Byrnes Yamashita
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald  

Building Bridges with Japan

Hawai‘i is a popular travel destination for the Japanese who hopefully soon will be back to enjoy the Hawaiian islands. But once they get past the beaches and the shopping malls, how interested are they in terms of our Japanese American history and culture?

A lot, actually.

In 2017 and 2018, the Nisei Veterans Legacy took a Hawai‘i Japanese American history exhibition to Japan – the “Hawai‘i Nikkei Legacy Exhibit” or “Hawaii Nikkei no Ayumi” in Japanese.

I learned then that not only do most Japanese nationals have a fascination with Hawai‘i and our culture, but they are deeply curious about the Hawai’i-Nikkei experience.

Starting the Project

In 2014 and 2015, I took the “Go For Broke” exhibit — featuring the Nisei veterans of World War II — around the State of Hawai‘i. Previous versions had traveled around the U.S. continent in the early ‘80s to cities with significant Japanese American communities. Retired Army historian Eric Saul produced and updated the exhibit; after showing it at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, he donated this exhibit to the NVL.

In 2016, we received a request from the Japanese Consulate of Honolulu to meet with then-Consul General Toyoei Shigeeda and his wife Michiko. They had seen our exhibit at Honolulu Hale and were impressed with the Nisei Soldier story. They asked us to share it with the people of Japan, but they had an important suggestion.

Since military issues in Japan are quite politically sensitive, they suggested that we focus the exhibition around Hawai‘i Nikkei history and culture. The Shigeedas felt that many people would go to an exhibit to learn about Hawai‘i and would, as part of that experience, come to enjoy the Nisei Soldier story. They also expressed amazement at how Hawai‘i Nikkei maintain key elements of the culture such as bon dance and asked us to include a section on how Japanese culture is practiced and perpetuated in the islands.

Finding Our Senpai Mentor

Bishop Ara (photo courtesy of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii)

Near the end of their assignment in Hawai‘i, the Shigeedas suggested we seek advice and counsel from Bishop Ryokan Ara of the Tendai Mission in Nu‘uanu. Under Bishop Ara’s leadership, the Tendai Educational Foundation had earlier published the well-received book series, “Japanese Eyes, American Heart.” Ara-Sensei was even named a “Living Treasure of Hawai‘i” by the Honpa Honwanji Mission of Hawaii for his community contributions. The Shigeedas arranged for us to meet with him, and the bishop quickly agreed to help us arrange an exhibit tour.

Bishop Ara, who had worked for over 40 years to improve the relationship between Hawai‘i and Japan, was particularly supportive of the Nisei Soldier story. Before our meeting, I had never crossed paths with the bishop, though I had heard of him since The Hawai‘i Herald features his paintings and words of wisdom in each issue. Although he was small in stature, his carriage presented great strength and resolve.

He proved to be an excellent advisor and mentor to me and my partner, Ryoji Koike, who had lived in Hawai‘i for over 25 years and who also was a bridge builder between Hawai‘i and Japan. Bishop Ara used his contacts and personal reputation to get the exhibit into several venues in Japan and personally attended several opening ceremonies.

We completed our tour of Japan with our exhibition in Naha, Okinawa, in October 2018, which Bishop Ara attended before passing away shortly afterward on Jan. 19, 2019. He lived to see us complete our mission.

The irony is not lost on me that this exhibit about the Hawai‘i Nikkei story would not have happened without the support and urging of several Japanese: the Shigeedas, Bishop Ara and Ryoji Koike, to name just a few.

Bishop Ara offering prayers at the Hiroshima Cenotaph before the exhibit opening (photos courtesy of Byrnes Yamashita)

The Exhibit Tour

When planning the Japan tour, we focused on prefectures that sent the greatest numbers of kanyaku imin (contract-worker immigrants) to Hawai‘i. We predicted that Japanese in these regions would have the strongest interest in the Hawai‘i Nikkei. While that assumption would prove to be generally accurate, we also found that there is a nationwide fascination with Hawai‘i. One example of this is that there are over 1.5 million hula dancers in Japan, more than the entire population of Hawai‘i.

A high percentage of Issei who emigrated to Hawai‘i were from the following prefectures: Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Okinawa, Niigata and Fukushima. We were able to take the exhibit to all of these locations except for the Yamaguchi Prefecture. In addition, the exhibit toured Yokohama, Tökyö, Ösaka, Nagoya, Miyagi, Oita and Sapporo.

Most of these venues were made possible through the sponsorship of Hawai‘i Tourism Japan which is the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority’s marketing arm for the Japanese tourist market. Their “Aloha Program” teaches Hawaiian history, culture and environment to Japanese to promote educational tourism. Our exhibit was shown in conjunction with several promotional events for Hawai‘i that HTJ sponsored.

In 2016, Ryoji Koike and I made a few trips to Japan to visit several potential venues and meet with the staff of potential host institutions to determine the feasibility of taking our exhibit there. We were looking for organizations with easy access that were willing to host an exhibit of this nature.

In May 2017, the exhibit made its debut in Japan at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama. The museum, operated by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency or JICA, is located in the Minato Mirai district of Yokohama. I highly recommend visiting this museum and Minato Mirai, if you are in the Kantō area (for the museum’s site in Nihongo, see The permanent exhibit of the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum explains the Japanese emigration across the world including Hawai‘i, the U.S. mainland, Canada and South America.

There were some challenging logistics due to scheduling issues, including when we completed a three-day exhibition in Shibuya, Tökyö, for an HTJ-sponsored Hawai‘i Expo. After that busy exhibit, we had to pack up the displays and drive them to Fukushima for an opening two days later. Normal delivery services required a minimum of two days, so we rented a van, loaded it up and left Tökyö around 7 p.m. Ryoji had to drive north to Fukushima where we arrived after midnight. We set up the exhibit the next morning at the Minpo Newspaper Building and opened the following day. Whew!

Perhaps the most unique exhibition site was in Hiroshima where we had obtained permission to show the exhibit at the historic former Bank of Japan building. The bank is only about half a mile from Ground Zero of the atomic bomb blast site, but its building withstood the event intact. However, the glass skylights in the ceiling were blown out.

The information pamphlet about the building said that there were about a dozen or so banks in Hiroshima that had their buildings destroyed by the bomb blast. The bank leaders got together and re-opened in the former Bank of Japan Building two days after the blast, since they felt the people would need access to their funds. The teller areas were divided up to service the customers of the various banks; it is said that the tellers had to use umbrellas when it rained until the skylights could be replaced.

The Japanese Share Their Stories

The exhibit drew great interest amongst the Japanese people. Many of the venues were promotional events for Hawai‘i tourism, with the exhibit featured as an educational or cultural component. At each venue, we tried to have Japanese-speaking people serve as greeters to welcome the visitors and explain how to view it. In some cases, we also offered guided tours by knowledgeable docents.

Hiroshima Opening Ceremony Team at the former Bank of Japan Building.

The Hawai‘i Festival in Nagoya drew an estimated 300,000 people over a three-day weekend. It was an amazing example of the Japanese love for Hawai‘i, whether it be for the music, hula, vintage aloha shirts, holiday tours or culture and history.

Some people traveled up to two hours by train to see the exhibit. A family traveled from nearby Miyagi Prefecture to Fukushima City and stayed overnight in a hotel to visit the exhibit the next morning. Many had relatives who had emigrated to Hawai‘i and wanted to learn about their experience.

We heard many stories from Japanese attendees about how their relatives in Hawai‘i had helped them after the war. People talked about receiving packages of food, clothing and medicine that were valuable commodities during the postwar period when Japan was struggling to recover from the devastation of the war.

One gentleman mentioned that his family received coffee and white sugar which were scarce when he was a little boy. Neighbors would sometimes stop by and ask to borrow some when they were entertaining guests. His family gladly shared their supplies with their neighbors, and this helped them gain much status in the community.

At each location we gave exhibit tours in English and Japanese. For several venues, we also made special presentations on the Nisei Soldier story. In Nagaoka, Ryoji and I presented at their Aloha Festival in the Aore Municipal Building which is a combination of the city’s administrative offices and its convention center. Nagaoka, one of the four sister cities of Honolulu in Japan, had regularly sent a delegation to the Honolulu Festival back in non-COVID times.

The people of Nagaoka were very knowledgeable about Honolulu and Hawai‘i. They asked me to speak about how Sen. Daniel K. Inouye had helped to cut through some bureaucratic red tape to allow their fireworks to be sent and used in the Honolulu Festival. They were also aware of the Honolulu airport being renamed after him. In Hiroshima, I made presentations to three different groups of university students.

Many people in both Japan and Hawai‘i stepped up to help to make the exhibit tour a success. Volunteers like Momoko Maniscalco (who teaches music in Honolulu) came to Hiroshima and Nagaoka to serve as a greeter at her own expense. T. Raymond “Ray” Sekiya also paid his way to serve as a greeter and tour guide at the Fukuoka City exhibition. Ray is a former President of the Fukuoka Kenjinkai and has been a bridge builder between Fukuoka and Hawai‘i for many years.

He told the rapt audiences about his experience as a young boy on Dec. 7, 1941, as the attack on Pearl Harbor ensued. The news spread quickly and a newspaper reporter rushed over to interview him. The next day she called him a “walking dictionary of World War II” in her article. Isami Yoshihara of Honolulu paid his way to Nagaoka to give tours in Japanese and share his vast knowledge of the Nisei Soldiers.

We learned that most Japanese were not aware of what happened to the American Nikkei community during the war, but they became thirsty to learn more about the internment and how the young Nisei men volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army to prove their loyalty when it was questioned after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Several Japanese expressed a sense of pride in the battlefield exploits and sacrifices of the Nisei soldiers. These exhibit attendees felt that the Japanese cultural values or kachikan instilled by the soldiers’ Issei parents helped them to serve bravely in battle. The exhibit included a famous picture of members of the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy in which my father, Victor Isao Yamashita, appeared. I was asked many times to take photos with them and the picture of my father.

Many visitors asked to take photos of Byrnes Yamashita
posing with his father’s photo.

As the exhibit curator and coordinator, I found it a life-changing experience: through the tour, I met numerous people across Japan whom I now consider friends. This includes all the people that helped make the national exhibition a reality and the many people of Japan who came to the exhibit to learn about our story. Giving me such rich memories, these exhibit tours in Japan and Hawai‘i are easily the crowning achievement and contribution of my life.

Editor’s note: In an upcoming issue, Byrnes will describe and reflect upon a similar exhibit tour of Hawai‘i as part of the Gannenmono commemoration in 2018.

The mission of the Nisei Veterans Legacy is to preserve, perpetuate and share the legacy of AJA who served in the U.S. armed forces in World War II: the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service and 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. To learn more about NVL, visit the website

Byrnes Yamashita is a retired engineer and volunteers with the Nisei Veterans Legacy, a non-profit organization that preserves and promulgates the contributions of the Nisei soldiers of World War II.


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