Chronicler and Narrator of the Japanese in America Experience
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 at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interview with Brian Niiya, 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/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/9575
Brian Niiya has carved a distinctive career as a writer and administrator working on both the west coast and in Hawai‘i. Over the past three decades, he has brought his journalist’s keen eye for details and his historian’s discerning and critical voice to describe milestone events such as the Redress Movement in the 1980s and the local push to bring the Hawai‘i internment story to the forefront. He is especially proud of his ongoing work with Densho, an award-winning organization established in 1996 to digitally document, preserve and disseminate primary source material about the incarceration of Japanese in America during World War II.
Niiya’s father Takao grew up in a farming community in Kapoho on Hawai‘i Island; his mother Alice Asami came from a prominent newspaper family. Prior to the war, her father Shoichi was managing editor of the Nippu Jiji, a major Japanese newspaper in Hawai‘i. During the war, Shoichi was interned and wound up at Crystal City, Texas, before deciding to return to Japan. Unfortunately, he and his two sons were on the ill-fated Awa Maru, which sank in the Sea of Japan in 1945. Mother Shizu and her three daughters wound up living with Shizu’s family in Yamaguchi Prefecture until Alice was able to return in 1947.
It took Brian’s father Takao ten years to complete his degree in tropical agriculture at the University of Hawai‘i because he was helping to support his siblings and working on the family farm. In the meantime, he and Alice corresponded while she was visiting relatives in Japan and they married in 1959 when she returned to Hawai‘i. The following year, the Niiyas moved to California where Takao worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Botanical Gardens.
Brian was born in 1961 in Los Angeles and spent 35 years of his life in California. He laughingly calls himself a “spoiled Sansei,” who quit Japanese language school after three years. He admitted being embarrassed about being Japanese. He said, “I hid my musubi when eating lunch with classmates.” He felt the need to move away from any stereotypes and didn’t hang out with other Japanese kids in his school. “My friends in high school were mostly non-Japanese, although my closest friend was another Japanese American kid who was like me. He didn’t associate with other Japanese if that makes any sense.”
When it was time for college, Niiya went off to Harvey Mudd and “felt tracked as an Asian” to major in engineering. He soon realized that he was great with theory but hopeless in doing any hands-on work in the labs. He laughed, “I couldn’t hammer two nails together, couldn’t connect two boards together and couldn’t cut straight.” The great thing about Harvey Mudd was that the program allowed students to take courses on other campuses. The life-changing event for Brian was a class on the Asian Pacific American experience taught by Rick Tsujimoto at Claremont College. “My God, the clouds parted. It was like, this is it!” As a junior in college, he learned about internment for the first time. Like most of their contemporaries, the Niiya parents had not shared the family’s wartime experience.
Although he finished his engineering degree and made a half-hearted effort to secure an engineering post, he wound up at UCLA majoring in Asian American Studies. He chuckled, “I was probably the first and only engineering student to go into that program.” That is also where he met his future wife, Karen Umemoto.
Working at JANM and UCLA
When he finished his graduate degree in 1987, the Japanese American National Museum was expanding its programs and he got a part-time job there that soon became full time. His work involved collecting material for a reference volume to help the office staff with “different things they were working on.” That volume became “The Encyclopedia of Japanese American History” and earned him the reputation of being “the encyclopedia guy.” He was at JANM until 1990, and then moved to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he worked in the Asian American Library through 1993. While at UCLA, he edited the “Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to 1993.” In 1993 he returned to JANM to serve first as the collections manager and then as the interim program director until 1996 when he moved to Hawai‘i.
This was an exciting era when action at JANM was impacted by history-making activities on the West Coast. The country was in the midst of the Redress Movement and there were pilgrimages to internment sites. According to Niiya, the 1981 Commission hearings [Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians] was a cathartic moment when the Nisei, who had never talked about the internment, were now speaking about it in public before the Commission. According to Niiya, “The stories came out and once you turn the spigot on, it’s hard to stop it. People just wanted to talk about it. They wanted the younger generation to know their story.” The founders of JANM had this vision of going from a local to a national museum. They felt the time was right to pursue this dream. With support from the Nisei generation in the community, JANM gained national stature. Niiya commented, “We were working on a new building and doing a range of exhibits.”
Columnist for Newspapers
Along with his work for nonprofit organizations and academic institutions, Niiya enjoyed writing about his Sansei experiences for the “Rafu Shimpo,” a Japanese-English newspaper based in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo. He started doing a column in 1993 and continued through 2001. He described his articles as “a mixture of historical pieces that were fairly serious, kind of humorous, kind of observational comedy of the peculiarities of the Japanese American’s behavior in life.” One example was his affectionate description of what you found in the “typical Nisei home” such as furniture covered with plastic, toilet paper dolls, ribbon fish mobiles and stone lanterns in the yards. He also wrote more acerbic political pieces like the one about a controversy over building a veterans’ memorial in Little Tokyo. One group wanted to include the names of all Japanese in America who served during WWII and another group wanted names limited to those who were killed in action. According to Niiya, “They ended up building two separate memorials, which had the effect that neither was as significant as it could have been.” He wrote a tongue-in-cheek parody suggesting that they build a third memorial with the names of all Sansei carved on it. From 1998 to 2001, he also wrote adaptations of these articles for the “Pacific Citizen,” the national newspaper for the Japanese American Citizens League, in a column entitled, “Trouble in Paradise.”
Moving to Hawai‘i
The Niiya family came to Hawai‘i in 1996 when Brian’s wife Karen secured a faculty post at UH. Brian was reluctant to make this move because he loved his job at JANM. He also admitted coming with “kotonk [Japanese born on the mainland] biases.” He laughed, “I had a stereotype of this local-style, beer-drinking, easygoing, ‘ukulele-playing guy. I came with a bad attitude.” He quickly discovered the Hawaiian culture based on “one degree of separation,” where everyone was somehow connected to everyone else as he met folks and learned to appreciate the genuine friendliness of local friends and neighbors.
Getting Involved with JACL and JCCH in Hawai‘i
Once in Hawai‘i, Niiya wanted to get more involved with the local Japanese community. He had heard good things about the progressive activities of the Hawai‘i chapter of the JACL and decided to join the group in 1999. He worked on events like the Day of Remembrance, a national observance of the internment during WWII.
In 2006, Niiya also assumed directorship of the Resource Center at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. With grant funding from the federal Japanese American Confinement Sites Program, Brian reported that “we were doing exhibits, expanding the collection and developing research on Hono‘uli‘uli, as well as the education materials. It was all happening at the same time.”
Importantly, Niiya was instrumental in having the JCCH collaborate with the local JACL on successful Day of Remembrance events that included showcasing the Hono‘uli‘uli rediscovery. He was there when Monsanto gifted the internment site to the National Park Service. Niiya fully supported bringing the significance of Hono‘uli‘uli to the world: “On the mainland, the Hawai‘i internment experience was a footnote. I knew from my own family’s experience that there was a story there that was bigger than what people realized. I think my coming on board at JCCH was happening at the right time.”
Taking the Helm at Densho
In 2010, Niiya returned to Los Angeles to become the content director for the Seattle-based Densho and editor of the online “Densho Encyclopedia,” a position he was singularly qualified to assume. Densho had access to a range of valuable materials including census records, the War Relocation Authority databases and the Final Authority records as well as the contents of the “Pacific Citizen.” As he describes it, Densho was ahead of its time by going online. He observed, “the benefit of going digital is that it put us in a position where we had no real competitors. We ended up collaborating with a lot of organizations, including JCCH, to get stuff online.”
Niiya’s major efforts have brought together the histories of the Japanese in Hawai‘i and on the continent into one larger narrative. In his words: “There were histories of Japanese in Hawai‘i and histories of Japanese on the mainland, and basically, they ran on parallel tracks. I feel that one of the main contributions I made in my encyclopedia projects was that I treated both sides equally, realizing that they’re both part of the same bigger story.”
What would his life be like if he left Densho or if the funding dried up for that project? Niiya reflects, “One way or the other, I’ll be back here in Hawai‘i. If not to work here, I’ll be back as a volunteer once I retire and finally have time to write some of those books I want to write.”