Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i
Volunteers with Passion
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 at UH Manoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interviews with Jane Kurahara and Betsy Fujii Young, the subjects of this month’s profile, are available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. They can also be read online at soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/6558 (for Kurahara) and jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/6907 (for Young).
Typically retirement for most folks means traveling, starting new hobby projects or watching lots of K-dramas. But not for Betsy Fujii Young and Jane Kurahara who retired from the Hawai‘i DOE in the 1990s. For over two decades they have carved second careers by helping out at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, taking volunteerism to special heights. The range of their work included creating a resource center, rediscovering World War II internment sites, planning community events, preserving archival collections and developing curriculum for secondary schools relating to the AJA internment experience. Through it all, both emphasize that they are part of a larger talented team of dedicated JCCH volunteers. With humility, they downplay their leadership roles in these efforts.
Both Young and Kurahara started as elementary school teachers. While Young got her degree at the University of Hawai‘i, Kurahara attended Smith College and Columbia University, before teaching at elementary schools on O‘ahu. Young took on a range of professional work that involved teaching in Hawai‘i, California and New York. She also served as a Honolulu District specialist, a mentoring teacher and one of the state’s first studio instructors in the DOE’s educational television program. She earned the prestigious State Teacher of the Year Award in 1987.
Later in their careers, both women earned master’s degrees in library science from the University of Hawai’i at Mänoa. Young served as a librarian at Liholiho Elementary while Kurahara worked at the Enchanted Lake, Mökapu, and Royal Elementary Schools. Kurahara ultimately moved to a state-level-specialist post where she coordinated programs and services for all the public-school libraries in the state.
Maintaining a Resource Center
After retirement, sitting at home was not in the cards for these women. In 1994, Kurahara started volunteering at the JCCH after being invited by another retired librarian, Clara Okamura. Young joined the group two years later. At that time, the resource center had no budget or paid staff. Kurahara recalled that volunteers had to even bring their own pencils from home. Undaunted, the volunteers became a go-to taskforce serving on a rotational schedule to keep the center open. The cohort organized and shelved materials, cataloged resources translated from Japanese into English, processed donations and answered research questions.
Rediscovering Detainment Sites
Kurahara and Young’s researching skills as librarians were critical in assisting the JCCH with the rediscovery of internment sites in Hawai‘i. In 1997, Kurahara took a call from the KHNL television station asking about the location of Honouliuli, the largest internment and POW camp in Hawai‘i. Staff and volunteers undertook a five-year search for the site that included checking with different agencies and countless individuals.
Author and educator Patsy Sumie Saiki’s notes, on which she based “Ganbare! An Example of Japanese Spirit,” were archived in the resource center and provided valuable clues about Honouliuli. In 2002, the camp was finally identified in a gulch in the ‘Ewa Plains with assistance from Larry Jefts, a farmer in Kunia. An elated Kurahara, who was part of the search team, said, “I felt like flying!” This milestone achievement ultimately led to Pres. Barack Obama’s signing of a proclamation designating Honouliuli as a national monument under the National Park Service (nps.gov/hono/index.htm) in 2015.
A lesser known but equally important search was conducted on Kaua‘i for the Kaläheo Stockade, one of the island’s temporary detainment centers. As a native of the Garden Isle, Young was instrumental in undertaking a search that began in 2006 and continued until 2014. Nothing remained of the stockade by the time that Young (working with archaeologists Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell) began the investigation. Over the eight-year search, Young made numerous trips to Kaua‘i and proved a key person in setting up crucial local contacts. Using a 1943 archival map discovered in the University of Hawai‘i archives, the team was finally able to pinpoint the stockade’s location on private lands in the Kaläheo mountainside.
A passion project for Young has been archiving the Kaua‘i stories during the war. For almost 15 years, she toiled on the Kaua‘i World War II internment collection envisioning it as a “one stop shop” of data resources, personal correspondence, newspaper and legacy articles, and historic and contemporary photos and maps. It is a significant contribution in building a more inclusive repository for Hawai‘i’s internment story. The collection is now available at the JCCH Resource Center.
Collaborating on Community Events
Both Kurahara and Young have also been willing volunteers at various JCCH community events. For the popular New Year’s ‘Ohana Festival, they worked with teams to create make-and-take-it craft booths and organized scavenger hunts in the “Okage Same De” exhibit and the Honouliuli Education Center. These hands-on experiences have made traditions and history come alive for the general public.
Over the years, they have participated in other special events. In 2004, for example, Kurahara helped with funding and finding a designer for the groundbreaking bilingual exhibit, “Dark Clouds Over Paradise: The Hawai‘i Internees Story” that was inspired by an interview with 90-year-old Jack Tasaka. Over 400 attended the official opening. In subsequent years, additional funds from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities made it possible to convert this display into a traveling exhibit that reached thousands.
In 2008, Young assisted Brian Niiya, then director of the JCCH Resource Center, with the Day of Remembrance. This is an event that has been staged across the nation in memory of the incarceration of AJAs on or near Feb. 19, 1942, when Executive Order 9066 was signed by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. This order resulted in the indiscriminate evacuation and incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese from the west coast of the continent.
In Hawai‘i, the commemoration in 2008 represented a collaborative effort with the Honolulu Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. The daylong event began with a memorial program at Honouliuli. Young coordinated an information summit held in the afternoon that featured educators, researchers and community leaders. Over 600 attended the summit. Young laughed, “We had to keep bringing out more chairs.”
Extending Educational Outreach
Kurahara and Young’s teaching backgrounds have been invaluable in expanding JCCH’s educational outreach. They started with a few discovery boxes that contained artifacts and resources which schools could borrow and followed this with resource folders that were distributed to all high schools.
For the past 15 years, they have collaborated with teachers and educational specialists to create curriculum for high school students. In 2005, when the DOE issued new standards that included studying about the incarceration experience through the Modern History of Hawai‘i and U.S. History courses, the JCCH secured grants to provide much needed resources to teach about this neglected segment of World War II history. This included funds from the federal Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations program. Over the years, the curriculum has been updated to include materials like the 2012 video documentary produced by Ryan Kawamoto, “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i.” The current version of these resources is available at hawaiiinternment.org/educators/educators.
Along with designing curriculum, Kurahara and Young helped to implement these resources in high-school classrooms across the state. They were members of the Hawai‘i Internment Education Committee, comprised of volunteers focused on teaching high-school students about the Hawai‘i confinement sites. A grant from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Program made it possible for HIEC to initiate a project, “Just Youth: Taking the Lessons of Hawai‘i’s World War II Confinement Sites to Our High Schools.”
Along with providing lessons for teachers, volunteers assisted with pre-assessment sessions (in preparation for visits) as well as faculty workshops. They visited classrooms where they brought history alive through scenarios and readings from internees’ memoirs.
As culminating projects, students were challenged to relate the injustices of war to current issues of social injustice. While HIEC teams focused on Modern History of Hawai‘i classes and coordinated Honouliuli visits, the National Park Service worked with U.S. History classes that toured Pearl Harbor. The HIEC team ultimately engaged with a dozen public and private high schools and reached more than 1,300 students.
Most recently, the JCCH collaborated with the Go for Broke National Education Center and Hawai‘i DOE in developing secondary lesson plans about the Nisei soldiers in World War II. Kurahara and Young worked with Allyson Nakamoto, the previous JCCH director of education, on a mini-unit that challenged students with the question, “Can Hawai‘i’s aloha spirit survive a war?” The lessons provoked youngsters to examine the AJA response on the home front and in the battle fields (see jcch.com/ja-soldiers for more).
In 2016, Kurahara and Young received the prestigious Frank Haines Award from the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation for their lifetime commitment to preserving Hawai‘i’s heritage. Their devotion to reaching younger generations with the Hawai‘i AJA story has been inspiring. For Young, working with students has been a way to develop genuine relationships with young people and build their connections with history. For Kurahara, helping youngsters develop understanding and empathy for the past is crucial. She said, “History will repeat itself unless students recognize the need for change.”
Both women agree that volunteering at the JCCH has added to the best years of their lives. Importantly, their accomplishments highlight the indispensable role of volunteers in contributing to an organization’s lifeblood.