Building Bridges Between Hawai‘i and Japan Through Education

Byrnes Yamashita
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

The Nisei Veterans Legacy (NVL) is a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping  Nisei soldiers of World War II stories’ alive for our younger generations. Two years ago, the NVL redirected our focus away from a purely historical preservation focus to become more of a thought leader and agent for change. We did this to make the Nisei soldier story more relevant to the issues of today. While maintaining our commitment to historical context, we sought to expand our perspective to include larger current day events affecting our community.

New Messages

We developed several new message themes to guide our communications and educational components. One of them reads:

“Nisei veterans played a key role in healing the wounds of war between the U.S. and Japan, as well as, in rebuilding and solidifying the cultural and economic relationship between Hawai‘i and Japan.”

The focus on strengthening the relationship between Hawai‘i Nikkei and Japanese, both in Japan and living in Hawai‘i goes back several years. In the April 16, 2021, issue of The Hawai‘i Herald I wrote about the Hawai‘i Nikkei Legacy Exhibit and the tour it made of several cities in Japan during 2017 and 2018. Through that experience, we learned of the interest in Japan about Hawai‘i and its Nikkei population, particularly in those prefectures that sent emigrants to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar plantations.

Supporting Japanese Media and Education

Over ensuing years, the NVL facilitated the work of Japanese researchers and journalists studying Hawai‘i Nikkei history and particularly the role of Nisei veterans in shaping modern Hawai‘i both during and after World War II.

In 2022, we facilitated an interview with MIS Nisei Veteran Dr. Shinye Gima by NHK Okinawa TV to help describe the infamous incident on Kume Jima island following the Battle of Okinawa when a Japanese Imperial Army commander ordered the killing of some 20 Okinawan civilians for allegedly cooperating with U.S. occupation forces. Dr. Gima was the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) translator assigned to the island to interact with the local population and Japanese forces that were holding out despite the war already being over.

Dr. Gima interview by NHK Okinawa (2022).
Dr. Gima interview by NHK Okinawa (2022).

In 2023, we had several opportunities to further the education of young Japanese about Hawai‘i Nikkei history:

• In March we hosted a group of orphans from the Fukushima 2011 tsunami disaster at the 100th Infantry Battalion clubhouse along with students from ‘Iolani School for an educational and cultural exchange.

• In August we taught students from Usa City, Oita Prefecture, about World War II and the role of the Nisei soldiers in an online session.

• In September we supported educational research visits by Dr. Ayumi Masuta of Nagoya Gakuin University and graduate student Maho Yajima from Kokugakuin University in Tökyö. Dr. Masuta was interested in understanding the roles played by Nisei veterans in AJA social and political activities and how the battle for civil liberties continues. Lynn Heirakuji facilitated her attendance of a Nisei soldier presentation to a University of Hawai‘i class and arranged interviews with herself, Brendan Burns (grandson of Governor John Burns) and author/historian Tom Coffman, among others.

Nikkei Legacy Exhibit in Hiroshima, Japan (2017). (Photos courtesy of Byrnes Yamashita)
Nikkei Legacy Exhibit in Hiroshima, Japan (2017). (Photos courtesy of Byrnes Yamashita)

Maho Yajima

Yajima is working towards a master’s degree in history and her goal is to become a university professor and teach Japanese American history.

Her visit to O‘ahu from Friday, Sept. 1 through Monday, Sept. 11 was packed with activities. During the Okinawan Festival, she worked in the yakitori booth, danced in the bon dance, manned the desk for VIP visitors from Japan and Okinawa and interviewed leaders in the local Nikkei community.

Her overall study objective was to gain insights and reference sources about how Hawai‘i’s Nikkei maintain their Japanese cultural values through the third to fifth generations in the post-war period.

She explored the links to Japan by meeting with leaders from several prefecture clubs or kenjin kai and interviewing local Nikkei business leaders and professors teaching Asian American history and U.S.-Japan relations.

Wreath Presentation Nippon Izukokai (2017).
Wreath Presentation Nippon Izukokai (2017).

She obtained numerous historical documents from the University of Hawai‘i and Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i archives. Yajima already has extensive knowledge of early Japanese immigration to Hawai‘i, however, she gained additional insights by taking an ‘Iolani Palace tour on the relationship between King Kalākaua and Emperor Meiji that shaped the treaty allowing Japanese to emigrate to Hawai‘i in large numbers. She also visited Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu to learn more about early plantation life.

Building Relationships with Japan

In 2017, Lynn Heirakuji and I met with a group of descendants of Japanese soldiers killed during WWII as they made a pilgrimage to O‘ahu and Washington, D.C., to pay respects to American war dead. The group, known as the Nippon Izokukai or Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, had made many such trips to Pacific battle sites to pay their respects to Japanese soldiers killed during those battles. This trip was different in that they were coming to pay their respects to American soldiers. We met them at the Arizona Memorial Facility and talked about the Nisei soldiers and then accompanied them to the memorial.

Rainbow Kids Presentation (2023).
Rainbow Kids Presentation (2023).

Lynn and I are members of the Hawai‘i Aloha Life Enhancement (HALE) association, which is a nonprofit that facilitates the friendship between Hawai‘i and Japan via the large expat group of Japanese that immigrated to Hawai‘i after the war, known as shin Issei, or new first generation immigrants. Besides the head chapter in Honolulu, they have over a dozen chapters spread out across Japan.

In 2023, I joined the board of the United Japanese Society of Hawai‘i, which includes many kenjin kai, or prefectural clubs, that build relationships with the home prefectures in Japan. We hope that through these expanded relationships we can continue to help build the bridges between Japan and Hawai‘i in the tradition of the Nisei soldiers.

Byrnes Yamashita is a retired engineer and the vice president of the Nisei Veterans Legacy. The mission of the NVL is to preserve, perpetuate and share the legacy of the Americans of Japanese ancestry 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 the NVL, visit their website at or follow them on Instagram.


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