San Jose arts group honors co-founder

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Jerry Hiura. photo by Barbara Hiura

Jerry Hiura. photo by Barbara Hiura
Jerry Hiura. photo by Barbara Hiura

SAN JOSE — Community members, politicians, artists and arts advocates honored Jerry Hiura, a Japantown dentist whose passion for the arts, fine and otherwise, has led him to lead arts commissions and councils, chair arts committees, and help found a nonprofit organization that brings Asian American artists, theater and films to a San Jose audience.

Many of Hiura’s oldest and dearest friends, and new kids on the block alike, roasted and toasted the Nikkei at the Contemporary Arts Theater Scene (CATS) gala event, which was held Sept. 7 at the Fairmont Summit Center. Hiura has spent more than 30 years helping to give Asian artists a stage, venue or gallery to showcase their talents.

It was an evening of high energy as friends both paid homage to Hiura, and had fun at his expense. “If I had known that tennis shoes were the footwear of the evening, I certainly would have worn them,” said former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer, one of Hiura’s oldest friends, prompting everyone to glance at the honoree’s gray sneakers.

The evening was filled with a number of “in my mouth” jokes and “one sided conversations,” a nod to Hiura’s ability to effectively communicate community and arts needs to politicians who are sitting in the patient’s chair. Former Sen. John Vasconcellos flew in from Hawai‘i to present a California Senate Resolution to applaud Hiura’s work in the community, city and state. “It’s a veritable whose who of mouths present here as he [Hiura] has been my dentist for over 30 years,” he noted.

The ‘80s
Steve Yamaguma’s first encounter with Hiura approximately 30 years ago was somewhat disturbing; he almost fled the dental chair. “In comes this skinny lanky guy with an Afro out to here …  tied down with a headband, coke bott[le] glasses, eyes bulging, with weapons in his hand. … And I thought, “Oh no!” he recalled. They got to know each other, however, and both with guitars in hand, would “jam together.”

In the 1980s, Yamaguma and Hiura worked together on public art review committees helping, for example, to select Ruth Asawa’s wartime incarceration piece, which is located at the Robert F. Peckham Federal Building. They then saw Ken Matsumoto’s Japantown gateway, marking the entrance to the ethnic enclave, go up, and more recently, the three Japantown landmark monuments, which tie together the three remaining Japantowns in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose. The San Jose monument is located in front of the Issei Memorial Building.

CATS
About 17 years ago, Hiura and Yamaguma along with Miki Hirabayashi Bellon founded CATS — an organization dedicated to bringing in new young Asian American artists to the San Jose stage. The nonprofit helps to bring poets, comedians, playwrights and films — contemporary and avant-garde — to San Jose. Over the years, Hiura has also held leadership positions with the California Arts Council, the Arts Council Silicon Valley and the California State Arts Council.

The Triple Crown of the Arts
Bruce Davis, the former executive director of the Arts Council Silicon Valley, spoke about the expanse of Hiura’s contributions and work. He said that Hiura was one of only two San Joseans who has achieved the “triple crown” of the arts. Both of which are from the state of California and from San Jose.

“He served as the chair of the San Jose Arts Commission, the official city body regulating and dealing with arts and public policy, was president of the Arts Council of Silicon Valley, which is the largest nonprofit arts council of the state and appointed by then California Gov. Gray Davis to the California State Arts Council. No one else aside from Consuelo Santos Killins has ever achieved this triple crown being the chair of the city, regional and member of the state arts council,” he remarked.

Fighting the Good Fight     
Steve Nakajo, executive director of Kimochi Inc. in San Francisco, noted, “You need a person like Jerry, because he is a big thinker, a guy with a big heart, a guy who is creative as well, and will tell you how important the arts are.

“There is an abundance of arts, actors, poets, but we don’t have a venue to display them. Here in San Jose you have dreams. Here you can dream for an arts venue. I’m jealous of San Jose, because that’s not possible in San Francisco. There’s no space.”

Most newcomers to San Jose find out quickly that Hiura is the “go-to” guy for connections, information, policy, or even help finding a good dentist. When former Teatro Vision Executive Director Raul Lozano was new to the arts community, he was told to seek Hiura out. Lozano remarked, “Jerry understood the big picture. He was always concerned with the iniquities and lack of representation of people of color in the community art scene. Jerry has been fighting the good fight for a long time. We need more people like him.”

Nick Nichols, managing director of San Jose Repertory Theatre, like Lozano sought out Hiura and learned early on that, “He has a big picture, deep understanding and tremendous passion. Not only is he unbelievably smart, not only has he a wealth of experience, but he has that rare commodity that people who have the first two don’t have, and that is he has wisdom and he has the ability to use that experience for the good of others.”

‘The Hawk’s Well’
In delving into Hiura’s past, Tim Yamamura, a Ph.D. candidate in literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, brought forward “The Hawk’s Well: A Collection of Japanese American Art and Literature,” an anthology of artwork and poetry that Hiura edited in 1986 that included his own work. This compendium of photos, lithographs, pen and ink drawings, poetry and short stories, contributed to Asian American arts and literature where once a dearth of such expression existed. Yamamura read Hiura’s “Fire River.”

Yamamura described its exclamation of “Aeiiiiiiiii!” as: “Jerry is picking up the rallying cry of his generation — a generation who went on to build the institutions and the archives that (are) sustaining our community today, but he has added his own particular voice, his own particular sensibility, his own particular poetic abilities, which is pretty good, I say. It’s truly rare to have a community leader that has a heart of a poet, and that’s what you have in Jerry.”

Performing Arts
Jon Jang, acclaimed creative pianist, performed a dental parody on old television shows. “Route 66” became “Route Canal 66” and Star Trek’s opening line became “Fillings the Final Frontier” as he sat down and played his renditions of the Star Trek theme song and ended with John Lennon’s “In Your Life.”

Hiura’s teacher, Rodney Takahashi of Ukulele Jams; San Jose Taiko founders PJ and Roy Hirabayashi (who brought Hiura up to play taiko with them); and jazz singer Moy Eng, executive director of Community School of Music and Arts, also performed.

Parting Shots
CATS board members Leianne Lamb and Caroline Moore served as the emcees, filling in for Mike Inouye, NBC Bay Area’s weekday morning traffic anchor, who was ill.

“We love Jerry,” Lamb said. “Jerry is someone that we all know for his generosity, and we admire him for his talent, his giving, his dedication for making the communities in Japantown and the Silicon Valley arts what they are and making that impact every day.”

Addressing the audience of friends and family, Hiura was warmed by their comments, which had added meaning because they came from those already invested in the cause. “You all know the kinds of fronts the arts have to fight,” he began. “And you know we’ll never leave the arts. We’re all in the trenches together.” For his part, “I’m never going to have the style, the rap of Steve Nakajo, I’ll never have the beautiful, powerful talent of Jon Jang, the pianist, or the talent of PJ or Roy (Hirabayashi),” Hiura said.

“This testimony moved me. I’m gonna work hard for you as long as I’m alive. I’m 65 now. My hair has changed — I don’t have that electric hair any longer. I’ll always keep the arts alive in my blood and always keep the community in my heart.”

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