet, because of the large gap in time between my Issei ancestors, my Sansei grandparents and myself, there is a huge disconnect between our respective lives.
My grandparents grew up during World War II, a period that seems like eons ago from my own life, but one that still holds relevance, as I learned when I asked my grandmother about her life.
“I didn’t go to Sunday School because my mom didn’t go to work that day,” my paternal grandmother Doreen Yamamoto recalled about the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing. “I never stayed home, but because my mom was never home, I wanted to see her,” she said. “I was outside playing marbles and I saw these planes going over where we lived, and I was thinking, ‘What is that?’
“After, I went to my school with my grandmother. There was a tofu-ya (tofu shop) on the way and I think the man working there lost his leg. At my school, I saw the chair I usually sat in: It was all splattered with dried-up blood from the boy who sat there that day instead of me.”
I learned that after the Pearl Harbor bombing, my grandmother’s Issei grandfather was interned in a camp somewhere in California. It was through these stories, just learned, that I realized how interconnected my life is with those of my ancestors and the history of the Japanese in Hawai‘i.
However, it was my grandmother’s involvement in hula that truly demonstrates how living in Hawai‘i influenced her life. She started dancing hula when she was 7 years old and performed informally at parties before appearing in the 1954 Japanese film, “Hawaii Chindochu.” After the movie was released, she traveled and lived in Japan for a year to dance hula, eventually performing at the Nippon Theater, known as Nichigeki.
“People in Japan used to think of hula as kind of vulgar, not as something beautiful. The movie staff took me back to Japan to show everyone that,” she said.
My grandmother’s ties to Hawaiian culture through hula and her ancestral roots in Japan reflect her hybrid culture. While living in Hawai‘i, she was still able to keep in touch with her ancestral roots in Japan.
Now, as a gosei — a fifth-generation American of Japanese ancestry — I ask myself how I fit into the Japanese landscape in Hawai‘i. My experiences growing up here were vastly different from those of my grandparents and their parents and grandparents. I don’t know many Japanese traditions, nor am I fluent in Japanese language. Sometimes I feel as though I’m a watered-down version of a Japanese person, as my ethnicity has never been a major factor in defining my identity.
My current landscape has more to do with national discrimination. And yet, the demographics of the U.S. mainland, where I am currently attending college, differ strikingly from those of Hawai‘i. I grew up in a place where a plate lunch comes with food from all over the world; where everyone goes to Bon Dances, and where my father still refers to our shiny new refrigerator as an “icebox” — an influence resulting from the mixing of cultures on the plantations long ago. All of these cultural factors were instrumental in molding me into the person I am today, and because of it, I will work to share my cultural roots in Japan and Hawai‘i with others for the rest of my life.
Bridging the cultural and racial gaps that divide our country and the rest of the world is possible. I can only hope to change the lives of others by sharing my culture and embracing their culture. The circumstances of my life may be different than those of my grandparents and my plantation ancestors, but it is thanks to them that I am able to face these challenges.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities that I share with each generation. My ancestors passed on their interpretations of the kachikan to me, and I will share those values with the next generation. I also learned, however, that the kachikan can be, in the words of JCCH docent Les Goto, “double-edged swords” when taken to either extreme. So, utilizing the kachikan as a guide to find an optimal level of serenity is what I will strive to do. This challenge will differ from time to time and from person to person. Above all, though, I hope to respond to challenges in my life as my ancestors did — with strength, honor and harmony.
After leaving the Japanese Cultural Center, I paused to reflect on the experiences of those who came before me. I remember what I thought was one of the most important kachikan painted on the wall: sekinin . . . “responsibility.” I learned that this type of responsibility is different from the normal use of the word. Sekinin reflects my duty to bring honor to my people. As I move forward with my life, I know that I must remember that my actions reflect not only on myself, but also on my family and those like me. I know now that I have many more people who I cannot let down.
It was humbling to learn about those who came before me. As I begin to navigate the unknown terrain of my future, it is with comfort that I can look to the experiences of those who did it before me. Itsumademo kansha shiteimasu . . . I am forever grateful.