NJAHS Awards Celebrate Japanese American Accomplishments and U.S.-Japan Relations

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Honoring New Beginnings, Bold Visions — Honorees at the National Japanese American Historical Society’s annual awards dinner included the first woman president of the National Japanese American Citizens League, Lillian Kimura.

On March 27, the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS) held its annual awards dinner, with the theme of “New Beginnings, Bold Visions,” honoring leaders who have made great achievements for the Japanese American community. The event, which featured former Governor of Hawai‘i George Ariyoshi as its keynote speaker, also acknowledged the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Kanrin Maru, the first Japanese ship to reach America, starting diplomatic relations between the two countries. The events and speeches celebrated the accomplishments of Japanese Americans, and the strong relationship between Japan and America.

Hosted by two Japanese American television reporters, Robert Handa and Jana Katsuyama, the event honored community leaders in fields from politics to photography to performing arts. Roughly 200 guests at San Francisco Japantown’s Hotel Kabuki enjoyed dinner, speeches, video presentations, musical performances, a raffle and a swordplay demonstration by a local master with a 1,000-year-old sword.

America’s first Asian American governor and a World War II veteran of the Military Intelligence Service, Ariyoshi’s keynote speech focused on the ways his fellow Nikkei veterans were influenced by Japanese values passed on from their parents. Explaining concepts such as gaman (perseverance), giri (duty), haji (shame) and otagai (mutual understanding), Ariyoshi attributed their success in battle to these morals, which he was also taught by his parents before he served as part of the Allied occupation of Japan after the war ended.

“My father told me he wanted me to be safe but he didn’t want me to bring shame to my family and friends,” Ariyoshi said. “It’s a difficult thing for a father to say to his son who is going to the service, and I know that other soldiers were told similar things by their parents.”

Ariyoshi also noted the accomplishments of NJAHS.

“Rather than me being honored, the honor should be for NJAHS, because they do a tremendous job of collecting and preserving history. If NJAHS were not in existence, everything Japanese Americans have done would be forgotten,” Ariyoshi said. “To the NJAHS, I say the words my father taught me, ‘Okagesama-de.’”

Lillian Kimura, an active member of the Japanese American Citizens League for 53 years and its first female national president, was honored for her service to the Japanese American community and her commitment to promoting equal opportunity for all Americans.

“Anybody can be president, but being the first woman, that was something,” she said with pride of her ground-breaking accomplishment. “Japanese American women work really hard, but they are kind of shy. They acquiesce to the men, but they get the work done.”

Also honored were performing artists Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu, founders of the performing arts organization First Voice, for their work that incorporates a variety of cultural experiences into music and spoken word performances.

Also honored were descendants of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, the first sizeable settlement of Japanese in America, including Aaron Gibson (right), the great-great-great-grandson of Kuninosuke Masumizu, and Emily Collins, sister-in-law of Masumizu’s grandson. photos by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

San Francisco-based photo journalist Tom Graves received “Special Community Recognition” for his work photographing and writing profiles of Nikkei veterans, primarily men who served in the 442th Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service, with the goal of preserving their stories and educating the public.

“A lot of veterans realize if they don’t say it now, they may not get a chance to say it,” Graves said in a video interview presented by NJAHS. “We need to appreciate our veterans for the lessons they can teach us.”

Also receiving the “Special Community Recognition” Award were three descendants of Kuninosuke Masumizu, a member of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, the first Japanese settlement in the United States. Established in Gold Hill, El Dorado County, Calif. and certified on the National Register of Historic Places at a level of “national significance,” the colony started in 1869, but failed in 1871 due to lack of water and economic difficulties.

Aaron Gibson, great-great-great-grandson of Masumizu, said that he’s excited to be learning about his connection to the colony. “I’ve always loved Japanese culture, but I’m still learning about it,” he said. “It’s something bigger than me.”

Speakers also highlighted the significance of the longstanding relationships between the United States and Japan, in light of the 150th anniversary of these relations marked by the Kanrin Maru’s arrival. “After 150 years, our relationship is strong and robust, but nothing should be taken for granted,” said Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Yasumasa Nagamine, in a short speech. “We’ll work together to make our relationships even better. That is my pledge.”

The opportunity provided by the annual event to recognize the achievements of Japanese American leaders is significant in keeping their history alive. “It’s good that we gather on these occasions to honor great people,” said National President of the JACL Floyd Mori, in attendance at the event. “These gatherings give us a sense of community, and it’s very heartwarming.”

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