Okage Sama De: Appreciating Our Heritage

Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural
Center of Hawai‘i

Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus of library science at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. A conversation with Jane Komeiji, the subject of this month’s profile, is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/DownloadImageFile.ashx?objectId=302.

Jane Okamoto Komeiji is associated with two distinctly separate and significant achievements that share the same phrases in their title, Okage Sama De (I am what I am because of you). In 1985, she and Dorothy Ochiai Hazama, now a professor emerita of education at the University of Hawai‘i, jointly authored a book titled “Okage Sama De: The Japanese in Hawai’i, 1885-1985” (which became “The Japanese in Hawai’i: Okage Sama De” in the book’s 2008 revised edition). In 1995, Komeiji also chaired a committee that created the gallery exhibit with a similar name at the Japanese

Cultural Center of Hawai’i (Okage Sama De: I am what I am because of you).

Honoring Our Legacy = Jane and Dorothy
From left: Jane Komeiji and Dorothy Hazama. (Photo from “Okage Sama De: The Japanese in Hawai’i 1885-1985”)

Just one of these accomplishments would have been impressive but Komeiji in her typical self-deprecating style said, “I have just been a lucky person. Opportunities came at the right time, not because I was so good. Things just fell into place.” Interviewing Komeiji tells a different story. There is incredible spunk, passion and persistence in her life’s journey.

Growing Up in the A‘ala Rengo

Komeiji’s family background was different from many other Nisei of her generation. She acknowledged, “My family lived and worked in town so I didn’t have the plantation experience.” Her father, Kojiro Okamoto, was a lumber merchant who brought timber from the Pacific Northwest to Hawai‘i. He produced the first commercial fertilizer in the Pacific Northwest from fish heads.

Her mother, Kame Kono Okamoto, was her father’s second wife. She managed the family dry-goods store, Hawai‘i Importing Company (Hawai‘i Yunyugaisha), in the A‘ala area of Honolulu. The store sold everything from lanterns during the obon season to kimono for traditional weddings.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the A‘ala Rengo was the center of the Japanese retail community. She recalled the mom-and-pop stores, fish markets, pharmacies and hotels. As a child, this was her playground. She lovingly recounted “running in and out, getting in the way of the workers and customers but they all watched out for us kids.”

Honoring Our Legacy = Jane Komeiji
Jane Okamoto Komeiji. (Photo by Karleen Chinen)

Komeiji’s biggest inspiration was her mother, who died at the age of 96. Although her father passed away when she was 4 years old, her mother continued to manage the store while raising four young children. According to Komeiji, “She was a remarkable business leader. She competed with the ‘big boys’ in business. Liberty House (now Macy’s) sent their people to check on what she was ordering or selling. She led the pack.”

Getting a College Degree

Komeiji laughingly refers to herself as a rebel, who decided to go to college when other girls were settling for business school and jobs as secretaries. She admitted being a “lousy typist” and shared an amusing anecdote that reflected her defiant spirit. In middle school, she told her typing teacher, “Why do I have to repeat J J J K K K? I know where J is. I know where K is. I don’t like repetition.” When the teacher responded with “That’s how we learn to type,” she quit the class.

She had her mother’s blessing to pursue a college degree and she wound up majoring in psychology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. After a brief interlude as a student-activities counselor on campus, she married Toshio Komeiji, son of the Asahi Furniture family. For a time, she was a stay-at-home mom raising young children. Growing restless, she returned to the UH to complete a master’s degree in education. This led to a fulfilling career as an elementary-school teacher at Hickam and Ma‘ema‘e Elementary Schools.

Okage Sama De” the Book

Komeiji and Hazama’s idea of writing a book on the Japanese experience in Hawai‘i was motivated by the Hawai‘i Department of Education’s decision to develop a curriculum that covered not just the history and culture of ancient Hawai‘i but the achievements of the different immigrant populations that were part of the state’s history. What had been a fourth-grade topic of study now required a text that high-school students might use. Dorothy Hazama had been producing booklet-type publications on Hawaiian history for elementary grades, but she now needed someone who could help with a text for an older audience on the Japanese American experience.

Komeiji recalled Hazama saying to her, “You have so much knowledge [about the Japanese in Hawai‘i], you have to put it down.” At first, she was reluctant but Hazama was persistent. Hazama said, “If I work with you, would you do it?” Finally, Komeiji relented: “Okay, you get the pictures and I’ll do the narrative.” They began writing in 1977 and it took them eight years to complete the book because both were raising young families, caring for elderly parents and working full time (Hazama was also pursuing her doctorate). They worked as a team in critiquing and revising their work and launched the book in 1985 to coincide with the Kanyaku Imin [contract-worker immigrants] Centennial celebrating 100 years of Japanese life in Hawai‘i.

Honoring Our Legacy = Okage Sama De Jacket
“Okage Sama De: The Japanese in Hawai’i
1885-1985” (Bess Press, 1985)

Commitment to the Youth of Hawai‘i

A major reason why these two teachers undertook this project was their commitment to the youth of Hawai‘i and their desire to have them understand and care about their heritage. As

Komeiji pointed out, “Our children asked a lot of questions about why the Issei allowed the wartime searches without resistance and why their grandparents couldn’t vote until just recently.” She continued, “They didn’t know about the passage of the Walter McCarren Act in 1952 that enabled the Issei to finally become naturalized citizens. They didn’t know of the difficulties that the Nisei in the Democratic Party faced in campaigning on the plantation grounds. They didn’t know about the courage and perseverance of our predecessors and peers who had brought us to this point where young people now had a great number of options available to them.”

Bringing History Alive

The book, published by Bess Press, was organized beginning with the Gannenmono, who were the pioneer plantation workers, and chronicled the life of leaders in the evolving Japanese community during and beyond the war years.  The authors searched through printed sources but it was the interviews with first- and second-generation Japanese that created a compelling narrative. One of Komeiji’s personal favorites was an interview with Mrs. Osame Manago whose family operated the Manago Hotel in Kona. Mrs. Manago described having hookworms and her fears about not making it through inspection to enter the islands. Another anecdote was about Dan Aoki, one of the leaders of the 1954 Democratic party revolution, and the dangers he and other leaders faced in conducting secret union meetings on plantation grounds in the 1920s and 1930s. These snapshots brought history alive, capturing the strong family ties and the resilience of Japanese in Hawai‘i. Ultimately, the book was embraced by the general public and college classes as well as high schools. A second edition was published by Bess Press in 2008.

Okage Sama De – The Exhibit

Komeiji was retired from both the DOE and the UH by 1988 and wasn’t looking for another major project to work on when Hideto Kono, one of the leaders at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, asked her to volunteer at the JCCH. Before she knew it, he had also convinced her to chair the JCCH gallery committee. She credited Tom Klobe, who was heading the UH Art Department, and Momi Cazimero, an accomplished graphic artist, as the designers with the artistic vision. She also had a working committee of community leaders to help with the content of the exhibit. They conducted extensive research and held many discussions on the focus and organization of the exhibit which opened in 1995.

Komeiji said, “We wanted the exhibit to tell a cultural story that revealed the legacies and values passed on from generation to generation starting with the first wave of Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i in 1868.” The critical values (kachikan) embraced by the Japanese family were inscribed into pillars at the entrance of the gallery. “We started with over 50 values and culled them to the 13 that you see.” These values included shikata ga nai (acceptance with resignation), gaman (quiet endurance), kansha (gratitude), and giri (sense of duty). Importantly, the committee wanted visitors to be more engaged as they walked through the gallery. To achieve this, the following types of questions were posted alongside displays: Would you have stayed here? Would you have gone to a foreign country? What would you have done?

The current exhibit as renovated in 2012 features artifacts, wall murals and displays, as well as a video capturing oral testimonies about various topics about the AJA experience in Hawai‘i.

Looking back on her achievements, Komeiji credited her mother’s guiding hand in working successfully with people. “She was my best friend and mentor. She always looked for the good in people. She would say, ‘Dig, if it’s not there, dig a little bit more. Then, capitalize on that strength, and work with that person from there on.’” Komeiji remembered telling her mother, “I’ll try to be as great a lady as you are.” It’s clear that she has lived up to that promise.

To buy the 2008 edition of the Komeiji/Hazama book, see besspress.com/all-other-products/the-japanese-in-hawaii-okage-sama-de.


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