NJAHS honors those who made ‘transformative’ contributions

The National Japanese American Historical Society’s (NJAHS) mission statement has changed since it began in 1981. In celebrating its 30th anniversary, NJAHS honored both the people it says have transformed the Japanese American cultural landscape, as well as the transformations the organization itself has experienced during the last three decades.

NJAHS originated with a mission to document and recognize the achievements of Japanese American service members who served despite the racial injustices they faced during World War II. Mainly, NJAHS recorded the achievements of the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe, and the work of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) in the Pacific. Their aims “transformed” over the years and the organization now serves to collect, preserve, share and provide an authentic interpretation of the Japanese American experience.

This year the awards ceremony lauded Keiko Fukuda, Steven Okazaki and Seiichi Tanaka.

Fukuda is a ninth-dan judo master from Japan. She was the first woman to be promoted past fifth-dan and opened the door of opportunity for many women around the world to advance themselves in judo.

Okazaki, a documentary filmmaker, chronicled the story of people whose stories would be lost forever, had he not recorded them. He is the director of the 1991 Oscar award-winning documentary, “Days of Waiting,” a story about a Caucasian artist who accompanied her Japanese American husband to camp.

Tanaka is the founder of San Francisco Taiko Dojo. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded Tanaka with their National Heritage Fellowship award in 2001 for his work teaching and promoting modern taiko in the United States.

Also present and recognized were artist and educator Betty Kano and former MIS member Marvin Uratsu. Kano was recognized for her work in the arts. One of her paintings was used as the print for this year’s award, which was presented in a framed plaque.

Uratsu was recognized for receiving the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation in June of 2000 as the president of the MIS Northern California Association on the behalf of MIS veterans. Uratsu also continues his work in refurbishing the disused San Francisco Presidio Building 640 into the MIS Historic Learning Center.

Robert Handa and Jana Katsuyama of KTVU Channel 2 News emceed the dinner. Katsuyama had just returned from Japan, where she reported on the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear power plant disasters. The disasters weighed heavily on those at the dinner, and retired Judge Ken Kawaichi, the current NJAHS president, encouraged everyone to “take heart the NJAHS mission and make a donation.”

In his remarks, Michio Harada, deputy consul general for the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco also reflected on the support he said the people of the United States has offered, including the $400,000 contribution made to the relief fund his office established, as well as the 20,000 U.S. soldiers he said are helping with disaster relief in Japan. Harada announced that the consulate will cook okonomiyaki to raise funds at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, which will be held in San Francisco’s Japantown during the second and third weekends of April.

Various government leaders also came to offer remarks to those gathered, including a representative from the mayor’s office, which announced March 26 as NJAHS Day in San Francisco.

The night was filled with musical entertainment. Wesley Ueunten played two traditional Okinawan songs on the sanshin, a stringed instrument. He reflected that the loneliness of the plover by the ocean in the song “Chizuya,” was similar to that of the isolation Japanese Americans felt when they left Japan to come to America. While Ueunten was the official entertainment for the night, Tanaka offered his own concert with a medley with his best students. “I’m not a speaker, so I’ll have to drum,” he said.

The concert was a display of Tanaka’s contribution toward transforming kumi-daiko (taiko simultaneously performed by multiple people) into a cultural icon and past time for people across the nation. Roy Hirabayashi of San Jose Taiko also performed with Tanaka. This was the first time the two have played together since Hirabayashi left the dojo years earlier. Yuta Kato, the conference coordinator of the Northern American Taiko Conference, along with others who represented four generations of drummers, were also part of the performance.

Fukuda, who turns 99 this month, received her award through her lifelong friend Shelley Fernandez. Fernandez said that Fukuda had transformed the world of judo for women and is a symbol of strength. Despite her age, Fukuda continues to teach.

Fukuda recently recovered from an illness. Fernandez said that Fukuda had received a vision from her grandfather, one of the world’s strongest jujitsu artists and the person who helped introduce Fukuda to judo. In the vision, her grandfather told her it was not yet her time to go, and “you have to teach more judo,” Fernandez said.

Okazaki’s award-winning films have roots in San Francisco’s Japantown. He was once a San Francisco State University student doing volunteer work for Steve Nakajo’s Asian American studies class. Okazaki soon discovered, though, that his passion in making films could be put to use in telling the stories of people who otherwise lacked a voice to tell their stories. He described the work he did with Japanese American war veterans as a gateway to his own family’s past.

The night closed with an update on the MIS Historic Learning Center. The Presidio’s abandoned building, which formerly served as the first location for the MIS’s language school before the start of the World War II, was approved to begin construction. NJAHS asked for further donations to build a permanent exhibition for the building and its maintenance. Jojiro Takano, the chair of the committee overseeing the construction said that the support is needed to follow along with the organization’s new broader mission to educate a bigger audience about Japanese American history.

 

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