Republished With Permission
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the Zentoku Foundation website (zentokufoundation.org/miltonkanda). The Zentoku Foundation was created to help grow and strengthen the Japanese American community by developing a user friendly, meaningful path for each generation to connect with one another. They bring amazing stories, news and events that enlighten our lives and the world we live in today. Zentoku in English means “virtue.”
“He wasn’t cookie cutter, he was like an artist,” Jolene Backman said of her father, custom cabinetmaker Milton Jiro Kanda. For decades, Kanda transformed pieces of oak, alder and walnut into finely crafted cabinets. He was born on January 31, 1932 in Pähala, Hawai‘i, a small sugar plantation town, where his father worked as a machinist.
When he was 13, Kanda asked his parents for a hammer and saw, and started to make crafts on the front porch of their small home. From an early age he showed the qualities of a master craftsman: an agile, creative mind and skill with tools.
At Pähala High School Kanda’s favorite subject was geometry. His Uncle Minoru spoke to his young nephew and encouraged him to think about his future. That talk, along with encouragement from his shop teacher, led Kanda to study woodworking at the Milwaukee Vocational School in Wisconsin.
Kanda was drafted in the U.S. Army at the end of the Korean War, serving as an infantryman in Germany. When he returned to Hawai‘i, he tried a variety of jobs, eventually building rattan furniture. Most importantly, he married Edith Yoshida at Higashi Hongwanji Temple in 1956. The couple had known each other since their days as classmates at Pähala High School. Edith studied at the University of Hawai‘i to become an elementary school teacher.
“We were playing poker, and a cousin said you should get married,” Edith recalled.
Milton and Edith Kanda moved from Hawai‘i in 1957 and eventually settled in Orange County. Edith described the discrimination they faced as Japanese Americans. She remembered a real estate salesman who refused to sell to Asians in a neighborhood tract in Westminster. Kanda took note of the agent and later had the opportunity to tell the development owner who happened to come by the cabinet shop he was working at of the racism they experienced.
“(Milton) said ‘Hey, you folks don’t sell to Orientals.’ He met the owner at the tract and dad pointed out the salesman, and the owner fired him on the spot. Dad put his name on the list for a home in the tract and, lo and behold, over time there were several other Japanese on that list being considered,” Edith said.
In their home in Westminster, Kanda started his business, making end tables and coffee tables from castoff doors. The couple had their first child Stacey, the same year he opened his first shop in what was a converted chicken coop. He would later move to a larger shop in Costa Mesa where he opened Milton’s Cabinets. Two more children — Wayde and Jolene — followed. For most of his youth, Wayde worked alongside his dad as his assistant. He said it was difficult and grueling; Wayde would often miss hanging out with friends.
“I would help out wherever, all aspects from cutting to sanding to staining to applying lacquer, to installing cabinets,” Wayde said. “He had me trained so whatever he needed, I had for him, like a doctor, I’d hand him the tools. He would constantly lose things, so it was up to me to make sure it was ready. It instilled a work ethic and I have an appreciation for the art of cabinetry and the talent that you need which I don’t have.”
Kanda didn’t advertise but his business grew through word of mouth. Japanese American families were among his customers. He also worked for developers of apartments and homes. Gary Furumoto worked with Kanda for 12 years from 1979 to 1991, starting out as a gofer, but eventually becoming the manager of the shop.
“He was very particular, which I am too, which is why we got along so well. He wanted everything to be exact and perfect, it was what I always wanted, it stuck in my head, he was a perfectionist,” Furumoto recalled. “Most of the time we did people’s homes, kitchens and bathrooms, every once in a while, we did the whole house, bedroom, everything.”
Ellen and George Mabuni hired Kanda to work on their home in Cerritos in the 1990s. Kanda raised the ceiling of their kitchen, designed cabinets throughout the home and created a centerpiece in their living room, an asymmetrical fireplace. “Even today, it’s still gorgeous,” Ellen said. “What an eye, what a talent! He doesn’t make it simple, I would call him more an architectural designer, so talented it brings tears to my eyes, warms my heart.”
Ellen’s father was a building contractor on the Big Island, so she appreciated Kanda’s mastery of his craft. “I love architecture and I love people who build things because I was raised that way. We used to go to the lumber yard. So, I have a passion for that and Milton was really just unbelievable,” she said.
Kanda was busy working on jobs everywhere from Newport to Redondo Beach, Laguna Niguel and Las Vegas. Higher-end clients also flocked to the craftsman, including actor Alan Alda and the manager of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
Some of Kanda’s clients had rather unusual requests that required his ingenuity. He would be asked by clients to build secret compartments to hide things like guns and devise hidden entries to rooms. Stacey described one home where her father had built a secret entrance hidden in a bookshelf.
“In Las Vegas they asked him to make compartments to hide things. He built planter boxes and end tables where if you stuck a pin in a pinhole or pushed a part of the board a certain way, it would open up to an area where one could stash valuables,” Stacey said. “It was very James Bond.”
Furumoto recalled working on the home of a bookie in Southern California. “That was kind of a fun project to do. Made a lot of cabinets that had secret compartments in it. Had to have an electrical switch to open it. He would hide his books, some of his money, ledgers.”
Kanda was devoted to his family and would build toys such as wooden stilts and box kites for his children and grandchildren. He built a playhouse in the backyard. His daughter Jolene recalled her dad building her a balance beam for gymnastics and a laminated wooden board to practice tap dancing.
“Family was really important to dad,” Stacey remembered. Granddaughters Allyson and Amy Yoshinaga treasured the time they spent with jiichan, recalling their Thursday ritual. He would go to McDonald’s for Happy Meals and bring them to his shop, where they would then have lunch after school. It got so that the workers at McDonald’s would always have the orders ready for him.
In his later years, his age was slowing him down and Kanda sold the shop in 2012. Sadly, there was no one to continue the business, so the tools and equipment were brought back to his home. Furumoto said his years working for Kanda profoundly impacted his life. “It set me on a good path. When I got to be responsible for someone else’s business I became more aware of things,” Furumoto said.
Milton Kanda passed away on July 4, 2014. He leaves a lasting legacy in the love of his family and the exquisite woodwork that remains to this day. “I constantly meet people who say I think your dad did our cabinets,” Stacey said.
Ellen Mabuni said she sees Kanda’s artistry everyday in her home. “What a gifted person. We referred him to other friends and we just loved him,” she said.
Note: The Zentoku Foundation will present a documentary-film premier of “Paper Chase – Japanese American History Through the Lens of Vernacular Newspapers” on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. There will be two showings: 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. with a panel Q&A following each showing. Masks are required and seating is limited. RSVP is required. If you live or will be in the area, email email@example.com for more information or to RSVP.