Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii’s 2020 Living Treasures of Hawai‘i honorees (from left): Robert Cazimero, Sachie Saigusa, Larry Kimura and Carolee Nishi. (Photo by Alan Kubota/Lenscapes)
Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii’s 2020 Living Treasures of Hawai‘i honorees (from left): Robert Cazimero, Sachie Saigusa, Larry Kimura and Carolee Nishi. (Photo by Alan Kubota/Lenscapes)

Karleen C. Chinen

The Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii inducted its 45th “class” of “Living Treasures of Hawai‘i” on Feb. 8 at a sold-out luncheon banquet in the Coral Ballroom of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The induction of the four — singer/composer/musician and kumu hula (hula teacher) Robert Cazimero, Hawaiian language pioneer Dr. Larry Kimura, Hawaiian culture teacher and kumu hula Carolee Nishi and sumie brush painting teacher Sachie Saigusa — brings the total number of Hongwanji “Living Treasures” to 231.

The Living Treasures Program was established in 1976 by the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani, then-bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, at the suggestion of insurance executive Paul Yamanaka. The award was aimed at recognizing Hawai‘i residents for their sustained contributions to enriching the community and was patterned after Japan’s Living National Treasure program. The first Living Treasures of Hawai‘i award was presented to Hawaiian scholar, historian and cultural practitioner Charles Kenn in a simple ceremony in 1976.

This year’s honorees bring a wealth of sustained contributions to the program.

Robert Cazimero’s mark on Hawaiian music and dance has spanned more than four decades, from his early days with the musical group, the Sunday Manoa, to recordings with his late brother, Roland, as the Brothers Cazimero. He has received 25 Nä Hökü Hanohano awards and was nominated for a Grammy in 2005 for Best Hawaiian Music Album. In 2008, the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Artists presented the Brothers Cazimero a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Cazimero’s passion for hula began when he was a student at the Kamehameha Schools, learning hula from kumu hula Maiki Aiu Lake. He became a kumu hula in 1973 and worked to bring Auntie Maiki’s vision of an all-male hälau (hula school) to fruition with the formation of Hälau Nä Kamalei o Lïlïlehua, which is today the world’s only all-male hula hälau. “I want them to be proud of who they are and where they came from,” he said of his hälau.

To date, Cazimero has graduated three classes of kumu hula, advanced hula dancers and created the nonprofit Wähea Foundation to ensure the continuation of Hawaiian teachings and traditions, particularly male hula, for generations to come.

Cazimero also shared a story that most in the audience did not know. He said he attended Hongwanji Mission School, which was near his home, from the first until the third grade. As a child, he struggled with a lisp, but said he will always be grateful to the teacher who kept him after school and helped him learn to speak without the lisp.

Dr. Larry Kimura, Ph.D., has been a champion for the preservation and everyday use of Hawaiian language. Kimura is known worldwide for his contributions to the revitalization of Hawai‘i’s only indigenous language. He taught Hawaiian language for nearly 50 years at the University of Hawai‘i’s Mänoa and Hilo campuses. He also led the effort to develop curriculum for Hawaiian language immersion schools. “Language is the main stream that holds everything together,” he reminded the audience.

A sansei, Kimura grew up in Waimea on Hawai‘i Island, the son of a Nisei father and a Hawaiian mother and their parents. He said he heard both sets of grandparents speak their native languages daily.

Kimura has influenced generations of Hawaiian language speakers, from keiki to kupuna. He continues to contribute to the revitalization of Hawaiian language through curriculum development and the Punana Leo Hawaiian language immersion preschools, which he co-founded. He reminded the audience, however, that although Hawaiian language is undergoing a revitalization, it is still an “endangered language.”

Kimura is a co-principal investigator for a National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities grant to digitize and archive the speech of native Hawaiians. In the 1970s, he recorded 525 hours of native Hawaiian language speakers during his Ka Leo Hawai‘i radio program. It is the largest collection of spoken native Hawaiian. Kimura is currently developing a digital repository to make the recordings accessible to future generations.

Larry Kimura has also composed songs and chants. His love and passion for Hawaiian language helps keep alive the history, beauty and essence of Hawai‘i.

Carolee Nishi’s 51 years as a YMCA volunteer has inspired generations of students to practice and live the spirit of aloha. She previously taught language, songs and instruments as a Department of Education Hawaiian Studies teacher.

In 1969, Nishi began teaching Hawaiian Studies as a volunteer at the Nuuanu YMCA. What began as a free transition program for Micronesian immigrants and latchkey children blossomed into her hula hälau, Hula Hui O Kapunahala, whose students have gone on to become successful Hawaiian entertainers and educators. Nishi said it is important to teach children respect for others from a young age so that they grow up always respecting others.

Nishi, who is of Chinese descent, is passionate about preserving Hawaiian culture, which is evident as her students perpetuate the values of aloha. “Aloha is everything, but gratitude is everything else,” she concluded.

Sachie Saigusa perpetuates Japanese culture in Hawai‘i through sumie painting. Saigusa-Sensei studied the art of brush painting under master artist Juho Motomura. Before retiring in 1980, he designated her to succeed him as teacher. Today, Saigusa-Sensei is the Hawai‘i DOE’s only adult education sumie teacher.

In 2001, she established the nonprofit Sumie Society of Hawaii, teaching sumie brush painting. To date, she has certified about 30 students as instructors. At age 92, she still teaches at several locations. Her students’ works are exhibited annually at Honolulu Hale. She said sumie is an art you can practice until the very end of your life.

A Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor and seven-time cancer survivor, Saigusa arrived in Hawai‘i in 1956 as the wife of a Buddhist minister. Although unable to speak English, she assisted him with many projects, teaching Japanese language, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, cooking, music, dance, Japanese calligraphy and naginata. Over the years, she learned that she could still communicate with her students through sumie, even if they didn’t all speak the same language.

Saigusa-Sensei has lived her life as a cultural bridge between Japan and Hawai‘i while also enriching the lives of others with her humility, grace and talent.

In his closing remarks, outgoing Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii president Pieper Toyama thanked the audience for attending the event, the Living Treasures Committee, the Hongwanji staff and the participants in the Hongwanji’s Giseikai (legislative assembly).

Finally, he thanked the honorees for “the treasure that is their very life.”

“The creativity and special genius of these living treasures we celebrate today have made our lives what it is and our eyes, our ears, our hands, and our hearts have made their lives what it is. This is the truth of the interdependence of all things,” he said.

“When we hear that gentle and soaring voice singing the music of Hawai‘i . . . when we hear little children speaking Hawaiian language . . . when we enjoy the enthusiasm of young people dancing hula . . . and when we see beauty in a simple stroke of a brush, we are embraced by the threads of these four Living Treasures,” Toyama said. “It is now for us to continue weaving these threads of beauty and strength, infused with the spirit of aloha, into the fabric of generations to come.”


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